Within a few moments of Clint Smith’s recent Harvard Radcliffe Institute Book Talk about How the Word is Passed, I was fully won over by the man and his message. Mr. Smith is a 33-year-old poet and scholar drenched in wisdom deep as it is nuanced. His book chronicles seven places he visited, and the people he met, in search of reckoning the past and present impact of American slavery. I’ve never encountered legitimate anger coupled with such compassion.
How the Word is Passed appeals to me in multiple ways. The book is architectural: Clint’s descriptions of the beauty, the grit, the cramped, and the expansive center us in these places. The people he encounters resonate with their setting, whether generationally-bound locals or passing tourists. His writing is lyrical. He pinpoints the passion and perspective of every individual he encounters. Then gently casts a shroud over their given truth. Some people, some positions, are more generous and humane than others. But no one is completely bad, nor completely good. Mr. Smith grants each human their fallacies, with a dollop of grace.
The seven sites are a junket through the familiar and exotic. I’ve been to two of the locations (Monticello and Whitney Plantation), and was reassured that Mr. Smith’s perspectives resonate with my own. His experience in two other places I know, New York City and Galveston, provide fresh information and insight of each. I only know of Angola Prison and Goree Island from films, and appreciate how Clint’s descriptions gave them fuller life.
The remaining place the author visited, Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, VA, was completely new to me. Yet it merits his meatiest essay, the very heart of the book, and best illustrates Mr. Smith’s compassion. He witnesses a rally in honor of Confederate dead. The man stands out, for the obvious reason that Clint Smith is Black. Afterward, he engages in conversations with mourners and reenactors and finds a way to appreciate humanity on all sides. The writer presents facts of history that clearly connect the succession of Southern states to the preservation of slavery. Then he outlines the evolution of post-Civil War narratives that whitewash slavery’s centrality from Reconstruction through today. Yet, he acknowledges the appeal for twenty-first century men to honor the truths that generations of forefathers extolled.
“What would it take—what does it take—for you to confront a false history even if it means shattering the stories you have been told throughout your life? Even if it means having to fundamentally reexamine who you are and who your family has been? Just because something is difficult to accept doesn’t mean you shouldn’t refuse to accept it. Just because someone tells you a story doesn’t make that story true.”
The central thesis of How the Word is Passed is recited in the opening essay, Monticello. Not by the author. Rather by a tour guide at Jefferson’s plantation. David Thorson is a white male, retired after thirty years in the US Navy. He guides the tour that highlights the life of slaves at Monticello. The people owned, and bought, and sold by the the man who declared “…all men are created equal.” Mr. Thorson is the perfect mouthpiece for Mr. Smith’s thesis, because our image of a white retired military Virginian does not correlate with a tour guide who reveals the underbelly of our third President.
“I think that history is the story of the past, using all available facts, and that nostalgia is a fantasy about the past, using no facts, and somewhere in between is memory.”
- David Thorson, tour guide, Monticello
As Clint Smith journeys to seven places particular to slavery, all the way back to Goree Island where thousands of Africans left their shore and their freedom forever, he offers us myriad perspectives. Northern ‘reformers’ who kept their thumb in chattel’s bounty. Eugenicists who proclaimed the scientific superiority of Caucasians. European colonizers who stirred unrest in Africa to generate slaves. African rulers who sold their fellow human beings. Slavers who landed as little as 30% of their original cargo. Plantation owners who bought them and sold them and whipped them and mated them and worked them again and again and again. The liberation of the original Juneteenth. The repression of present-day Angola Prison.
Toward book’s end, Mr. Smith returns to David Thorson’s statement, and relates it to the gaps that underlie our inability to reckon with American slavery. Gaps of information, when one side crafts selective stories and the other side’s story is barely even recorded. Gaps in understanding when we disagree on such fundamental questions as: Who is fully human? Who is granted fully human rights?
How the Word is Passed offers history that is rich and nuanced. It suggests that we can learn it, appreciate it, and apply it toward a more equitable world. Only not through slogans and sound bites. The closing sentence is daunting as it is inspiring. “It is no longer a question of whether we can learn this history but whether we have the collective will to reckon with it.”