Review: How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

History is grounded in the stories we tell and the artifacts and places that we preserve. What does it mean to look for and uncover history that is both in plain sight but also obscured by the stories that we tell? That is the question that Smith explores in this book. His book is both a journey across the country (even the world) that opens up newer understandings about the power of storytelling and place and serves as its own metaphorical "green book" about historical sites willing to lean into their racist backdrops and those that avidly avoid it.  Through the book, Smith visits places like Monticello, the Whitney Plantation (a museum of slavery), Blandford Cemetery (a Confederate cemetery), Angola Prison, Galveston, Texas (home of the first Juneteenth celebrations), New York City (Slavery & the Underground Railroad Walking Tour), Goree Island, Senegal (the port where enslaved people were taken from Africa). Smith shares the historical backdrop of how the place came into being as a historical representation of the US's ongoing unwillingness to see the humanity in Black people. He also includes his experience in visiting these places as a Black man and what stands out to him. He also interviews people there to explore what brings them therewith, at times, interesting results. 

Smith's book feels like the perfect cross between the 1619 Project and James Loewen's Lies Across America captured through a Black man's first-hand experience of those places and of the white supremacy that still haunts the US today. Smith's questions about places linger long in people's minds well after reading or listening to his experiences.  How are we supposed to think about Jefferson's intellect and role in the American Revolution and as president, if that only happened because he owned people whom he did not see as human and yet ran all the workings on Monticello?  What does it say about his intellect that upon death, those same people were sold off into slavery to pay off his own debts?  What are we to think of a prison (Angola) that houses overwhelmingly Black people, that was built upon a former plantation in a state that did not even need unanimous juries to send people to jail? Given the overwhelming evidence of slavery as the cause of the Civil War, how can one be so invested in celebrating soldiers who were willing to kill U.S. soldiers in order to maintain the right to own, trade, kill, and rape Black adults and children and pretend the South's intentions weren't anything but racist in nature?  These are powerful questions that can push the reader to reflect on how easily our narratives of the past seem to dismiss the fact that much of the U.S. is born of violence and suppression of innocent lives to uphold a system that still privileges white people over others.  Here, Smith is brilliant in his prose, aiming not to harshly critique white people but to wonder, ask questions, and try to understand what systems of power and learning must it take to entirely ignore the suffering of others.

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