Clint Smith's gifts as both a poet and a scholar make How the Word Is Passed a richly provocative read about places where the story of American slavery lives on. This vital book originated in poetic meditations on the memorials of the Confederacy after Smith’s hometown of New Orleans removed many of those statues in 2017.
Smith began visiting some of the sites where enslaved people once lived and worked. He took the guided tour at Monticello that focuses on Jefferson’s relationship to slavery. He traveled to New York City to visit the African Burial Ground National Monument. He toured Louisiana’s notorious state prison at Angola, where formerly enslaved people were often held on the flimsiest of charges and forced to labor in its vast agricultural fields as part of the post-Reconstruction effort “to funnel Black people into the convict leasing system.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: From a Louisiana native to a D.C. high school teacher to a Harvard Ph.D. candidate to a staff writer for The Atlantic—Clint Smith shares the journey that led to his brilliant nonfiction debut.
At each stop, Smith’s vivid descriptions of the landscape and his response to the site give readers a visceral sense of place. He also reports on his conversations with tour guides, employees and other visitors. At Monticello, one person shares her journey of learning and unlearning history. It’s quite moving.
But at other locations, the guides and visitors are less willing to acknowledge slavery’s continuing impact on our country or the intentional romanticization of the Confederacy. At Angola, there’s almost no acknowledgment that the land was worked by enslaved people as a plantation before it was converted into a state prison for mostly Black prisoners. The reader feels “the prickled heat” Smith experiences as the only Black person attending a Memorial Day event hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. There, Smith is an open, polite, somewhat nervous listener. Even in print, he doesn’t call out the people he speaks with. But ever the educator and poet, he lets the Confederate states’ own avowals destroy the animating myth of the Lost Cause.
Smith has an appreciation of nuance. He wields few cudgels here. And yet, How the Word Is Passed succeeds in making the essential distinction between history and nostalgia.