How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America (Hardcover)

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The Atlantic writer drafts a history of slavery in this country unlike anything you’ve read before.” Entertainment Weekly

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. 

Praise For…

One of John Green’s Two Favorite Books of the Year
Washington Post Best Book to Read in June
Time Best Book of Summer 2021 
The Root’s Book You Have to Read This Summer
A Goodreads Hottest New Book of the Season 
One of Buzzfeed’s New Books to Add to Your Summer Reading List ASAP

"Sketches an impressive and deeply affecting human cartography of America’s historical conscience…an extraordinary contribution to the way we understand ourselves."—Julian Lucas, New York Times Book Review

"Part of what makes this book so brilliant is its bothandedness. It is both a searching historical work and a journalistic account of how these historic sites operate today. Its both carefully researched and lyrical. I mean Smith is a poet and the sentences in this book just are piercingly alive. And it’s both extremely personal—it is the author’s story—and extraordinarily sweeping. It amplifies lots of other voices. Past and present. Reading it I kept thinking about that great Alice Walker line ‘All History is Current."—John Green, New York Time bestselling author of The Anthropocene Reviewed

"The summer’s most visionary work of nonfiction is this radical reckoning with slavery, as represented in the nation’s monuments, plantations, and landmarks."—Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire

"The detail and depth of the storytelling is vivid and visceral, making history present and real. Equally commendable is the care and compassion shown to those Smith interviews — whether tour guides or fellow visitors in these many spaces. Due to his care as an interviewer, the responses Smith elicits are resonant and powerful. . . . Smith deftly connects the past, hiding in plain sight, with today's lingering effects."—Hope Wabuke, NPR

“Both an honoring and an exposé of slavery’s legacy in America and how this nation is built upon the experiences, blood, sweat and tears of the formerly enslaved.”—The Root

"What [Smith] does, quite successfully, is show that we whitewash our history at our own risk. That history is literally still here, taking up acres of space, memorializing the past, and teaching us how we got to be where we are, and the way we are. Bury it now and it will only come calling later."—USA Today

"Smith reveals and makes present for his readers the profoundly disturbing truths of what transpired in these places, of the systemic and strategic violence and abuse that enabled the society in which we now live… The book doesn’t simply bring news of the past; it seeks to convey the urgency of that news in our troubled present."—Claire Messud, Harper’s

"Smith understands well that the narrative-formation that gives slavery its legacy and power is happening every day. By tour guides and curators and teachers. By the formerly-incarcerated. By those repositories of knowledge rarely considered as what they truly are: society’s historians on the frontline…enthralling and engaging."—Kamil Ahsan, Boston Globe

"Inspired by the destruction of Confederate monuments in his native New Orleans, a poet takes to the road, plotting a journey that winds into the past, from Monticello to New York City to Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison, drilling deep into the bedrock of our racist past."—Oprah Daily

"James Baldwin wrote that history 'is literally present in all that we do'; Smith’s book illuminates that reality for slavery in America, interrogating the lies we tell ourselves and helping us see clearly so that we can chart a new path towards justice."—Ploughshares

"A powerful, timely book, one that we should all read over and over again, marking up the pages as we go."—Bitch

"Stop by stop, Smith weaves a tapestry of willful ignorance before pointing the way toward improvement."—Stuart Miller, Los Angeles Times

"This is a brave and important book that needed to be written and demands to be read."—David Takami, Seattle Times

"In this tremendously researched and fascinating book, Smith examines various sites in the United States (North as well as South) and Dakar, Senegal to uncover forgotten or suppressed histories that reveal the lengths to which we must confront our past in order to be a freer and more just society."—New York Observer

"This book is a beautiful, painful tour of some of the darkest and most complicated parts of American history that will make readers rethink the truth being told about the sins of our past that are still very much alive in the present."—The Daily Beast, The Best Summer Reads of 2021

“Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed is a book for this moment. At once a deeply researched history of American slavery and a very contemporary look at the grim legacy of its manifold cruelties (and how they are memorialized in plain sight), every high school senior in the country should have a copy of How the Word is Passed, the better to understand that ‘yes this is who we are’.” —Lit Hub, 75 Nonfiction Books You Should Read This Summer

“Writer and poet Clint Smith thoroughly excavates the pervasive (yet not always visible) legacy of slavery in America…  he illustrates just how deeply the consequences of this intergenerational history manifest in the present day, both politically and personally.”—Time

"How the Word Is Passed succeeds in making the essential distinction between history and nostalgia."—Bookpage (starred review)

“Bringing the past into light with lyrical mastery.”—Buzzfeed

"Smith tells his stories with the soul of a poet and the heart of an educator. Smith’s ambitious book is fueled by a humble sense of duty: he sought the wisdom of those who tell of slavery’s legacy “outside traditional classrooms and beyond the pages of textbooks”; public historians who “have dedicated their lives to sharing this history with others.” Smith channels the spirit of Toni Morrison here; the writer as one to pass on the word so that it is never forgotten."—The Millions

"A moving and perceptive survey of landmarks that reckon, or fail to reckon, with the legacy of slavery in America... this is an essential consideration of how America’s past informs its present."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A brilliant, vital work about ‘a crime that is still unfolding.'"—Kirkus (starred review)

"[A] powerful and diligent exploration of the realities and ongoing consequences of slavery in America."—Booklist (starred review)

“Clint Smith chronicles in vivid and meditative prose his travels to historical sites that are truth-telling or deceiving visitors about slavery. Humans enslaved Black people, and then too often enslaved history. But How the Word Is Passed frees history, frees humanity to reckon honestly with the legacy of slavery. We need this book.” —Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award-winning and #1 New York Times bestselling author of How to Be an Anti-Racist and Stamped from the Beginning

“A work of moral force and humility, How the Word is Passed offers a compelling account of the history and memory of slavery in America. Writing from Confederate Army cemeteries, former plantations, modern-day prisons, and other historical sites, Clint Smith moves seamlessly between past and present, revealing how slavery is remembered and misremembered—and why it matters. Engaging and wise, this book combines history and reportage, poem and memoir. It is a deep lesson and a reckoning.”—Matthew Desmond, Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology and Pulitzer prize winning author of Evicted

"A beautifully written, evocative, and timely meditation on the way slavery is commemorated in the United States."—Annette Gordon-Reed, Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard and Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello

“Clint Smith has given us a new lens for seeing the spaces we inhabit, the stories they tell, and the people who tell those stories. How the Word is Passed sheds light on the contested narratives beneath the surface of our collective national identity, inviting us to dig a little deeper, reminding us never to take received histories for granted.”—Eve L. Ewing, author of 1919 and Ghosts in the Schoolyard

"In this stunning book, Clint Smith takes readers on a necessary journey. Like the best of the tour guides he meets, he tells us the truth with conviction and compassion, and he has much to teach, both about the history of slavery across America and about how to pass the word on." —W. Caleb McDaniel, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America

"This book is beautiful and timely and important. How the Word is Passed reveals so much about race and nation and how we’ve made this world without feeling like Smith is trying to. I’ve felt compelled to take it everywhere I’ve gone. And it’s taken me so many places—to confederate cemeteries, to prisons and plantations, to the door of no return. It has made me think about memory and history and the legacy of slavery and commemoration and how we forget, like no other book before it."—Reuben Miller, author of Halfway Home

“There is perhaps no greater challenge than convincing a nation to remember what it would rather choose to forget. Clint Smith, one of our most thoughtful writers and thinkers, skillfully documents how echoes of enslavement remain everywhere. The question is whether we have the collective will to reckon with the realities of our past in order to build a better future. How the Word Is Passed is a vital, desperately-needed contribution to that reckoning.”—Wesley Lowery, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of They Can’t Kill Us All
Product Details
ISBN: 9780316492935
ISBN-10: 0316492930
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: June 1st, 2021
Pages: 352
Language: English