Longlisted for the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction
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.
What was your educational experience in school when learning about the history of slavery in the United States?
How has this book challenged or aligned with your teachings and beliefs?
How has colonization and the system of slavery affected Senegal and other western African countries’ economy and society?
In what ways have Black women been viewed and treated by white colonizers and enslavers?
How does this book make you think about the Union states’ and Confederate states’ involvement in the freedom and containment of African and African American people?
In what ways has the racial caste system been used to keep African people and African American people from being allowed equal rights that were given to white Americans before and after emancipation?
What are the differences and similarities of enslavement at the Whitney plantation and mass incarceration in Angola?
How have statues like Robert E. Lee in New Orleans, Mahatma Gandhi in Ghana, and the Statue of Liberty erased or perpetuated the history of slavery and exclusion of rights for African Americans and Black Americans? Do you believe monuments associated with hate and racism should be removed?
Are there monuments, memorials, or museums in your community, town, city, or state that do a good job memorializing slavery? Are there examples of local sites that do a poor job?
What work does the personal experiences of Clint Smith and many other voices who recount their memories and experiences with slavery, racism, and treatment in the U.S. do when coincided with the historical research and exploration of this book?
What have you, as a reader, taken away from learning the stories and history of African American people and their generational lineage of slavery, pain, hurt, and hope?
How can we move forward to reckon with this history and bridge the gaps in our misunderstanding and mistreatment of marginalized communities in the U.S.?