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

“The history of slavery is the history of the United States,” Clint Smith writes in his newest book, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. “It was not peripheral to our founding; it was central to it. It is not irrelevant to our contemporary society; it created it. This history is in our soil, it is in our policies, and,” Smith argues, “it must, too, be in our memories” (Kindle Location 4321).

I have just finished a first read of How the Word is Passed, and I want to recommend it without qualification in the highest terms. The book has moved quickly to number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. In my opinion, that status is well-deserved. So, first of all, find a copy of this book and read it. It is beautifully written and masterfully combines history, politics, and personal story. It is the best of how one can combine journalism, scholarship, and memory. I am certain this will be an award-winning work.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

In this book, Smith travels to eight places in the US and to Goree Island off the coast of ancient Senegambia to deepen his understanding of how the people in each of those places come to terms with the history of American slavery and their places in that history. In the process, Smith experiences those places in deeply emotional and visceral ways. And he comes to a deeper understanding, not only of the history of American slavery, but also of his own story and his place in that larger history.

Smith visits and unearths in new ways Jefferson’s Monticello, New Orleans, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison in Louisiana, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island and the founding of Juneteenth, New York City, and the House of Slaves off the coast of Africa.

The book shares testimony from people who have grappled with the obscenity of enslavement and the institutions that created the American enslavement system. David, a guide at Monticello, gave a clear exposition of the reality.

“Slavery’s an institution. In Jefferson’s lifetime it becomes a system. So, what is this slave system? It is a system of exploitation, a system of inequality and exclusion, a system where people are owned as property and held down by physical and psychological force, a system being justified even by people who know slavery is morally wrong. By doing what? Denying the very humanity of those who are enslaved solely on the basis of the color of their skin.” (Kindle Location 173).

The contradictions of Jefferson as “author of freedom” and holder of slaves is only one example of many such historical oxymorons Smith explores. Jefferson held hundreds of persons as slaves, used them as collateral for his farm, and decreed them to be sold to settle the debts of his estate. “Jefferson believed himself to be a benevolent slave owner,” Smith notes, “but his moral ideals came second to, and were always entangled with, his own economic interests and the interests of his family. Jefferson understood, as well, the particular economic benefits of keeping husbands and wives together, noting that ‘a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.’” (Kindle Location 272).

Smith’s trips to his native New Orleans and the Whitney Plantation contain refreshing notes of hope in a sometimes bleak book. “In a state where plantations remain the sites of formal celebrations and weddings, where tours of former slave estates nostalgically center on the architectural merits of the old homes, where you are still more likely to hear stories of how the owners of the land ‘treated their slaves well’ than you are to hear of the experiences of actual enslaved people, the Whitney stands apart by making the story of the enslaved the core of the experience.” (Kindle Location 839). I would like to see this place sometime.

Then there is Angola Prison. “The average sentence at Angola,” Smith writes, is eighty-seven years.” I had to stop and read that sentence several times. If there’s any sentence that illustrates the rotten core in the Thirteenth Amendment, this is it. Mass incarceration is not only the New Jim Crow. It’s the old slave system as well.

That’s true in literal terms at Angola, where a modern penal plantation is built on top of the old-fashioned kind. But who notices? “If in Germany today there were a prison built on top of a former concentration camp, and that prison disproportionately incarcerated Jewish people,” Smith argues, “it would rightly provoke outrage throughout the world. I imagine there would be international summits on closing such an egregious institution. And yet in the United States,” he observes, “such collective outrage at this plantation-turned-prison is relatively muted.” (Kindle Location 1525).

Smith takes us to Blandford Confederate cemetery and a Memorial Day celebration to understand and experience the mythology, theology, and politics of the Lost Cause. “White Southerners’ commitment to the Confederate cause was not predicated on whether or not they owned slaves,” Smith observes as he reflects on that experience. “The commitment was based on a desire to maintain a society in which Black people remained at the bottom of the social hierarchy.” (Kindle Location 2550).

The Lost Cause, the myth of white innocence, confederate monuments, Civil War re-enactments, the KKK, and history revised beyond recognition all blend together in a surreal worldview that makes white racists the victims and those terrible Yankees and uppity Black folk the aggressors. As we know from contemporary headlines, that worldview is alive and well – and not only in the Old South.

The chapter describing the founding and establishment of Juneteenth is timely and worth the price of the book by itself here in mid-June of 2021. The concluding paragraph of that chapter says it well. “Juneteenth, then, is both a day to solemnly remember what this country has done to Black Americans and a day to celebrate all that Black Americans have overcome. It is a reminder,” Smith continues, “that each day this country must consciously make a decision to move toward freedom for all of its citizens, and that this is something that must be done proactively; it will not happen on its own. The project of freedom, Juneteenth reminds us, is precarious,” Smith concludes, “and we should regularly remind ourselves how many people who came before us never got to experience it, and how many people there are still waiting.” (Kindle Location 3079).

Throughout the book, Smith reminds us of the importance of knowing, studying, and embodying the accurate history of the United States, especially when it comes to race. “How different might our country look,” Smith wonders, “if all of us fully understood what has happened here?” (Kindle Location 2692).

History that reinforces white supremacy is nostalgic mythology, not real information. But the impacts are very real. “It is not enough to study history,” Smith argues. “It is not enough to celebrate singular moments of our past or to lift up the legacy of victories that have been won without understanding the effects of those victories—and those losses—on the world around us today.” (Kindle Location 2747). But learning the real history is a beginning in dealing with and changing how things got to be the way they are.

“Don’t believe anything if it makes you comfortable.” Damaras, the tour guide who led Smith and others through the enslavement history of New York City concluded her tour with those words. In a chapter called, “But We Were the Good Guys,” Smith reminds us that we northerners have been anything but “the good guys.” The tour begins with a journey to the second largest slave market in American history, walking distance from the New York Stock exchange. The story of the historic black burial ground in New York city gives horrifying context to the guide’s moral guidance.

“New York was unique in that, like Damaras had shared, it presented itself to me as a place ahead of its time,” Smith observes. “The pretense of cultural pluralism told a story that was only half true. New York economically benefited from slavery, and the physical history of enslavement—the blood, the bodies, and the buildings constructed by them—was deeply entrenched in the soil of this city.” (Kindle Location 3495). The same can and must be said of every inch of territory north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The chapter was a vivid reminder that while some white people were and are in favor of the abolition of slavery (and its cultural successors), it is quite possible at the same time to continue to be in favor of the outcomes and structures of racism. It was not then and is not now enough to be antislavery. Our call as white people is to live the principles of antiracism.

His visit to Goree Island reinforced the essential realities of white supremacy producing antiBlack racism and the Transatlantic and American slave systems. One of Smith’s conversation partners put it well. Europeans and Americans “considered Black Africans not as human beings but as a simple merchandise. If they consider Africans as merchandise, that is because they understand the necessity to dehumanize Africans in order to work for the acceptance by all the Europeans. The necessity to use Africans because Africans are not human beings.” (Kindle Location 3716). The economic and political practice preceded and required the story, not the other way around.

This chapter contains the most powerful single line in the book. We have often heard that history is written by “the victors.” Another of Smith’s African interlocutors put it clearly. “History,” he noted, “is written by the perpetrators.” We need history written by the resistors.

Smith closes with a trip into his own personal history. He remembers that his family is as much of a resource for telling the story as any of the places he visited. This epilogue is by far the most moving and powerful section of the book. “My grandparents’ stories are my inheritance,” Smith writes with love and reverence, “each one is an heirloom I carry. Each one is a monument to an era that still courses through my grandfather’s veins. Each story is a memorial that still sits in my grandmother’s bones. My grandparents’ voices are a museum I am still learning how to visit,” he concludes, “each conversation with them a new exhibit worthy of my time.”

Worthy of our time as well – I encourage you to read this marvelous, moving, and meaningful work.

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