Confronting False Histories in “How the Word is Passed”

In the small Texas town I grew up in, we were taught one version of American and Texan history. This history, I would later come to learn, left a lot out. This singular vision of history did not just inform how I came to understand abstract historical lessons, it informed how I understood the place I call home and the people who share that home with me. Reckoning with the disparities between what I was taught and what was obscured is fast becoming an intellectual and writerly preoccupation of mine. Clint Smith’s revelatory book, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, has contributed to my obsessive compulsion to learn the stories withheld from me by the state, trusted educators, and family members. 

How the Word is Passed takes readers on a cross-country journey to sites that, just below the surface, harbor hidden histories of slavery. A poet and Atlantic staff writer, Smith’s first major foray into nonfiction writing takes on the troubling and troubled history of American slavery and anti-Blackness that still percolates at sites of public memory across the nation. How the Word is Passed enters the scene as one of many books recently published about America’s history of slavery, untold histories, and monuments/memorials. Like these other narratives, Smith queries whether or not we all are “just patchworks of the stories we’ve been told” over the years. He poses readers, and himself, the question “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?”

From Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello, and Blandford Cemetery in Virginia, to the Whitney Plantation and Angola Prison in Louisianna, Smith tells the stories that exist beyond the “pages of textbooks” and that takes “place outside traditional classrooms.” While most of the chapters focus on places in the South, Smith also ventures to New York City and Dakar, Senegal to explore the extra-regional and extra-national impacts of slavery on Black life outside the American South. 

Drawing on historical and archival research, interviews with historians, tour guides, and other visitors, Smith viscerally and emotionally relays untold and hidden histories alongside his own observations and feelings encountering these narratives in the present moment. Through these revelations, the reader comes to understand that while these are past histories, their consequences have reverberated into the present moment. Quite simply, Smith makes clear that the past is anything but passed and that, through a process of inquiry and discovery, history can be understood as a living and breathing thing.

While reflecting on the long arm of slavery at Angola Prison, Smith thinks about “all the ways this country attempts to smother conversations about how the past has shaped the present” and how “slavery is made to sound as if it happened in a prehistoric age instead of only a few generations ago.”

In an interview with John Cummings, the elderly, white owner of the Whitney Plantation Museum, Smith writes about the moment Cummings encountered the feeling of “discovered ignorance” and how the questions “How could this have happened and I didn’t know about it? How could that happen?” began to haunt him. This haunting led Cummings to open the Whitney Plantation, the only former plantation site in Louisanna with an exclusive focus on enslavement. 

When Smith attends a memorial event at Blandford Cemetery put on by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Smith writes that he “felt a tightening of muscles inside [his] mouth, muscles [he] hadn’t known were there.” The tension of being at such a site elicits an unexpected bodily response from Smith that readers feel through the written word. 

These varied narratives taken as a whole depict a rich tapestry of places throughout and beyond the American South that offers readers a counter-narrative to the histories taught to Americans in their youth. These forgotten and neglected histories, however, can only become unburied if we make a concerted effort to do so. As Smith discloses at the end of the book, “At some point it is no longer a question of whether we can learn this history but whether we have the collective will to reckon with it.” This is the crux of Smith’s book. It is not just about learning hidden histories, it is about reckoning with these histories and working them into our collective imagination, history, and consciousness so that it informs not just how we understand the past, but how we act in the present and look to the future. 

How the Word is Passed:
A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America
By Clint Smith
Little Brown and Company
Published June 1, 2021
Paperback December 27, 2022