“How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America” is a book written by Clint Smith, a renowned poet and staff writer at “The Atlantic.”
Quick Summary: Published in 2021, the book delves deep into the legacy of slavery in the United States and how its history has been passed down, both in terms of historical understanding and as a lived experience for descendants of the enslaved.
How the Word is Passed Full Summary
Clint Smith introduces readers to the main theme of the book, which is to explore how the history of slavery is remembered, misremembered, or forgotten across America. He touches upon the importance of confronting the true history to understand the present racial disparities and tensions in the country.
- Monticello: The first site Smith visits is Thomas Jefferson’s plantation. The dichotomy between Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence and as a slave owner is thoroughly explored. The ways Monticello’s tours have changed over time to include the stories of the enslaved people who lived there are also discussed.
- Whitney Plantation: Located in Louisiana, this is one of the few plantations turned into a museum dedicated to educating visitors about the brutal realities of slavery. Smith talks about the plantation’s history and how it contrasts with other plantations that often romanticize the antebellum South.
- Blandford Cemetery: Situated in Petersburg, Virginia, this cemetery is a resting place for thousands of Confederate soldiers. Smith reflects on the narratives and symbols around the Confederacy, touching upon how some perceive it as “heritage” while omitting the legacy of white supremacy.
- Angola Prison: Formerly a plantation and now a maximum-security prison in Louisiana, Angola Prison stands as a symbol of the transition from slavery to mass incarceration. Smith delves into the stories of incarcerated people and highlights the systemic issues that disproportionately affect Black Americans.
- Lower Manhattan: Smith ventures into the heart of New York City to explore the buried history of the slave market and the vital role slavery played in building the city and its economy.
- Goree Island: Stepping outside of America, Smith travels to this island in Senegal which was historically a key point in the Transatlantic slave trade. It represents the starting point for many Africans’ harrowing journey into bondage in the New World.
- Galveston Island: In Texas, this island is the birthplace of Juneteenth. Smith examines the origins of this celebration, marking the day when Texas slaves were informed of their freedom two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
The book wraps up by discussing how slavery’s legacy has continued to shape American society in many forms, from systemic racism to disparities in education, housing, healthcare, and more.
1. The Complexity of Historical Figures
The chapter on Monticello paints a nuanced portrait of Thomas Jefferson, emphasizing the contradictions in his life. While he wrote about the ideals of freedom and equality in the Declaration of Independence, he was also a slave owner.
This shows that it’s essential to approach historical figures with a multifaceted perspective, acknowledging their contributions while also being critical of their flaws and moral inconsistencies.
Doing so allows us to recognize that individuals, no matter how venerated, are complex and can embody both enlightenment and prejudice.
This lesson underscores the importance of holistic historical education and cautions against oversimplification or hero-worship that omits essential aspects of a person’s character and actions.
2. The Evolution of Oppression
The transition from the Whitney Plantation to Angola Prison sheds light on how systems of Black oppression in America have transformed but persisted over the centuries.
Institutions and systems that oppress can evolve over time, changing in form but maintaining their oppressive nature. The direct line from plantations to the present-day prison system, especially in places like Angola, illustrates how structures of power can adapt and persist.
Recognizing these patterns helps in understanding the deep-seated racial inequities in American society. To genuinely address these systemic issues, one must trace their roots and acknowledge the long history of racial oppression in the country.
3. The Power and Pitfalls of Collective Memory:
Throughout the book, various sites like Blandford Cemetery or the celebrations around Juneteenth highlight how events and histories are remembered or forgotten collectively.
Collective memory shapes societal values, understanding of history, and, consequently, public policy and actions. The way societies choose to remember (or forget) events has tangible implications.
For instance, the romanticizing of the Confederacy can perpetuate racist ideologies and policies. On the other hand, embracing the true history behind events like Juneteenth can foster a better understanding of racial justice and the ongoing struggle for equality.
It’s crucial to actively challenge and rectify misrepresentations or erasures in collective memory to build a more informed and equitable society.
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4. The Interconnectedness of Global Histories
The chapter on Goree Island expands the book’s narrative beyond America’s borders, delving into the global implications of the Transatlantic slave trade.
The island, off the coast of Senegal, served as a significant departure point for countless Africans, marking the start of a brutal journey into the New World.
No history exists in isolation.
The effects of major events, like the slave trade, ripple across continents, cultures, and generations. Understanding the global contexts and connections of such events not only enriches our grasp of history but emphasizes the interconnectedness of our world.
This interconnectedness also suggests that injustices or atrocities in one region can have repercussions in another, making global solidarity and understanding crucial in addressing past wrongs and their present manifestations.
5. Spaces Carry Stories
Whether it’s the grounds of Monticello, the land that Angola Prison sits on, or the streets of Lower Manhattan, each site in the book is imbued with layers of stories, many of which have been buried or obscured over time.
Places, just like people, carry the weight of history.
Every location has a multiplicity of narratives, and which ones get told (or silenced) can shape public perception and understanding. Engaging with spaces critically, being curious about their histories, and seeking out the untold or underrepresented stories can lead to a richer, more accurate grasp of the past.
This awareness also helps in recognizing the legacies imprinted on these spaces and their influence on contemporary events and identities.
By understanding and respecting these stories, we can foster more inclusive communities and make informed decisions about preservation, representation, and restitution.
Throughout “How the Word is Passed”, Smith interweaves his personal reflections and interviews with historians, museum curators, and regular people. He underscores the urgent need for America to confront its past to understand the deeply rooted racial issues it grapples with today.
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