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How the Word Is Passed
A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America
By Clint Smith
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This “important and timely” (Drew Faust, Harvard Magazine) #1 New York Times bestseller examines the legacy of slavery in America—and how both history and memory continue to shape our everyday lives.
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.
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction
Winner of the Stowe Prize
Winner of 2022 Hillman Prize for Book Journalism
A New York Times 10 Best Books of 2021
Our past was slavery. We cannot recur to it with any sense of complacency or composure. The history of it is a record of stripes, a revelation of agony. It is written in characters of blood. Its breath is a sigh, its voice a groan, and we turn from it with a shudder. The duty of to-day is to meet the questions that confront us with intelligence and courage.
“The Nation’s Problem”
You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be.
“The Site of Memory”
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The visits I describe in this book took place between October 2017 and February 2020. I visited some places on multiple occasions, others only once. All quotations were captured with a digital recorder. Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
I would like to note that while this book is focused on the places where the story of slavery in America lives on, the land upon which many of these historical sites sit belonged to Indigenous communities before it belonged to anyone else. Of the eight US-based sites I visited for this book, New Orleans sits on Chitimacha and Choctaw land; Monticello sits on Monacan land; the Whitney Plantation sits on Choctaw land; Angola prison sits on Choctaw land; Blandford Cemetery sits on Appomattoc and Nottoway land; Galveston, Texas, sits on Akokisa, Karankawa, and Atakapa land; New York City sits on Munsee Lenape land; the National Museum of African American History and Culture sits on Nacotchtank (Anacostan) and Piscataway land. It should be noted that Native territories often overlapped and had malleable borders that shifted over time. This list is not definitive but is one attempt to acknowledge those who first traversed this land, and to do so as accurately as possible.
“The whole city is a memorial to slavery”
THE SKY ABOVE THE MISSISSIPPI River stretched out like a song. The river was still in the windless afternoon, its water a yellowish-brown from the sediment it carried across thousands of miles of farmland, cities, and suburbs on its way south. At dusk, the lights of the Crescent City Connection, a pair of steel cantilever bridges that cross the river and connect the east and west banks of New Orleans, flickered on. Luminous bulbs ornamented the bridges’ steel beams like a congregation of fireflies settling onto the backs of two massive, unbothered creatures. A tugboat made its way downriver, pulling an enormous ship in its wake. The sounds of the French Quarter, just behind me, pulsed through the brick sidewalk underfoot. A pop-up brass band blared into the early-evening air, its trumpets, tubas, and trombones commingling with the delight of a congregating crowd; a young man drummed on a pair of upturned plastic buckets, the drumsticks in his hands moving with speed and dexterity; people gathered for photos along the river’s edge, hoping to capture an image of themselves surrounded by a recognizable piece of quintessential New Orleans iconography.
After the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808, about a million people were transported from the upper South to the lower South. More than one hundred thousand of them were brought down the Mississippi River and sold in New Orleans.
Leon A. Waters came and stood next to me on the riverfront, hands in pockets, lips compressed, overlooking the Mississippi’s slow bend between the two shores of the city. I had been introduced to Waters by a group of young Black activists in New Orleans who were part of the organization Take ’Em Down NOLA, whose self-espoused mission is “the removal of ALL symbols of white supremacy in New Orleans as a part of a broader push for racial & economic justice.” Waters has served as a mentor to many members of the group—they see him as an elder statesman of their movement and credit him for being a central part of their political education.
Waters—in his late sixties with a greying mustache sitting over his lips—wore a black sports coat over a grey-and-white-striped shirt with the top button undone. A navy-blue tie hung loosely below his unfastened collar and swung over the waistband of his faded blue jeans. A pair of thin-framed, rectangular-shaped glasses sat high on the bridge of his nose, the left lens with a slight smudge in its bottom corner. His voice was low and unvarying in its tone. Waters might be mistaken for surly, but his disposition is simply a reflection of the seriousness with which he takes the subject matter he often is discussing, the subject of slavery.
We were standing in front of a plaque, recently put up by the New Orleans Committee to Erect Markers on the Slave Trade, outlining Louisiana’s relationship to the transatlantic slave trade. “It’s doing its job,” Waters said of the plaque. “All through the day people come in, they stop, they read, take pictures…It’s another way of educating people to this.”
In recent years, markers like this began to go up throughout the city, each documenting a specific area’s relationship to enslavement—part of a broader reckoning. After years of Black people being killed by police and having their deaths broadcast in videos streamed across the world, after a white supremacist went into a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine people as they prayed, after neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protect a Confederate statue and reclaim a history born of a lie, after George Floyd was killed by a police officer’s knee on his neck, cities across the country have begun to more fully reckon with the history that made such moments possible—a history that many had previously been unwilling to acknowledge. Waters, who identifies as a local historian and revolutionary, was not new to this. He and others like him have, for years, been working to illuminate the city’s legacy—and by extension the country’s legacy—of oppression.
Only recently, after decades of pushing by activists, amid the larger groundswell of national pressure, have city officials begun to listen, or perhaps feel like they finally have the political capital to act. In 2017, New Orleans removed four statues and monuments that, it had determined, paid tribute to the legacy of white supremacy. The city removed memorials to Robert E. Lee, the general who led the Confederacy’s most successful army during the Civil War, a slaveholder; Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy, a slaveholder; P. G. T. Beauregard, a general in the Confederate Army who ordered the first shots of the Civil War, a slaveholder; and a monument dedicated to the Battle of Liberty Place, an 1874 insurrection in which white supremacists attempted to overthrow the integrated Reconstruction-era state government of Louisiana. These monuments are gone now, but at least a hundred streets, statues, parks, and schools named after Confederate figures, slaveholders, and defenders of slavery remain. On a cool February afternoon, Waters, the founder of Hidden History Tours of New Orleans, promised to show me where some of these vestiges of the past remain.
Waters drove me past two schools named after John McDonogh, a wealthy slave-owning merchant after whom dozens of schools, filled largely with Black children, were named until the 1990s; we drove past shops and restaurants and hotels where there once had been the offices, showrooms, and slave pens of more than a dozen slave-trading firms that made New Orleans the largest slave market in antebellum America—like the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, built on the site of the St. Louis Hotel, where men, women, and children were bought, sold, and separated from one another; we drove past Jackson Square, in the heart of the tourist-filled French Quarter, where rebellious enslaved people were executed.
Even the street on which Waters dropped me off at the end of our tour, where my parents now live, is named after Bernard de Marigny, a man who owned more than 150 enslaved people over the course of his lifetime. The echo of enslavement is everywhere. It is in the levees, originally built by enslaved labor. It is in the detailed architecture of some of the city’s oldest buildings, sculpted by enslaved hands. It is in the roads, first paved by enslaved people. As historian Walter Johnson has said about New Orleans, “The whole city is a memorial to slavery.”
New Orleans is my home. It is where I was born and raised. It is a part of me in ways I continue to discover. But I came to realize that I knew relatively little about my hometown’s relationship to the centuries of bondage rooted in the city’s soft earth, in the statues I had walked past daily, the names of the streets I had lived on, the schools I had attended, and the buildings that had once been nothing more to me than the remnants of colonial architecture. It was all right in front of me, even when I didn’t know to look for it.
It was in May 2017—after the statue of Robert E. Lee near downtown New Orleans had been taken down from its sixty-foot pedestal—that I became obsessed with how slavery is remembered and reckoned with, with teaching myself all of the things I wish someone had taught me long ago. Our country is in a moment, at an inflection point, in which there is a willingness to more fully grapple with the legacy of slavery and how it shaped the world we live in today. But it seems that the more purposefully some places have attempted to tell the truth about their proximity to slavery and its aftermath, the more staunchly other places have refused. I wanted to visit some of these places—those telling the truth, those running from it, and those doing something in between—in order to understand this reckoning.
In How the Word Is Passed I travel to eight places in the United States as well as one abroad to understand how each reckons with its relationship to the history of American slavery. I visit a mix of plantations, prisons, cemeteries, museums, memorials, houses, historical landmarks, and cities. The majority of these sites are in the South, as this is where slavery was most saturated over the course of its nearly two-hundred-fifty-year existence on these shores, but I also travel to New York City and Dakar, Senegal. Each chapter is a portrait of a place but also of the people in that place—those who live there, work there, and are the descendants of the land and of the families who once lived on it. They are people who have tasked themselves with telling the story of that place outside traditional classrooms and beyond the pages of textbooks. They are, formally or informally, public historians who carry with them a piece of this country’s collective memory. They have dedicated their lives to sharing this history with others. And for this book, many of them have generously shared that history with me.
“There’s a difference between history and nostalgia”
HEADING OUT FROM MY HOME in Washington, DC, in the morning, I drove against traffic, moving from the new condos of an increasingly gentrifying DC, through the single-family-home suburban landscape of Northern Virginia, and into the vast green expanse surrounding I-95 South. As I drove to Monticello, I observed how Virginia is largely a tale of two states. Northern Virginia, those incorporated municipalities that serve as suburbs to the District of Columbia, has always felt somewhat distant from “the South” in the ways I grew up understanding it. But beyond the suburbs, once I started driving past the diners and gas stations with Dixie flags hanging in their windows, I was reminded that this state was once the bastion of the Confederacy.
As I made my way down the highway, finding myself on cruise control—both in the car and in my mind—I saw a sign in my peripheral vision indicating the entrance to a plantation. Assuming it to be Monticello, I put my blinker on and began to turn, only to jerk the car back onto the highway when I realized this was not Thomas Jefferson’s plantation but that of James Madison—Jefferson’s dear friend, confidant, fellow Virginian, and successor to his presidency.
Madison’s Montpelier plantation, less than thirty miles northeast of Jefferson’s, is almost a prelude to Monticello. Not simply as a result of their relative proximity, but because the two men share similarly contradictory relationships to the aspirational documents they ushered into existence while enslaved people worked on their plantations. The Madison family held more than three hundred enslaved people over the course of their time on that property. Both of the men inscribed words that promoted equality and freedom in the founding documents of the United States while owning other human beings. Both men built a nation while making possible the plunder of millions of people. What they gave our country, and all they stole from it, must be understood together. I did not turn into Montpelier, but there was something about driving past it on the way to Monticello that reminded me that Jefferson was not singular in his moral inconsistencies; rather he was one of the founding fathers who fought for their own freedom while keeping their boots on the necks of hundreds of others.
Within a few miles of Monticello, the highway transitions into a one-way road lined with white pines and hemlocks. I pulled into the dirt parking lot and made my way up the concrete stairs to see if tour tickets were still available.
One of the first things I noticed about Monticello was how the vast majority of its visitors seemed to be white. It’s not so much unexpected as it is markedly conspicuous, to see a plantation that has had its ratios reversed. There were a few tourist groups from different Asian countries, but they were the small exception. Two hundred years ago Monticello, like most plantations, was populated largely by the enslaved descendants of Africans, while white laborers and Jefferson’s family were a much smaller proportion of its inhabitants. At any given time at Monticello there were approximately 130 enslaved people, far outnumbering Jefferson, his family, and the paid white workers.
I walked toward the stately mansion, which sat just a couple hundred feet ahead of me. Waves of heat rose from the dirt path, and mulberry trees spread themselves out across the land, creating intermittent pockets of cool respite for visitors. Underneath a lush sugar maple on one side of the house was a group of about a dozen people all sharing what city they had come from. The group ranged in age and geography, spanning generations and state borders.
“And what about you, sir?” the guide said as I scurried under the tree where the rest of the group was standing. I had chosen the tour that began ten minutes after I arrived, one that focused specifically on Jefferson’s relationship to slavery.
“From DC,” I said.
“Right down the road!” he responded, nodding his head and giving a smile that was as courteous as it was practiced.
Before I was able to gather myself and bring my full attention to the group, I was struck by what lay behind us, in the distance. The entire plantation sat at the top of a mountain ringed by a thick cascade of sundry trees, so tightly packed together that I could not tell where one began and the next ended. Behind the first string of trees were rolling hills that went off in every direction, as the silhouette of outlying mountains kissed the clouds resting over their peaks.
David Thorson, our guide, wore a blue-and-white-striped oxford shirt, short sleeved but a size too big, leaving his sleeves fluttering along his elbows when a light mountain breeze passed by. His crisply ironed khaki pants sat high on his waist, impressive creases moving down the front of his pant legs from his belt buckle to his shoes. David’s peach face, reddened from all the hours spent standing in the sun, was clean-shaven and sunk gently into itself around his cheeks. Ridges and wrinkles made their way down his jawbone and onto his neck. He wore large, thick-rimmed glasses and a brown wide-brimmed hat that cast a slight shadow over his eyes. He spoke with a calm evenhandedness that invited people into discussion, like a professor.
I found out later that prior to becoming a tour guide at Monticello, David served for more than thirty years in the US Navy. He had no experience as a teacher and no exposure to anything resembling museum studies before taking his job as a guide. Both of his children had enrolled in the University of Virginia, and he and his wife had fallen in love with Charlottesville during their frequent visits over the years. They loved it so much that they decided to relocate after David retired from the military, even though his children had graduated from the university long before.
“I didn’t want to sit around talking back to the TV set,” he would tell me. “It gets you out where you are interacting with the public, with a broad international audience of people who have an interest in American history, an interest in Thomas Jefferson. So I was interested in sharing the story because I really do believe that you can’t understand the United States without going back and understanding Jefferson.”
While the shadow over David’s eyes gave him a sense of mystery, when he began speaking to the tour group, there was nothing enigmatic about what he was saying. “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.”
People in the group began to murmur to one another, some with their hands over their mouths.
In just a few sentences, David had captured the essence of chattel slavery in a way that few of my own teachers ever had. It’s not that this information was new, it’s that I had not expected to hear it in this place, in this way, with this group of almost exclusively white visitors staring back at him.
David paused and then said, “There’s a struggle going on here.” He continued discussing how Jefferson’s relationship to slavery was in plain sight because Jefferson maintained extensive records, the best known of which is his Farm Book. In these documents he kept track of the name, birth date, location, and sale of each person he held in bondage. He also kept track of the rations distributed to the enslaved. A typical week’s worth of rations, said David, included “a pack of cornmeal, half a pound of meat, usually pork, occasionally half a dozen salted fish.”
David discussed how Jefferson’s records showed who was bought and sold over the course of decades. Jefferson sold, leased, and mortgaged enslaved people—often in an effort to pay off debts he owed, as well as to preserve his standard of living. (The people Jefferson sold while he was alive were mostly from Poplar Forest, his plantation in Bedford County, but also from Monticello and a smaller plantation in Goochland County called Elkhill.) Having enslaved workers, David explained, helped Jefferson maintain his lifestyle, by giving him the time and space to do what he cared about most: reading, writing, and hosting guests who came to visit.
“Jefferson also gave presents to his kids and grandkids,” he said in a pivot. A moment of respite for those who, within just a few minutes, had begun to see their prior conceptions of Jefferson evaporate away. I felt disappointed, wanting David to continue exposing the parts of Jefferson’s legacy that so frequently remain buried. This was the purpose of the tour, I thought: to excavate unsavory stories and wrestle with them, outwardly, honestly, without pause. But as soon as the thought came, David began the second half of his statement. “Those presents were human beings among the enslaved community.”
David knew what he was doing: the pedagogical equivalent of a crossover in basketball, lulling your opponent in one direction—inducing them into a momentary assurance that they know in which direction things are moving—before promptly switching hands right underneath their outstretched arms, leaving them frozen in place behind you as you drive to the basket.
David continued to refer to the enslaved Black people living on Monticello as “human beings.” The decision to use “human” as the primary descriptor rather than “slave” was a small yet intentional move. He described the games the children played on warm Sunday afternoons (the only day of the week they did not have to work), the songs enslaved workers sang late into the evenings, the celebrations they took part in when someone was married. What reverberated throughout was the humanity of the enslaved people—their unceasing desire to live a full life, one that would not be defined simply by their forced labor.
David, and every other tour guide on the plantation, had to convey this sense of personhood with limited access to stories of the enslaved themselves. Historian Lucia Stanton, who worked as a historian at Monticello for over three decades, has wrestled with this. “To reconstruct the world of Monticello’s African Americans is a challenging task. Only six images of men and women who lived there in slavery are known, and their own words are preserved in just four reminiscences and a handful of letters,” she wrote. “Without the direct testimony of most of the African American residents of Monticello, we must try to hear their voices in the sparse records of Jefferson’s Farm Book and the often biased accounts and letters dealing with labor management and through the inherited memories of those who left Monticello for lives of freedom.”
Even with limited resources, David brought these stories to life. He finished his preamble to the tour: “You know, if you take it all together, those documents, like Jefferson’s Farm Book, the memories from people who call Monticello home, and then the archeology, the story does begin to unfold. Despite the horror and oppression of slavery, those families who once lived here, what are they doing? They’re trying to carve out some kind of a normal life. They are passing on tradition. They are giving their kids a chance to learn, and a chance to play. Maybe they’re even trying to shield those children from the reality.”
I looked around the lawn and imagined what Monticello would have been like two centuries ago. It belonged to Jefferson, yes, but it was not his home alone. It was the home of hundreds of enslaved people, including several large families. Some families were enslaved at Monticello for three generations or more. There were the Gillettes, the Herns, the Fossetts, the Grangers, the Hubbards, and the Hemingses.
I scanned the landscape and imagined the Gillette children running between horses as the animals were groomed and fed, their adolescent voices swirling in the mountain air. I thought of David and Isabel Hern, how, despite marriage between enslaved people being illegal in Virginia, they were wed and remained so until Isabel’s death. I imagined how they might have taken breaks from work under the shade of mulberry trees, whispering and laughing and holding each other in their arms. I thought of Joseph Fossett, who remained at Monticello while his wife was taken to Washington, DC, to train as a cook in the White House kitchen during Jefferson’s presidency. How three of their children were born in the White House. How in 1806 Jefferson thought Joseph had run away, when he had in fact gone to see his wife in Washington.
I thought too of how in 1827, after Jefferson’s death, Edward and Jane Gillette along with nine of their children and twelve of their grandchildren were sold. How David Hern along with his thirty-four surviving children and grandchildren were sold. How Joseph Fossett was freed in Jefferson’s will, but his wife, Edith, and seven of their children were sold. How these families were separated to posthumously pay off Jefferson’s debts.
I thought of all the love that had been present at this plantation, and I thought too of all the pain.
David waved his hand for us to follow him, and we walked from the area adjacent to Jefferson’s home down Mulberry Row, where some of the enslaved families had lived. David found a cluster of benches under a grove of mulberry trees and motioned for us all to take a seat. As he positioned himself between us and the garden behind him, he told the story of an enslaved worker named Cary, a teenage boy who was part of the plantation’s nail-making operation. The enslaved adolescent boys were directed to make close to one thousand nails a day, and they could be beaten if they fell too far behind.
- "The Atlantic writer drafts a history of slavery in this country unlike anything you’ve read before.”—Entertainment Weekly
- “An important and timely book about race in America.”—Drew Faust, Harvard Magazine
- "Merging memoir, travelogue, and history, Smith fashions an affecting, often lyrical narrative of witness."—The New York Review of Books
- "In this exploration of the ways we talk about — and avoid talking about — slavery, Smith blends reportage and deep critical thinking to produce a work that interrogates both history and memory."—Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe
- “Raises questions that we must all address, without recourse to wishful thinking or the collective ignorance and willful denial that fuels white supremacy.” —Martha Anne Toll, The Washington Post
- “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
- "With careful research, scholarship, and perspective, Smith underscores a necessary truth: the imprint of slavery is unyieldingly present in contemporary America, and the stories of its legacy, of the enslaved people and their descendants, are everywhere."—TeenVogue
- "History is often contested ground; people argue over whose stories matter, and how they are communicated. In this personal, thoughtful book, Smith visits the landmarks and museums that attempt to tell Americans the story of slavery. Along the way, he talks to all kinds of people, encountering moments of anger and denial as well as sparks of hope, humanity and grace."—People, Black History Month reading list
- “Clint Smith, in his new book “How the Word Is Passed,” has created something subtle and extraordinary.”—Christian Science Monitor
- "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 Times 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
- “This isn’t just a work of history, it’s an intimate, active exploration of how we’re still constructing and distorting our history.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post
- “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
- “The power of an itinerant narrator—Smith journeys to Monticello, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, and downtown Manhattan—is that it reveals slavery’s expansive, geographical legacy. Smith tells his stories with the soul of a poet and the heart of an educator."—The Millions
- “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
- On Sale
- Jun 1, 2021
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown and Company