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How the Word Is Passed
Cover of How the Word Is Passed
How the Word Is Passed
A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America
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Instant #1 New York Times bestsellerLonglisted for the 2021 National Book Award for NonfictionBeginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader on an unforgettable tour of...
Instant #1 New York Times bestsellerLonglisted for the 2021 National Book Award for NonfictionBeginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader on an unforgettable tour of...
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  • Instant #1 New York Times bestseller
    Longlisted for the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction

    Beginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader on an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks—those that are honest about the past and those that are not—that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation's collective history, and ourselves.
    It is the story of the Monticello Plantation in Virginia, the estate where Thomas Jefferson wrote letters espousing the urgent need for liberty while enslaving more than four hundred people. It is the story of the Whitney Plantation, one of the only former plantations devoted to preserving the experience of the enslaved people whose lives and work sustained it. It is the story of Angola, a former plantation–turned–maximum-security prison in Louisiana that is filled with Black men who work across the 18,000-acre land for virtually no pay. And it is the story of Blandford Cemetery, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers.
    A deeply researched and transporting exploration of the legacy of slavery and its imprint on centuries of American history, How the Word Is Passed illustrates how some of our country's most essential stories are hidden in plain view—whether in places we might drive by on our way to work, holidays such as Juneteenth, or entire neighborhoods like downtown Manhattan, where the brutal history of the trade in enslaved men, women, and children has been deeply imprinted.
    Informed by scholarship and brought to life by the story of people living today, Smith's debut work of nonfiction is a landmark of reflection and insight that offers a new understanding of the hopeful role that memory and history can play in making sense of our country and how it has come to be.

About the Author-

  • Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent. The book won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He has received fellowships from New America, the Emerson Collective, the Art For Justice Fund, Cave Canem, and the National Science Foundation. His writing has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review and elsewhere. Born and raised in New Orleans, he received his B.A. in English from Davidson College and his Ph.D. in Education from Harvard University.

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from March 22, 2021
    Poet and Atlantic staff writer Smith debuts with a moving and perceptive survey of landmarks that reckon, or fail to reckon, with the legacy of slavery in America. Visiting Monticello plantation, Smith describes how Thomas Jefferson’s self-perception as a “benevolent slave owner” often conflicted with his actions. On a tour of Angola prison, Smith discusses how nonunanimous jury verdicts fueled the “convict leasing system” that replaced slave labor in post-Reconstruction Louisiana, and notes that when the state switched from the electric chair to lethal injection in 1991, Angola inmates refused to build the prison death bed. At the Blandford Cemetery for Confederate soldiers in Petersburg, Va., Smith questions on-site historians about the ethical implications of preserving a place of honor for the defenders of slavery. He also checks in at the annual Juneteenth festival in Galveston, Tex., and takes an illuminating walking tour of underground railroad sites in New York City. Suffused with lyrical descriptions and incisive historical details, including Robert E. Lee’s ruthlessness as a slave owner and early resistance by Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois to the Confederate general’s “deification,” this is an essential consideration of how America’s past informs its present. Agent: Alia Habib, the Gernert Co.

  • Library Journal

    May 1, 2021

    Atlantic staff writer Smith travels the country, moving from his native New Orleans to Monticello; the Whitney Plantation, which aims to preserve the experience of those enslaved; Angola, a former plantation in Louisiana that now serves as a maximum-security prison; and downtown Manhattan, where people were bought and sold. His aim: to show that slavery has been central to the making of America.

    Copyright 2021 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from April 15, 2021
    A Black journalist and poet calls for a reconsideration of the way America teaches its history of slavery. "The story our country tells about the Civil War often flattens some of its otherwise complex realities," writes New Orleans native Smith, a staff writer for the Atlantic. He notes the U.S. is "at an inflection point, in which there is a willingness to more fully grapple with the legacy of slavery and how it shaped the world we live in today." However, while "some places have attempted to tell the truth about their proximity to slavery and its aftermath," others have refused. For this book, the author traveled to nine sites, eight in the U.S. and one in Dakar, Senegal, "to understand how each reckons with its relationship to the history of American slavery." The result is a devastating portrait with unforgettable details. At the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, historians have labored to help visitors close "the yawning gap on slavery" in their educations--"a hammer attempting to unbend four centuries of crooked nails." By contrast, the Angola Museum at the Louisiana State Penitentiary has a gift shop with such souvenirs as "a white mug with the silhouette of a guard sitting in a watchtower surrounded by fencing." When Smith asked his White tour guide to comment on Angola's role in slavery, the guide replied, "I can't change that." At these places and other sites such as Monticello, Galveston Island, and New York City, the author conducted interviews with tour guides, visitors, and others to paint a vivid portrait of the extent to which venues have attempted to redress past wrongs. Smith concludes with a moving epilogue about taking his grandparents to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The trip elicited painful stories from their childhoods, such as his grandmother recalling walking home from school as White children in buses threw ice cream at her and hurled vicious epithets. A brilliant, vital work about "a crime that is still unfolding."

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from April 15, 2021
    Everyone knows that African Americans were once enslaved in the U.S., but how well do we understand what that means? Atlantic staff writer and poet Smith explores this question by visiting sites emblematic of American slavery, including Jefferson's Monticello, the Whitney plantation, which rejects Old South nostalgia to focus on the enslaved, a Confederate cemetery, Juneteenth's birthplace of Galveston, and Goree Island in Senegal, embarkation point for thousands of Africans headed to slave markets in the Americas. Along the way, Smith engages with conflicted tour guides and historians, ambivalent Senegalese students, Confederate reenactors, and descendants of the enslaved and enslavers, including his own grandparents. Smith probes the contradictions of our collective memory and how deliberate miseducation, nostalgia, and denial fuel a belief in Black inferiority and white innocence. Jefferson's cosmopolitan image, for example, depended on "the people he allowed to be threatened, manipulated, flogged, assaulted, deceived, and terrorized," while Confederate apologists insist their ancestors weren't reliant on slavery, despite copious evidence to the contrary. Ultimately, Smith concludes that "in order for our country to collectively move forward,"" we need ""a collective endeavor to learn, confront, and reckon with the story of slavery and how it has shaped the world we live in today."HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Anticipation is running high for Smith's powerful and diligent exploration of the realities and ongoing consequences of slavery in America.

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Booklist, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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How the Word Is Passed
How the Word Is Passed
A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America
Clint Smith
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Clint Smith
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