How the Word Is Passed (2021), by Clint Smith
Through inviting, poetic, and deeply probing nonfiction prose, Clint Smith takes us to historical monuments and landmarks that attempt to reckon with their relationship to the history of American slavery. This is Smith’s first non-fiction book, which he wrote and published concurrently with his Ph.D. dissertation in Education at Harvard University. Smith’s passion for learning, teaching, art, and poetry gives the narrative a certain vulnerability and thoughtfulness as he seeks to understand how the history of slavery is remembered and reckoned with.
Throughout the book, we travel with Smith to nine places – a mix of cities, historical landmarks, houses, plantations, cemeteries, and prisons – in the United States and West Africa that have complex and deeply rooted relationships to American slavery.
One of the locations Smith explores is Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Plantation in Northern Virginia, where Jefferson purchased and sold slaves at the same time he was signing the Declaration of Independence. The contradictory and dark history of Jefferson’s exploitation of human beings is brought to the surface at Monticello through Sally Hemmings’ story as an enslaved woman who was forced to carry Jefferson’s children, and through Jefferson’s “Farm Book” records of the enslaved families he separated and sold in an attempt to alleviate his debt. At Monticello, tour guides and historians also seek to take accountability for the past by centering the humanity of the hundreds of Black people who lived and worked on the plantation.
Perhaps the most jolting location that Smith visits is the Louisiana State Penitentiary northwest of New Orleans. The Penitentiary is also known as Angola Prison, because it is built on top of the pre-Civil War, 18,000 acre Angola Plantation. Angola is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States – larger than the island of Manhattan – where over 75% of the people incarcerated are Black men, and over 70% of them are serving life sentences. While touring the prison, Smith is struck by the “profound indifference to the history of the place.” The prison museum is set up like a photo ops and novelty shot glasses in the gift shop are emblazoned with the phrase “Angola: A Gated Community,” with no mention of the land’s history with the transatlantic slave trade. During the tour, Smith asks the guide about the prison’s relationship to slavery and is met with deflection, indifference, and refrain. In Angola, Smith draws clearly the parallels between present-day mass incarceration and the history of chattel slavery, explaining how not taking responsibility for and not being accountable to our history shapes the present.
In the other seven locations visited in the book, Smith explores the relationship of West African colonization to American slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, the celebration of Juneteenth and its importance to community understanding and remembrance, and the emotional and ideological ties to history and identity that are not always based in evidence or truth.
I was deeply moved by this book and the honest, vulnerable, jarring, and incredibly important history and stories shared in its pages. I first heard of Smith and his book in a Brené Brown podcast series called “Unlocking Us” where vulnerability researcher Brené Brown interviews authors, activists, artists, thought-leaders, and many others to “unlock the deeply human part of who we are.” In this podcast episode, Smith goes into even more detail on his experiences researching the book, his personal story, and his family’s connection to slavery. I typically read books through the library or borrowed from a friend, but I felt strongly that I needed a personal hardcopy of this text to take notes in, re-read, and spend time contemplating. Because of Smith’s fearlessness in excavating and exposing the history of slavery in America and the ways we grapple with it, I have a better understanding of my own relationship to the past.
~ Ashley Peiffer