Book review

In “How the Word Is Passed,” Clint Smith tells vivid and sometimes harrowing stories of places that reveal the history of slavery in America.

An acclaimed poet and a staff writer at The Atlantic magazine, Smith travels to six places in the U.S. and one on the western coast of Africa, each with a distinct connection to slavery, including his home state of Louisiana, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, New York City and the island of Gorée, Senegal.

Smith deftly mixes well-researched history and narratives of enslaved people with contemporary descriptions of the places, landmarks and people he encounters, including tour guides, fellow visitors and historians. He captures the devastating personal impacts of slavery: children separated from their families, sexual assault and appalling violence and brutality. He also provides critical context: The slave trade, for example, was an integral part of larger capitalist and colonial systems developed in Western Europe.

Smith chooses to start his narrative at Monticello in Virginia, the home of Declaration of Independence writer Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s ownership of more than 400 enslaved people, including a mistress, Sally Hemings, has become well known, but the details are shocking nonetheless, such as how family separation was a business strategy for slave owners like Jefferson. Here and throughout the book, Smith is assiduous about showing the humanity of enslaved people, telling their names, their life stories and details about family members. 

In the chapter about the Whitney Plantation, in Wallace, Louisiana, he begins with the grisly image of detached heads on stakes, a depiction of an actual historical event: After quelling the largest rebellion of enslaved people in history in 1811, slave owners decapitated rebellion leaders and put their heads on stakes as a gruesome warning to others.

And 100 miles north at Angola Prison (a former plantation), Smith describes how slavery was continued after the Civil War through prison labor “contract leasing” and how the legacy has been perpetuated to the present day through the mass incarceration of Black men, including at Angola, officially known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

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At Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia, where 30,000 Confederate soldiers are buried, he directly confronts the myth of the “Lost Cause” — the ardent belief by many white Southerners that the Civil War was fought not over slavery, which they view as a benign economic institution, but due to the threat to Southern culture and territory. At a Memorial Day event, Smith feels extreme discomfort as a Black man among Confederate sympathizers (“My ears prickled with nervous heat”), but he hears them out, then writes how thoroughly their conclusions have been disproved by the historical record of Southerners fighting to prevent the abolition of slavery.

Nowhere is the contrast between contemporary image and historical legacy more stark and striking than in the heart of the financial district in New York City.

Smith attends a tour of Wall Street and its surroundings and hammers home the roots of slavery in capitalism. Three blocks from the current New York Stock Exchange stood a slave market. There were 20,000 enslaved people in the New York City area at the time of the American Revolution. “The financial capital in the North allowed slavery in the South to flourish,” he notes.

Smith ends his travels in a place where enslaved Africans were forcibly shipped to the United States: in the African port of Gorée, Senegal, dating from the 16th century to 1848.

In a lovely epilogue, the author writes affecting profiles of his living grandparents: his grandmother and a grandfather whose own grandfather was born into slavery, a reminder that slavery ended in this country just a few generations ago. 

Like many of us, Smith wasn’t taught in school about the complete story of slavery in our country’s past. This book is his quest to fill in the gaps. “The history of slavery is the history of the United States,” he writes. “It was not peripheral to our founding; it was central to it. It is not irrelevant to our contemporary society; it created it.”

“How the Word Is Passed” informs on so many levels, recounting the history of slavery but also showing its many modern manifestations, linking the present to the past. This is a brave and important book that needed to be written and demands to be read. 

Clint Smith, Little, Brown and Company, 352 pages, $25.98

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