How The Word Is Passed Book Summary By Clint Smith

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How the Word Is Passed (2021) is a thought-provoking and captivating travelogue that deeply examines how slavery has shaped America's past and present.

This book takes nine locations and illuminates the stories of these places in order to better understand slavery's influence.

It invites readers to explore hidden histories and confront their preconceptions about the nation's painful legacy.

Along the way, How the Word Is Passed shows how different communities have come to terms (or not) with their involvement in such an awful period.

With this book, be prepared for an eye-opening journey that will leave you both stunned and enlightened.

How The Word Is Passed Book

Book Name: How the Word Is Passed (A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America)

Author(s): Clint Smith

Rating: 4.5/5

Reading Time: 36 Minutes

Categories: History

Author Bio

Clint Smith is an esteemed author and staff writer at the Atlantic.

He boasts a lovely collection of works including an award-winning book of poetry entitled Counting Descent, alongside writings in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Paris Review, and Poetry.

He has also been humbled to gain recognition from many prestigious fellowships including the Art for Justice Fund, Cave Canem, New America, and the National Science Foundation.

All this knowledge and impressive work experience have garnered him a BA in English from Davidson College along with a PhD in Education from Harvard University to boot.

Uncovering The Legacy Of Slavery: Exploring How America Remembers And Misremembers Its Past

Legacy Of Slavery

In the book, “How the Word is Passed” author Brendan Wolfe takes us on a journey through the legacy of slavery in America.

Beginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Wolfe helps us explore how slavery is remembered, and misremembered, across the US.

We’ll visit nine sites that uncover not-so-shiny sides of Thomas Jefferson, reveal where Juneteenth was born, and explain what’s hidden at the Statue of Liberty’s feet.

These portraits illustrate both progress and regression in America’s reckoning with this history—from protesters toppling Confederate statues to states pushing to ban education about slavery.

Join Wolfe on this eye-opening adventure as he uncovers how understanding our past can shape how we live today.

Uncovering America’S Legacy Of White Supremacy In New Orleans’ French Quarter

New Orleans is a city rich in history and culture.

It was once home to America’s largest slave market and served as an important hub for the transatlantic slave trade.

Today, it is still possible to see signs of this dark past with plaques and monuments hidden around the city detailing its brutal history.

Local historian Leon A.

Waters has treated visitors to the city to guided tours showcasing both the lingering effects of the issue of slavery and New Orleans’ progression towards racial justice.

People on his tours can visit places such as the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, formerly known as the St.

Louis Hotel, where enslaved men, women, and children were bought and sold; Jackson Square, where some enslaved people were executed for rebelling; and Marigny Street, named after Bernard de Marigny who owned over 150 enslaved people.

These commemorations continue to remind us of our country’s painful legacy of white supremacy even though some have been removed in recent years, like the 60-foot statue of Confederate General Robert E.

Lee that was taken down in 2017.

But while progress has been made in New Orleans in recognizing its own problematic past, recognizing slavery and white supremacy across other parts of America still needs to be done if we are able to move forward with true racial healing and justice within our nation as a whole.

The Ugly Truth Of Thomas Jefferson: Uncovering Historical Inequality And Rupturing White Nostalgia

Navigating the lush grounds of Monticello plantation, once the home of Thomas Jefferson and hundreds of enslaved individuals, evokes a complex, unsettling feeling.

The 43-room mansion stands as a reminder of this history and today provides an opportunity for visitors to learn more about it.

The Monticello plantation was founded on unfathomable cruelty; the history of Thomas Jefferson is one marred by abuse and exploitation.

For over four decades he maintained a relationship with Sally Hemings, a Black woman he held in enslavement at his estate, causing immense suffering that reverberated throughout generations.

At the same time he published his famous Declaration of Independence – upholding America’s great ideals yet hiding behind them as he continued to benefit from an unjust system.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation has been working for over 25 years to bring forth this difficult history in an effort to share a more accurate narrative about Jefferson’s life, including introducing their Getting Word project in 1993 which gave descendants of those enslaved at Monticello the chance to remember and honor their past through oral stories shared within their community.

As David Thorson, their guide notes during tours – it’s important to remember that slavery is not just an abstract concept but comprised real people with emotions, who had children that played games on Sundays and sung songs late into the night while they were denied basic human rights without any agency or justice.

Just as visitors stepping onto the grounds can be taken aback by this reality embodied in bricks and wood standing in stark contrast to speeches carried on ideals of liberty – hopefully they too can experience moments of personal transformation and reflection like the two self-proclaimed Republicans near the conclusion when contemplating history versus nostalgia: “You grow up and it’s…He’s a great man, and he did all this,” they gesticulate.

“But…this really took the shine off the guy.”

A Wake-Up Call To Understand Slavery’s Grim History And Its Long-Lasting Impact

Slavery's Grim History

The Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana is a powerful reminder of the brutality of slavery.

A gruesome exhibit at the plantation depicts the aftermath of one of the largest slave rebellions in history, with 55 African American heads displayed on metal pikes.

Taking a different approach from many other plantations which mostly emphasize that many plantation owners “treated their slaves well”, The Whitney focuses solely on the experience of those who were enslaved.

Visitors can explore both the hidden and exposed histories here, such as how children born to enslaved women were kept as workers or sold for profit.

There are also life size clay sculptures depicting children of all ages, emphasizing that by 1860 nearly 4 million people were enslaved in the US and 57% were under 20 years old.

The Whitney also examines how after emancipation cadavers were used for research by top medical schools like Harvard and University of Pennsylvania as well as how today descendants still suffer due to poverty and environmental issues linked to petrochemical plants in nearby areas.

However Yvonne Holden, the museum’s director urges visitors not to only think about slavery in terms of oppression but it’s legacy too – one filled of resiliency, determination and strength despite all odds faced by this community.

Confronting The Legacy Of Slavery At Louisiana State Penitentiary Angola

Angola Prison is a maximum security prison located in Louisiana and it has a dark history.

Built on the grounds of a former cotton plantation belonging to Isaac Franklin – one of the largest slave traders in history, Angola Prison was established in 1880 as a way to replace lost slave labor and has since seen many inmates forced into its convict leasing system to work on plantations and build railroads.

The prison has been known for its horrible conditions and human rights violations, with the Angolite (the prison’s journal) calling inmates “modern-day slaves for the state”.

In recent years, Norris Henderson, an ex-inmate who spent 27 years in Angola for a crime he didn’t commit, worked hard towards criminal justice reform.

His efforts eventually succeeded and he placed a ballot measure that ended Louisiana’s practice of nonunanimous jury decisions; this policy hadn’t allowed people to be convicted of felonies unless all twelve jurors were in agreement.

Angola Prison now houses 71% of people serving life sentences, with three-quarters of those inmates being Black – yet the tourist attraction they offer their visitors tells very little about this shameful past: although they enter what looks more like a museum than a penal institution, there is no mention made of slavery or convict-leasing; rather, when confronted with questions regarding the history of Angola during tours, guides simply brush them off telling stories as if it had happened ages ago instead of just being a few generations back.

All this only serves to emphasize why someone like Norris Henderson is so important – because without people like him relentlessly seeking justice and fighting for change, systems such as those implemented by Angola would still be in place today.

How Organizations And Movements Rely On Lies To Rewrite History And Perpetuate Slavery

Blandford Cemetery is a site of historical significance, located in Petersburg, Virginia.

It is the final resting place of over 30,000 Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War.

After the war ended in 1865, a group of progressive women formed The Ladies’ Memorial Association with an aim to retrieve and rebury these fallen soldiers at Blandford cemetery.

To pay tribute to them, the cemetery has one church which was later converted into a memorial for all Confederate states.

The cemetery is also surrounded by symbolic reminders of its past – large Confederate flags that adorn the many gravestones.

This makes it even more searingly ironic that this same location played host to one of the worst battles of the American Civil War – The Battle Of The Crater – where white soldiers put down a Black Union division in an act of unspeakable cruelty and horror.

Even more concerning is the fact that public tax dollars are being used to fund several monuments across America that glorify such atrocities in service to a movement known as ‘The Lost Cause’.

This movement seeks to justify Jim Crow laws through rewriting history and creating false narratives about slavery.

At a Memorial Day event held at Blandford, Clint witnessed first hand how these lies are propagated when he listened as their commander-in-chief spoke endlessly about Confederate heroes without so much as an acknowledgement of Union heroes who fought for liberty during that same war.

In reality, it was freed slaves who organized and hosted South Carolina’s first ever memorial day ceremony back in May 1865 in Charleston – but here it was conveniently forgotten or ignored all together.

This is but one example why understanding history should never be reduced into aesthetics and beauty alone; there must be truth woven between each line or else what remains will be nothing more than fiction masquerading under a thin veil of misinformation and half-truths.

Celebrating Juneteenth: An Annual Reminder To Reflect On Slavery And The Long Path To Justice


Galveston Island is an important location in the history of Black emancipation in the United States.

This small island off mainland Texas is home to Juneteenth celebrations each year, where union general Gordon Granger read General Order Number 3, which declared the freedom of all slaves in Texas.

Although there’s no evidence to support that exactly this event unfolded like this, it has become a tradition and part of a yearly reenactment for Galveston residents and beyond.

The importance of commemoration on Galveston Island does not come without its own history – Robert E.

Lee surrendered in Appomattox County, Virginia on April 9, 1865.

Unfortunately at the time, many former enslavers failed to pass on that news to the formerly enslaved workers, so it wasn’t until June 19th with Granger’s declaration that freedom was embraced – even though much later than Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation two years prior.

Understandably, some parts of Texas didn’t hear about it for weeks or months.

When freedom finally did arrive, there was also no resources provided for these formerly enslaved persons as they began their journey into social and economic mobility- which still reflects today since African Americans own less than 4 percent of total available wealth within our country.

To showcase the gravity of this significant day and event happening upon Galveston Island each year, Texas legislator Al Edwards introduced a bill making Juneteenth an official holiday celebration – and ever since then annual events have been held regularly.

At these events speeches are given reflecting on what happened but more importantly encourages spotlighting how far we need to go before true justice can be achieved- something Grant Mitchell reminded us during his speech at Galveston’s Juneteeth event one year.

The Freedom School located here also teaches children about their unique history and provides usage tools necessary to understand themselves better when navigating throughout their lives; painting a beautiful picture nonetheless even amidst turbulent racial climate we find ourselves encompassed now by today

Discovering A City’S Ugly Pasts Of Slavery: How Racism Shaped New York City Through History

New York City has played an important role in the history of slavery and racial injustice in America.

For centuries, the city was a major hub for the slave trade, where millions of enslaved people were brought to be used as labor.

In 1626, the first enslaved individuals arrived in Manhattan, setting in motion nearly 200 years of unspeakable injustices that shaped every aspect of society.

By the start of the Civil War in 1861, New York had become one of the richest cities in America, largely due to its involvement in plantation owners’ financial industries: businessmen built ships and transported cotton, while wealthy merchant brothers funded local abolitionists.

Even areas like Water Street and Wall Street were witness to brutal scenes – these streets were once the site of a market where ensalved people were sold off at auction.

To this day, traces of these dark times remain: Thomas Downing’s Opulent Oyster House was once located at what is now JPMorgan Bank; African Burial ground outside the city marks one area where thousands were laid to rest from 1690s-1975; and even tiny hints can be found on the Statue of Liberty.

The legacy lives on too – no matter how many years have passed since those days, it is still essential we remember our past and work together towards bettering our future.

Can A Misstated Historical Monument Still Represent The Painful Memory Of Slavery?

Gorée Island is a tiny haven in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Senegal.

It served as a bustling hub for enslaved Africans embarking on journeys to places like the US and Canada during the slave trade, up until 1848 when France abolished it in its colonies.

Since gaining independence from France in 1960, Gorée has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and become a place of reckoning and veneration for many international visitors – ranging from civil rights activist Angela Davis to US presidents Barack Obama and George W.


At its heart lies the Maison des Esclaves, or House of Slaves, which was once owned by Anna Colas Pépin who traded captured people as slaves.

Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye – a local historian – recorded Gorée’s history with slavery and proposed that a doorway be built at the house, known as the “Door of No Return”, to symbolize the immense hardship that African captives endured before departing from their homeland towards an unknown future.

Today, Eloi Coly looks after the house and wants to ensure that history remembers Black people not only as victims of slavery but also as individuals capable of thriving in their own communities prior to enslavement – encouraging all visitors to revisit this powerful site since telling one story about any one person does not provide justice for every life affected by slavery’s dismal legacy.

Discovering The History Of Slavery Through Family Stories

Family Stories

In Clint’s book, How The Word Is Passed, the epilogue is an emotional testimony to his grandparents’ stories.

His visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was a reminder of the trauma inflicted on African Americans throughout history, as well as the resilience they showed in spite of it.

Clint’s grandfather recounted growing up in 1930s Mississippi, surrounded by segregation and white supremacists.

Yet he was lucky enough to have been noticed for his academic gifts, and his elementary school principal provided him with an opportunity to attend high school far away from home.

His grandmother remembers the segregation that existed in Florida during her childhood—restaurants and stores refused her entry, public transportation relegated her to the back of the bus.

But she most vividly recalls what happened to Emmett Till—an innocent 14-year-old brutally murdered thanks to a lie told by a white woman.

When Clint’s grandmother echoed those three words—I lived it—he heard an affirmation not only for himself but for other Black Americans who were just as affected by this difficult past.

How The World Is Passed is Clint’s way of memorializing those memories so that others can be reminded that things like this must never happen again.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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