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How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

by Clint Smith


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A travelogue, a history, a quest, a warning and a call for a reckoning that the history of slavery is the history of our country, central and defining to who we we were and who we are, individually and collectively. In powerfully lyrical prose, Clint Smith challenges us to really learn our history, listen to our legacies, understand the recollections that "remain in the marrow of our bones," that travel through time and generations. A tour de force that will keep you engaged long past the last page.

Instant #1 New York Times Bestseller

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction

Winner of the Stowe Prize

Winner of 2022 Hillman Prize for Book Journalism

PEN America 2022 John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction Finalist

A New York Times 10 Best Books of 2021

A Time 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2021

Named a Best Book of 2021 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Economist, Smithsonian, Esquire, Entropy, The Christian Science Monitor, WBEZ's Nerdette Podcast, TeenVogue, GoodReads, SheReads, BookPage, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Fathom Magazine, the New York Public Library, and the Chicago Public Library

One of GQ’s 50 Best Books of Literary Journalism of the 21st Century

Longlisted for the National Book Award

Los Angeles Times, Best Nonfiction Gift

One of President Obama's Favorite Books of 2021

This compelling #1 New York Times bestseller examines the legacy of slavery in America—and how both history and memory continue to shape our everyday lives.

Beginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader on an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks—those that are honest about the past and those that are not—that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation's collective history, and ourselves.

It is the story of the Monticello Plantation in Virginia, the estate where Thomas Jefferson wrote letters espousing the urgent need for liberty while enslaving more than four hundred people. It is the story of the Whitney Plantation, one of the only former plantations devoted to preserving the experience of the enslaved people whose lives and work sustained it. It is the story of Angola, a former plantation-turned-maximum-security prison in Louisiana that is filled with Black men who work across the 18,000-acre land for virtually no pay. And it is the story of Blandford Cemetery, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers.

A deeply researched and transporting exploration of the legacy of slavery and its imprint on centuries of American history, How the Word Is Passed illustrates how some of our country's most essential stories are hidden in plain view—whether in places we might drive by on our way to work, holidays such as Juneteenth, or entire neighborhoods like downtown Manhattan, where the brutal history of the trade in enslaved men, women, and children has been deeply imprinted.

Informed by scholarship and brought to life by the story of people living today, Smith's debut work of nonfiction is a landmark of reflection and insight that offers a new understanding of the hopeful role that memory and history can play in making sense of our country and how it has come to be.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316492935
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 06/01/2021
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 4,665
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent. The book won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He has received fellowships from New America, the Emerson Collective, the Art For Justice Fund, Cave Canem, and the National Science Foundation. His writing has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review and elsewhere. Born and raised in New Orleans, he received his B.A. in English from Davidson College and his Ph.D. in Education from Harvard University. 

Table of Contents

Author's Note xiii

"The whole city is a memorial to slavery"-Prologue 3

"There's a difference between history and nostalgia"-Monticello Plantation 8

"An open book, up under the sky"-The Whitney Plantation 52

"I can't change what happened here"-Angola Prison 85

"I don't know if it's true or not, but I like it"-Blandford Cemetery 118

"Our Independence Day"-Galveston Island 173

"We were the good guys, right?"-New York City 207

"One slave is too much"-Gorée Island 239

"I lived it"-Epilogue 270

About This Project 291

Acknowledgments 295

Notes 299

Index 321

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