How the Word is Passed, by Clint Smith

This is a remarkable book unlike any other than I have read as I have explored over the past two years books on racism, anti-racism, caste, mass incarceration, the realities of slavery. This book is in many ways a travelogue. But a very specific travelogue, exploring sites all over the US – and one in Africa – that illuminate our history with enslavement and its aftermath. Smith visits and talks to other visitors and guides at:

  • Jefferson’s home at Monticello, Virginia, where he takes a tour that not many others take, seeing the realities of Jefferson as a slave-owner and as the father of enslaved children;
  • Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, which is the only plantation devoted to looking at life from the perspective of the enslaved;
  • Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest and one of the most brutal prisons in the United States, built on the site of a former plantation, where African-Americans represent 76% of the incarcerated population;
  • Blandford Cemetery in Virginia, the resting place of over 30,000 Confederate soldiers, where he attends a Sons of Confederate  Veterans (SCV) commemoration celebration;
  • Galveston Island, Texas, where the last enslaved people were finally informed of their freedom after the end of the Civil War and where the Juneteenth celebration was born;
  • the Wall Street area of lower Manhattan in New York City, most of which was built by enslaved persons and which housed a thriving slave auction site until 1762; and
  • Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, where 33,000 people were chained and passed through the House of Slaves and the Door of No Return to be loaded into the holds of ships for the “Middle Passage” cross-Atlantic trip to permanent enslavement in the colonies and the emerging United State; this is a place where today the local population grapples with how to teach their history to their children.

What is remarkable about this book to me is Smith’s gentle courage. He manages to talk directly, but without accusation, with those who do not see life through the same lens. We hear from organizers of the SCV celebration, the tour guides and gift shop proprietor at the prison in Angola, along with many others. He hears their stories and then gently asks them to see things from the Black American point of view.

In a beautiful epilogue, Smith talks with his grandparents. They tell of stories received from their grandparents who were enslaved. They remember their own stories of the Jim Crow south.

Smith’s prose evokes clear images of the places he visits and the people with whom he talks. This is a beautiful book. If you’re interested in dipping your toe into some of the recently published books on “our original sin” and its aftermath, this is an excellent place to begin.

— by Jeanie Smith

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