5 Reasons You Need to Read How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith

Posted December 19, 2021 by Richetta in #ownvoices, Adult Non-Fiction, Book Reviews / 0 Comments

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5 Reasons You Need to Read How the Word is Passed by Clint SmithHow the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith
Narrator: Clint Smith
Length: 10 hours 7 minutes
Published by Little Brown and Company on June 1, 2021
Genres: History / African American & Black, Social Science / Black Studies (Global), Social Science / Discrimination, Social Science / Ethnic Studies / American / African American & Black Studies
Pages: 336
Format: ARC, Audiobook, Hardcover
Source: NetGalley and Libro.fm
Buy on AmazonBuy on Bookshop

Instant #1 New York Times bestseller

Longlisted for the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction

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.

It took me a while for me to write this review. I actually finished How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America this summer. But when I finished it I just had to sit with it for a while and sort through my thoughts and emotions that came from reading about Clint Smith’s experiences. This was one of the best books that I read in 2021.

Different Experiences, Different Perspectives

I had the chance to participate in a live Zoom call with Clint Smith that was hosted by Joel Garza and Scott Bayer cohosts of #TheBookChat. It is a Twitter chat by educators discussing books. (more on this at the end of the review)

During this call, we had a chance to work in breakout groups with fellow educators and readers. It was there that the emotion of my experience while reading really hit home. I participated in two breakout groups, the first one was made up of randomly selected educators. I ended up being in a group with two white female educators. The second breakout group was a special request by an educator who was a Black woman. She and Joel called it an affinity space and it gave the Black educators in the group a chance to process and decompress their reading experience with each other.

I was so appreciative of the affinity space. Because it quickly became obvious that my perspective while reading as a Black woman and the perspective of white readers was very different and a little frustrating. There is a point in How the Word is Passed where (Spoiler Alert, although I don’t know if you can spoil nonfiction) Clint Smith is in a situation where he is interviewing a white man about race and he is surrounded by white people who are starting to look at him suspiciously. There are no other Black people at this gathering because it is not that kind of party. I was listening to this part of the book on audiobook and I was screaming at Clint like people scream at the screen in a movie theatre when they think something bad is going to happen to their favorite character.

I was all, “Don’t split up! Are you crazy!!!” and “Hey man, you are in danger! Get out of there now!” That was my own perspective. But the white women with whom I was discussing that chapter with were more focused on why wasn’t Clint arguing down the man he was interviewing. They were more like, “Why aren’t you disagreeing with him? Tell him he is wrong and a terrible person!” I listened to them and then brought back up the point that he was the ONLY Black man at the gathering and that others had started to record his interaction. He didn’t have the luxury of blowing up on the guy for his ignorance. From my perspective this author was in danger and could have been seriously injured, while their perspective was that he didn’t do enough. I was stressed for one reason and they were stressed for another.

However, the second breakout groups helped us all dive into those thoughts and feelings a little more. In my group, we discussed the trauma of the scene for us and wondered how the author took care of himself after each encounter like that. In the other groups they explored why their reactions often connected to how they react to people in their own lives that express racial and historical ignorance.

Some Reading Advice

A piece of advice as you read: Be okay with going slow and taking your time. I paused after each chapter to just meditate on what I had read and learned. Each chapter focuses on a different location connected to slavery. The topics will make you think and that is a good thing. He is such a great writer, that those places will sit with you for a while, as they should. Also, get the audiobook if you can. It was phenomenal. Clint Smith narrates it.

5 Reasons Why I Loved How The Word Is Passed

  • #1: It sits at the intersection of novel, memoir, and historical account.
  • #2: It is a poetic narrative about truth versus memory.
  • #3: It provides voice amplification to those who are often left out of the narrative. It amplifies those who share the narratives, the tour guides. This is something I have not come across before.
  • #4: The painstaking attention to detail and his thoughtful approach to his research journey. During his chat, he mentioned his determination that the book be airtight so that errors would not distract or takeaway from the story he was telling.
  • #5: The revelation of stories that had not been shared widely but are still important.


I came for… the history and the conversation about it

I stayed for… the poetic writing style

Educator Recommendations: You could so many lessons and go in so many directions with How the Word is Passed! There are lots of cross curriculum opportunities too.

Journalism: If you teach journalism, explore Clint Smith’s writing style. It has a similar essence to the long-form journalism pieces featured in the Atlantic, where her writes on a regular basis. Dig into how fact-checking was absolutely vital to this book and its integrity. Discuss the art of note-taking, interviewing and reviewing your notes as you look for holes in the story to plug.

History: Discuss the various tour guides. Some of them are dedicated to the truth while others are dedicated to memory. What is the function of a historian and their responsibility to society. What kind of roles can a historian have?

English: Deep dive into Clint Smith’s writing style. He is a poet. How does he stay true to that while writing a completely different genre. Explore writer’s voice. Explore the themes of memory, truth and history that run throughout the book.

Learn more about #TheBookChat

#TheBookChat is an informal book discussion group hosted by two English educators. Check out bit.ly/THEBOOKCHAT for more information and details on past book chats. They even create awesome lessons to go with some of the books.

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