Reviews for How The Word Is Passed

by Clint Smith

Library Journal
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Atlantic staff writer Smith travels the country, moving from his native New Orleans to Monticello; the Whitney Plantation, which aims to preserve the experience of those enslaved; Angola, a former plantation in Louisiana that now serves as a maximum-security prison; and downtown Manhattan, where people were bought and sold. His aim: to show that slavery has been central to the making of America.


Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Everyone knows that African Americans were once enslaved in the U.S., but how well do we understand what that means? Atlantic staff writer and poet Smith explores this question by visiting sites emblematic of American slavery, including Jefferson’s Monticello, the Whitney plantation, which rejects Old South nostalgia to focus on the enslaved, a Confederate cemetery, Juneteenth’s birthplace of Galveston, and Goree Island in Senegal, embarkation point for thousands of Africans headed to slave markets in the Americas. Along the way, Smith engages with conflicted tour guides and historians, ambivalent Senegalese students, Confederate reenactors, and descendants of the enslaved and enslavers, including his own grandparents. Smith probes the contradictions of our collective memory and how deliberate miseducation, nostalgia, and denial fuel a belief in Black inferiority and white innocence. Jefferson’s cosmopolitan image, for example, depended on “the people he allowed to be threatened, manipulated, flogged, assaulted, deceived, and terrorized,” while Confederate apologists insist their ancestors weren't reliant on slavery, despite copious evidence to the contrary. Ultimately, Smith concludes that “in order for our country to collectively move forward," we need "a collective endeavor to learn, confront, and reckon with the story of slavery and how it has shaped the world we live in today.”HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Anticipation is running high for Smith's powerful and diligent exploration of the realities and ongoing consequences of slavery in America.


Publishers Weekly
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Poet and Atlantic staff writer Smith debuts with a moving and perceptive survey of landmarks that reckon, or fail to reckon, with the legacy of slavery in America. Visiting Monticello plantation, Smith describes how Thomas Jefferson’s self-perception as a “benevolent slave owner” often conflicted with his actions. On a tour of Angola prison, Smith discusses how nonunanimous jury verdicts fueled the “convict leasing system” that replaced slave labor in post-Reconstruction Louisiana, and notes that when the state switched from the electric chair to lethal injection in 1991, Angola inmates refused to build the prison death bed. At the Blandford Cemetery for Confederate soldiers in Petersburg, Va., Smith questions on-site historians about the ethical implications of preserving a place of honor for the defenders of slavery. He also checks in at the annual Juneteenth festival in Galveston, Tex., and takes an illuminating walking tour of underground railroad sites in New York City. Suffused with lyrical descriptions and incisive historical details, including Robert E. Lee’s ruthlessness as a slave owner and early resistance by Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois to the Confederate general’s “deification,” this is an essential consideration of how America’s past informs its present. Agent: Alia Habib, the Gernert Co. (June)


Library Journal
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Poet, educator, and writer Smith (Counting Descent) opens this latest work with his own story of growing up Black in New Orleans. Although he often passed by monuments to Confederate generals and former slave auction houses, he didn't know much about the history of slavery in the U.S., nor was he very curious about it, until 2017, when widespread campaigns to tear down these monuments began. Smith then started to read classics in the historiography of American slavery and toured historical sites related to U.S. slavery, to interview people who worked there and people who visited them. He pieces together how the history of slavery has been falsely constructed to uphold white supremacy—the same history that has now, in some cases, been rebuilt to form a more honest picture. Some of the sites and histories that Smith revisits are well-known (for instance, Monticello and Sally Hemings's story); others, such as Louisiana's Angola prison/plantation, or the benefit Wall Street drew from slavery long after its abolition in New York, are refreshing new takes. VERDICT An excellent travelogue and introduction to slavery's impact on both the United States and its people. It will hold the interest of readers who are only starting to grapple with the topic.—Kate Stewart, Tucson


Kirkus
Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A Black journalist and poet calls for a reconsideration of the way America teaches its history of slavery. “The story our country tells about the Civil War often flattens some of its otherwise complex realities,” writes New Orleans native Smith, a staff writer for the Atlantic. He notes the U.S. is “at an inflection point, in which there is a willingness to more fully grapple with the legacy of slavery and how it shaped the world we live in today.” However, while “some places have attempted to tell the truth about their proximity to slavery and its aftermath,” others have refused. For this book, the author traveled to nine sites, eight in the U.S. and one in Dakar, Senegal, “to understand how each reckons with its relationship to the history of American slavery.” The result is a devastating portrait with unforgettable details. At the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, historians have labored to help visitors close “the yawning gap on slavery” in their educations—“a hammer attempting to unbend four centuries of crooked nails.” By contrast, the Angola Museum at the Louisiana State Penitentiary has a gift shop with such souvenirs as “a white mug with the silhouette of a guard sitting in a watchtower surrounded by fencing.” When Smith asked his White tour guide to comment on Angola’s role in slavery, the guide replied, “I can’t change that.” At these places and other sites such as Monticello, Galveston Island, and New York City, the author conducted interviews with tour guides, visitors, and others to paint a vivid portrait of the extent to which venues have attempted to redress past wrongs. Smith concludes with a moving epilogue about taking his grandparents to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The trip elicited painful stories from their childhoods, such as his grandmother recalling walking home from school as White children in buses threw ice cream at her and hurled vicious epithets. A brilliant, vital work about “a crime that is still unfolding.” Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Atlantic staff writer Smith travels the country, moving from his native New Orleans to Monticello; the Whitney Plantation, which aims to preserve the experience of those enslaved; Angola, a former plantation in Louisiana that now serves as a maximum-security prison; and downtown Manhattan, where people were bought and sold. His aim: to show that slavery has been central to the making of America.


Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Everyone knows that African Americans were once enslaved in the U.S., but how well do we understand what that means? Atlantic staff writer and poet Smith explores this question by visiting sites emblematic of American slavery, including Jefferson’s Monticello, the Whitney plantation, which rejects Old South nostalgia to focus on the enslaved, a Confederate cemetery, Juneteenth’s birthplace of Galveston, and Goree Island in Senegal, embarkation point for thousands of Africans headed to slave markets in the Americas. Along the way, Smith engages with conflicted tour guides and historians, ambivalent Senegalese students, Confederate reenactors, and descendants of the enslaved and enslavers, including his own grandparents. Smith probes the contradictions of our collective memory and how deliberate miseducation, nostalgia, and denial fuel a belief in Black inferiority and white innocence. Jefferson’s cosmopolitan image, for example, depended on “the people he allowed to be threatened, manipulated, flogged, assaulted, deceived, and terrorized,” while Confederate apologists insist their ancestors weren't reliant on slavery, despite copious evidence to the contrary. Ultimately, Smith concludes that “in order for our country to collectively move forward," we need "a collective endeavor to learn, confront, and reckon with the story of slavery and how it has shaped the world we live in today.”HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Anticipation is running high for Smith's powerful and diligent exploration of the realities and ongoing consequences of slavery in America.


Publishers Weekly
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Poet and Atlantic staff writer Smith debuts with a moving and perceptive survey of landmarks that reckon, or fail to reckon, with the legacy of slavery in America. Visiting Monticello plantation, Smith describes how Thomas Jefferson’s self-perception as a “benevolent slave owner” often conflicted with his actions. On a tour of Angola prison, Smith discusses how nonunanimous jury verdicts fueled the “convict leasing system” that replaced slave labor in post-Reconstruction Louisiana, and notes that when the state switched from the electric chair to lethal injection in 1991, Angola inmates refused to build the prison death bed. At the Blandford Cemetery for Confederate soldiers in Petersburg, Va., Smith questions on-site historians about the ethical implications of preserving a place of honor for the defenders of slavery. He also checks in at the annual Juneteenth festival in Galveston, Tex., and takes an illuminating walking tour of underground railroad sites in New York City. Suffused with lyrical descriptions and incisive historical details, including Robert E. Lee’s ruthlessness as a slave owner and early resistance by Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois to the Confederate general’s “deification,” this is an essential consideration of how America’s past informs its present. Agent: Alia Habib, the Gernert Co. (June)


Library Journal
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Poet, educator, and writer Smith (Counting Descent) opens this latest work with his own story of growing up Black in New Orleans. Although he often passed by monuments to Confederate generals and former slave auction houses, he didn't know much about the history of slavery in the U.S., nor was he very curious about it, until 2017, when widespread campaigns to tear down these monuments began. Smith then started to read classics in the historiography of American slavery and toured historical sites related to U.S. slavery, to interview people who worked there and people who visited them. He pieces together how the history of slavery has been falsely constructed to uphold white supremacy—the same history that has now, in some cases, been rebuilt to form a more honest picture. Some of the sites and histories that Smith revisits are well-known (for instance, Monticello and Sally Hemings's story); others, such as Louisiana's Angola prison/plantation, or the benefit Wall Street drew from slavery long after its abolition in New York, are refreshing new takes. VERDICT An excellent travelogue and introduction to slavery's impact on both the United States and its people. It will hold the interest of readers who are only starting to grapple with the topic.—Kate Stewart, Tucson


Kirkus
Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A Black journalist and poet calls for a reconsideration of the way America teaches its history of slavery. “The story our country tells about the Civil War often flattens some of its otherwise complex realities,” writes New Orleans native Smith, a staff writer for the Atlantic. He notes the U.S. is “at an inflection point, in which there is a willingness to more fully grapple with the legacy of slavery and how it shaped the world we live in today.” However, while “some places have attempted to tell the truth about their proximity to slavery and its aftermath,” others have refused. For this book, the author traveled to nine sites, eight in the U.S. and one in Dakar, Senegal, “to understand how each reckons with its relationship to the history of American slavery.” The result is a devastating portrait with unforgettable details. At the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, historians have labored to help visitors close “the yawning gap on slavery” in their educations—“a hammer attempting to unbend four centuries of crooked nails.” By contrast, the Angola Museum at the Louisiana State Penitentiary has a gift shop with such souvenirs as “a white mug with the silhouette of a guard sitting in a watchtower surrounded by fencing.” When Smith asked his White tour guide to comment on Angola’s role in slavery, the guide replied, “I can’t change that.” At these places and other sites such as Monticello, Galveston Island, and New York City, the author conducted interviews with tour guides, visitors, and others to paint a vivid portrait of the extent to which venues have attempted to redress past wrongs. Smith concludes with a moving epilogue about taking his grandparents to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The trip elicited painful stories from their childhoods, such as his grandmother recalling walking home from school as White children in buses threw ice cream at her and hurled vicious epithets. A brilliant, vital work about “a crime that is still unfolding.” Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

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