The Truth About Slavery.

AuthorGilmore, Brian

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

By Clint Smith

Little, Brown and Company, 352 pages Publication date: June 1, 2021

"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," Smith writes.

How the Word Is Passed reads like this throughout. It follows a distinct pattern of place, personal reflection, and then a deeper dive into history and politics. Smith, a staff writer at The Atlantic, has produced a book that is part travelogue and part memoir. Smith serves as a kind of tour guide for his readers, though he is ably assisted in his travels by several of his own competent and conscientious guides.

At times, Smith's book recalls John A. Williams's 1965 travelogue, This Is My Country Too, another reflective book of prose featuring an accomplished magazine journalist seeking answers regarding his American life. How the Word Is Passed also makes me think of Susan Neiman's amazing book, Learning from the Germans, because overall Smith seems to be saying that America is not being honest about its often wicked past.

How the Word Is Passed accomplishes this by creating its own space to challenge the accepted narrative in the United States regarding its enslavement of African people. Smith does what Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe insisted was necessary for Black writers--to tell stories from their own perspective. As he put it, "Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter."

Using eight different destinations related to the history of the slave trade in the United States, Smith weaves a compelling narrative that allows him to take down some of the hunters who haunt our history.

The places are Monticello and Blandford Cemetery in Virginia, the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, Galveston Island in Texas, New York City, Goree Island in Dakar, Senegal, Smith's own hometown of New Orleans, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

In visiting these parts of the world, Smith pieces together the history of U.S. slavery through the medium of place, as opposed to historical figures. Gone are many of the usual historical actors. Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln are mentioned only in...

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