Criticism & Features

Year 2021: 30 Books

How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith: 2021 Nonfiction Finalist

By Harriet A. Washington

Cover of How The Word is Passed; all text, with the title words bolded

How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith (Little, Brown)

In How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, Clint Smith visits and probes American sites— from lower Manhattan to Monticello to Louisiana’s Angola prison— to illuminate the history of slavery in a fresh, valuable, manner.

Nearly a decade ago, The Atlantic staff writer taught high school English in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where he was named “teacher of the year” in 2013. The next year, he won the   2014 National Poetry Slam championship and in 2016, he published Counting Descent, a prize-winning poetry volume.

Poet, pedagogue, historian, or all of the above, and more?  Reading How the Word Is Passed makes it clear just how fruitfully Smith rejects the boundaries of genre and discipline to capture a truly novel historiographic achievement.  He renders a most nuanced and complex multilayered history by navigating the iconography and nostalgic narratives of enslavement, from a perspective that does not forget the enslavers’ psyches and motivations.    

Within this book, iconic Confederate statuary is denuded not as historical documents, but as symbols of biopower that were frequently erected in the aftermath of important Civil Rights achievements— tacit reminders to the formerly enslaved of who is in control.  

As Smith unrolls his grave but humane travelogue from Dakar to Detroit, his internal teacher, historian, and poet collaborate to excavate the dark underbelly of racist Americana with poignance. Clint reveals over and over how nostalgia has created beautiful lies that veil the true events and nature of both de jure enslavement and its lingering de facto manifestations.  Such engineered fictions include the ubiquitous portrayals of Confederacy President Robert E. Lee as a kind, moral, humanitarian and habitual allusions to the Confederacy’s defeat as a romantic and noble “lost cause” that had naught to do with preserving enslavement.  

In so doing, Smith illuminates the difference between history and nostalgia. In the words of David Thorson, guide of Monticello’s nontraditional “slavery at Monticello” tour, “History is the story of the past using all the available facts and nostalgia is a fantasy about the past using no facts …  History is what you need to know and nostalgia is what you want to hear.” 

Smith has imparted what we, all of us, need to know.

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