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

Little, Brown. Jun. 2021. 352p. ISBN 9780316492935. $29. SOC SCI
Poet, educator, and writer Smith (Counting Descent) opens this latest work with his own story of growing up Black in New Orleans. Although he often passed by monuments to Confederate generals and former slave auction houses, he didn’t know much about the history of slavery in the U.S., nor was he very curious about it, until 2017, when widespread campaigns to tear down these monuments began. Smith then started to read classics in the historiography of American slavery and toured historical sites related to U.S. slavery, to interview people who worked there and people who visited them. He pieces together how the history of slavery has been falsely constructed to uphold white supremacy—the same history that has now, in some cases, been rebuilt to form a more honest picture. Some of the sites and histories that Smith revisits are well-known (for instance, Monticello and Sally Hemings’s story); others, such as Louisiana’s Angola prison/plantation, or the benefit Wall Street drew from slavery long after its abolition in New York, are refreshing new takes.
VERDICT An excellent travelogue and introduction to slavery’s impact on both the United States and its people. It will hold the interest of readers who are only starting to grapple with the topic.
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