How the Word Is Passed | Clint Smith

Summary of: How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America
By: Clint Smith


In Clint Smith’s insightful book, ‘How the Word is Passed,’ readers are taken on a journey through America’s historical landscape, examining the legacy of slavery and its continuing impact. The author explores how this dark past remains embedded in the nation’s cultural fabric, often hidden in plain sight. Delving deep into locations such as New Orleans, Monticello, and Angola prison, Smith uncovers the truth about our often murky past. This summary delves into pivotal aspects of America’s history of slavery and how it continues to shape society today, providing readers with a deeper understanding of the lasting effects of racial and economic inequality.

Confronting America’s Legacy

The book depicts the journey of Clint Smith, a native of New Orleans, on his quest for understanding the country’s legacy of slavery and white supremacy. Guided by Leon A. Waters, a historian and revolutionary, Clint embarks on a tour of the French Quarter, exploring the city’s notorious past as the largest slave market in America. Through their journey, the tour’s purpose is to enlighten and educate young Black activists on the city’s hidden history and reveal the pervasive presence of oppression in public spaces. While some iconic symbols of racism have been removed in New Orleans, hundreds of others remain, reminding us of this country’s sordid past. The author posits that slavery is the foundation of America, and the country must confront this legacy to begin making amends for centuries of bondage, injustice, and economic oppression. The narrative advocates for the establishment of a society that recognizes the significance of America’s past in the present and charts an equitable path forward for all its people without perpetuating barbaric paradigms and erasing the scars of the past.

Facing the Inconvenient Truth

A tour of the Monticello plantation, former home of US Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, led by a guide who tells the story of the enslaved people who built and maintained the property, confronts white visitors with uncomfortable truths about Jefferson’s role in slavery. Despite his awareness that slavery was wrong and debased the humanity of those who practiced it, and even though Black women had no recourse against sexual abuse by their white male enslavers, Jefferson exploited and enslaved hundreds of people, profiting from their forced labor. Visitors’ nostalgia and reverence for Jefferson’s greatness are challenged by the story of these human beings who were considered inferior due to the color of their skin. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s ongoing efforts to represent a more comprehensive view of him include an oral history project that gathered stories from the descendants of enslaved people. The guide-recruiting process assesses candidates for their ability to balance truthfulness with sensitivity. The tour demonstrates the need to distinguish between nostalgia and history and to face the inconvenient truth that America was built on slavery.

Whitney Plantation: Remembering the Enslaved

At the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, visitors are forced to acknowledge the brutal realities of slavery, including the largest slave rebellion in US history. The museum is a contrast to the many plantations rented for weddings that often glorify plantation owners who “treated their slaves well.” The Whitney focuses on the experiences of the enslaved, including children who were exploited to sustain the institution of slavery. Even in death, the bodies of enslaved people were not at peace, as top medical schools like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania used their cadavers as research and educational tools. Moreover, descendants of enslaved workers still suffer from poverty and environmental devastation today. Despite the oppression, the Whitney Plantation wants visitors to see the resilience and determination of enslaved people and their contributions to the US economy and culture.

The Hidden Truth Behind Angola State Penitentiary

Join Clint as he takes a tour through the Angola State Penitentiary, which was built on a former cotton plantation that belonged to one of the biggest slave-trading firms in the country. As he journeys through the prison, he meets a former inmate who spent 27 years there for a crime he didn’t commit and uncovers the subversive policy rooted in post-Reconstruction white supremacy. Clint discovers that the prison masquerades as a tourist attraction, yet it is the largest maximum-security prison in the US and admits visitors to tour death row. Despite having a museum that is supposed to preserve its past and educate visitors, the guide glosses over its plantation past, downplays its connection to chattel slavery, and casually mentions that he cannot change what happened there. Clint ends his visit questioning why slavery is made out to be something that happened eons ago when it was only a few generations back, leaving him in a time warp devoid of metaphor.

A Brutal History of Confederate Monuments

The book excerpt sheds light on the lost cause movement, which popularized the Confederate monuments as benign symbols of heritage and honor. Despite overwhelming evidence, they continue to argue that Civil War wasn’t about slavery. The article also reveals the false narratives propagated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who’ve been central to the effort to rewrite US history. The excerpt explores all these themes through the historical lens of Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia, and its stained-glass windows, which commemorate the Confederacy’s fallen soldiers.

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