How the Word Is Passed

In this work of nonfiction, Smith presents a contemporary exploration of the history of slavery in America and the way it’s inextricably intertwined with the formation not just of this country, but on an international historical scale as well. Combining investigative journalism, interviews/conversations, and personal stories/reflections, Smith guides the reader through the way this history is portrayed, passed on and lives on, at (and through the lens of) various key locations, including Monticello Plantation, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island, NYC, and Goree Island.

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

“How do you tell a story that has been told the wrong way for so long?”  

Although topically this nonfiction touches on a number of the same themes and messages as Stamped From the Beginning, Four Hundred Souls, (and many of the other important works that are working to retell our nation’s history more fully), there is something entirely different, conceptually, about this work. With both the style of his writing (wow, can Smith paint a picture with his words – you can feel his background with poetry in every line) and the structure of the history he presents, Smith’s book is eminently approachable and accessible (much less textbook-y, not that there’s anything wrong with that style, and indeed it’s a necessary one as well, since it’s been missing for much of our nation’s past, but in a complementary sort of way). There were some perspectives in Smith’s writing that I was already familiar with, like the contradictory nature of the morals/ideals Jefferson said he espoused (and supposedly formed the nation on) versus his reality as a slave owner, and the general hypocritical bullshit of that. But though I know of and visited Monticello, I had no idea about the Whitney Plantation, or the recent efforts at that location to tell a more full, realistic, picture of plantation life, with a focus on the lives of the enslaved people that were its base. I also had no idea about anything related to Angola Prison, from it existence to its history and ties to the history of slavery in the country (though understanding the current prison system as an extension of slavery gives you a solid starting idea of the relationship), and I am deeply disturbed and disgusted by the fact that it’s a currently functioning prison that also gives tours. Like, seriously, what the hell?? Goree Island was pretty much new to me as well. And though I have an idea about Confederate legacy (having lived in NC for over 10 years now), the Statue of Liberty (I grew up in New England and went there on a field trip in elementary school), and (more recently) some information about Juneteenth and its origins, reading about these locations and their roles in the history of slavery, as well as their present-day roles in working to reclaim narratives and educate the truth of it now (or not, as it were), was super instructional.     

There are a few points of history, records, passages from official documents, and other patterns and connections that Smith makes throughout the book that were either new or presented in new context. I don’t want to make this review too long, nor “give away” too much (because you should totally go read it yourself), but I do feel like it’s worth pointing a few of them out. I had never before seen/read direct quotes/passages from any articles of succession and the number of them that specifically quote the continuation of the institution of slavery as central to the state’s decision to secede unequivocally throw every other mythology about the Civil War (like, “it was about states’ rights”) on its head. Also thrown on it’s head, in the NYC chapter, is the lack of culpability in the “we were the good guys” POV of the northern states (something I can definitively confirm, having grown up there…we vilified the south and never introspected about roles played), which both did hold slaves for many years and also benefitted greatly from the institution as a result of what it shipped in from the south. Looking at historical patterns in ways that I’d never been “taught” was particularly strong in Smith’s connections drawn between the Haitian slave rebellion and Louisiana purchase and the mass population interest in sugar/sweeteners in Europe with demand on US plantations/slavery. Similarly, Smith parallels the evil plunder of slavery in the US with colonization, specifically in Africa. This was a particularly impactful parallel, for me. And with it, I deeply appreciated the dramatic perspective shift in Smith’s directive to reexamine the way we teach/learn African and African-American history: not as a story that starts with the slave trade, but one that was irrevocably interrupted and stunted by it. Africa’s nations and cultures were full, rich and thriving prior to the advent of the Middle Passage, and while the history of slavery internationally must be faced and remembered, it must not be at the expense of these peoples and traditions. All of this, and more, is missing in US history education, a wrong both in general and to the detriment of cultivating critical thinking skills and pattern/cause and effect recognition (for prevention purposes) in our students.

A real gem, for me, that Smith introduces in the first section, and uses as a framework consistent throughout the book, is the role of tour guides (and re-enactors) as “casual” conduits/vessels for passing on history. (Also, a different look at oral history sharing, which is also a recognition of oral histories being the only way we know many of these stories of enslaved peoples in the first place.) He writes of his own experiences and reactions as he tours Monticello and speaks further to the guides, fellow tour-takers, and other employees responsible for discharging the presentation of history provided by the plantation. These interactions provide a foundation for the key message that runs as a thread from beginning to end of this work: the way that the “average” person understands the history of slavery in America and it’s still-present consequences today, based on the access to information they’ve had over their lifetime (from whom and where they were hearing it). A major, consistent, point here being to upend the abstract and distant way this information is usually presented, in favor of painting it in an “individual experience” way that makes the horror understandable on a real, personal, human level.

This stylistic gathering of information and personal reflection on the way it’s told and shared and, as the title suggests, passed on from person to person by word of mouth, is repeated with each site that Smith visits. It’s fascinating and compelling, the perfect mix of the individual and the historical/educational. And the mix of points of view and opinions that Smith gathers, due in large part to the locations he chooses to visit/include, are expansive and personal in equal measure, even-keeled in their inclusivity of perspective, yet shared with a tone of staunch awareness (and refusal to accept/bend to) of the falsity of some of them. Smith takes this question of oral history, and the importance of the way it keeps stories alive versus the way it distorts fact into something different/exaggerated(?), even further in the last chapter about Goree Island. He speaks to the way the place is deeply tied to memory, but questions if keeping that memory more important than, or worth the manipulating of, the facts. He leaves the reader with that question fully explored, conceptually, but without a true answer, which feels…right. It’s maybe not a question with a true answer. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth spending the time trying to find one.    

One final thing I want to mention, before closing out, is the final chapter, in which Smith writes about his own family’s stories, the words of his grandparents about their personal experiences with the Jim Crow South and the lasting effects of slavery on their, and his own, realities. One of the major points throughout is that making history more individual, less abstract, brings home the realities in a more potent and provoking way, and this last part proves that without a doubt. The people who lived what we learn about history were real people, with full lives, and just because the photos are in black and white doesn’t mean those realities are in a distant past, but rather continue to walk beside us, closely, today.

I know this was a long review, but with a book this impactful and educational, there really was no other option. I just had so much I wanted to say! And, truly, I cut many reflections and responses to keep it as short as it is. Basically, what I’m saying is that this nonfictional reclamation of historical narratives about slavery, its inextricable role in the foundations of our nation and its history (and present) since then, is masterful. Smith attempts to fill the myriad gaps of this history, call out the many “contortions of history” we take as truth today, and call on us all to find the will within ourselves to reckon with it all. I absolutely see why this was a top nonfiction of the year and I’ll just add my voice to the chorus of praise and recommendation.

A selection of the many amazing passages from this book:

“I thought of how this might extend beyond the guides at Monticello, and to the visitors as well. What would motivate a Black family to come spend the day at a plantation if they were concerned about how the story of that land would be told, what kind of people would be standing alongside them as it was told, and who was telling it?”

“There were other brilliant, exceptional people who lived under slavery, and many resisted the institution is innumerable ways, but our country’s teachings about slavery, painfully limited, often focus singularly on heroic slave narratives at the expense of the millions of men and women whose stories might be less sensational but are no less worthy of being told. […] In overly mythologizing our ancestors, we forget an all-too-important reality: the vast majority were ordinary people, which is to say they were people just like everyone else. The ordinariness is only shameful when used to legitimize oppression. This is its own quiet violence.”

“The illogic of it all appears to reveal a simple linear truth that is often lost – oppression is never about humanity or lack thereof. It is, and always has been, about power.”

“Lineage is a strand of smoke making its way into the sky even though we can’t always tell where it’s coming from, even though sometimes we can’t distinguish the smoke from the sky itself.”

“When I hear those deflections, I think of all the way this country attempts to smother conversations about how its past has shaped its present. How slavery is made to sound as if it happened in a prehistoric age instead of only a few generations ago.”

“White supremacy enacts violence against Black people, but also numbs a whole country – Black and white – to what would in any other context provoke our moral indignation.”

“You don’t have to be actively involved in the system to derive at least the psychological benefits of the system.” (Reminds me of some of the points McGhee makes in The Sum of Us.)

“So much of the story we tell about history is really the story that we tell about ourselves, about our mothers and our fathers and their mothers and their fathers, as far back as our lineages will take us. Throughout our lives we are told certain stories and they are stories that we choose to believe – stories that become embedded in our identities in ways we are not always fully cognizant of.”

“What would it take – what does it take – for you to confront a false history even if it means shattering the stories you have been told throughout your life? Even if it means having to fundamentally reexamine who you are and who your family has been? Just because something is difficult to accept doesn’t mean you should refuse to accept it. Just because someone tells you a story doesn’t make that story true.”

“…the work of preserving history must be taken on proactively, that history must be cultivated and nurtured, or else we risk losing it.” 

“For most of my life the Statue of Liberty was one of a number of pieces of American iconography that seemed to memorialize an idea that had never materialized. It is a feeling I suspect many Black Americans experience with respect to pieces of history that commemorate an ideal of US history. […]  The Statue of Liberty is an extension of a tradition that seems to embody the contradictions in America’s promise, and I reminder that its promises have not always been extended to us.” (Also, this quote/chapter definitely made me re-examine my childhood field trip experience there.)

“Don’t believe anything if it makes you comfortable.”

“…parallels between the debate in Senegal over the remnants of colonialism and the debate in the United States over the remnants of slavery.”

“Can a place that misstates a certain set of facts still be a site of memory for a larger truth?”

“It wasn’t that the stories themselves were something I was unfamiliar with, it was that whenever I had encountered these stories, these images, I had not fully considered the way they might have affected my own family – perhaps because of the way we talk about certain episodes of US history. Black-and-white photographs and film footage can convince us that these episodes transpired in a distant past, untouched by our contemporary world.” (This is exactly what I found myself feeling as Smith talked about his families’ individual experiences, experiences they were telling him, in their own words, because they lived it and also are still alive.)

“The history of slavery is the history of the United States. It was not peripheral to our founding; it was central to it. It was not irrelevant to our contemporary society; it created it. The history is in our soil, it is in our policies, and it must, too, be in our memories.” 

4 thoughts on “How the Word Is Passed

  1. This is such an awesome review !!! This was one of my favorites of last year, so glad to know you found it such a good reading experience too. I actually listened to the audiobook, so didn’t get the chance to highlight all the awesome passages, so it was nice to see them here in your post 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! So many people have read this, it seems, and that’s amazing. I actually switched back and forth from the physical to the audio. I love have both for nonfiction. And I’m glad I did. Recording these passages felt necessary. But I also loved listening to Smith narrate.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree.. I love doing the same for nonfiction but my library didn’t have an ebook I could read. So I just listened and absolutely loved it. Hopefully I’ll buy the book when the price comes down a bit more.

        Liked by 1 person

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