Collective Memories: Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed

Clint Smith believes that the U.S. has finally arrived at a reckoning. “Our country is in a moment, at an inflection point in which there is a willingness to more fully grapple with the legacy of slavery and how it shaped the world we live in today,” he argues. In How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery in America, Smith travels to eight destinations that tell vastly different stories about that legacy. As both tourist and guide, he wrestles with the collective—if often conflicting—memories of institutions and individuals. Throughout his journey, Smith ultimately narrates an American history more complex than one would find at any museum or memorial.

In selecting places to visit, Smith chose a range of locations, including “those telling the truth, those running from it, and those doing something in between.” At the Monticello Plantation, where Thomas Jefferson lived and enslaved Black people, Smith’s tour guide David speaks directly about chattel slavery and Jefferson’s fraught relationship to the institution he criticized but ultimately upheld, both in office and at home. Similarly, the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana centers on the stories of enslaved people while other plantations in the south choose to ignore history and focus instead on hosting weddings. 

Even as these sites convey truths about the legacy of slavery, Smith considers the human element of people visiting and maintaining such sites. Smith’s treatment of memorial culture reveals locales not as static documents of factual history but dynamic spaces with narratives that change based on who is doing the telling and who the listening.

At the Monticello Plantation, he meets two white women who were visiting to learn about the house’s architecture before coming into awareness of what they call Jefferson’s “big flaw.” The flaw being that he was a slaveholder. 

Meanwhile, most visitors know why they’re visiting the Whitney Plantation. Yvonne, a tour guide, said her understanding of its legacy is what inspired her to seek out the job and educate a nation that only learns a partial and fault-filled history. Even so, Yvonne tells Smith that while Black visitors want the Whitney to go further into this history, the most frequent question from white visitors is whether there were “any good slave owners.” 

Where white visitors feel uncomfortable being told direct truths about slavery, Smith elsewhere finds falsehoods perpetuated by the institutions themselves. At Angola Prison, which has been referred to as a plantation for years both because of its history as one and its current treatment of incarcerated people—who are disproportionately Black—Smith finds a gift shop where merchandise touts Angola’s name on tees, ashtrays, and sunglasses. “Who saw the largest maximum-security prison in the country as some sort of tourist destination?” he wonders.

The museum that sits onsite at Angola perpetuates a lie, Smith writes, “that created clear, misguided demarcations between ‘criminals’ and those who watch over them.” Meanwhile, Roger, the white tour guide at Angola, fails to mention the prison existed as a plantation owned by Isaac Franklin, who ran one of the largest slave-trading firms in the country. When Smith asks Roger to address this history, he replies, “I can’t change that.” In this deflection Smith considers “all the ways this country attempts to smother conversations about how its past has shaped its present,” evading frank discussions of slavery for the sake of a myth about progress that stunts our growth and causes present harm.

At Monticello, David offers Smith a useful taxonomy in differentiating between memory, history, and nostalgia. History, he tells Smith, “is the story of the past, using all the available facts,” while nostalgia “is a fantasy about the past using no facts.” Memory, meanwhile, is “somewhere in between,” a “blend of history and a little bit of emotion.” Throughout How the Word is Passed, Smith deftly moves between history and memory, sharing undertold accounts as he navigates physical spaces, outlining a partial map of U.S. slavery.

Smith visits Blandford Cemetery, where nostalgia reigns. Blandford doesn’t address slavery in any of its memorials, but Smith presses against its assumed narratives. He investigates the money poured into Confederate memorialization culture by both the efforts of groups like the Ladies’ Memorial Association in the twentieth century and taxpayers today. 

Attending a Confederate service at Blandford on Memorial Day, Smith meets men wishing to integrate the memory of the Confederacy with the Union it specifically rebelled against. One man believed that if the North had left the South alone then “nothing would’ve happened.” Smith wonders if he realizes his implication that slavery would have remained in place: “Or did he remember but not care?”

Like many of the tour guides he meets, Smith understands that confronting the legacy of slavery in America is difficult for many white people to accept. “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?” He and the people he met know the work isn’t easy, but Smith’s own wonder inspires a sense of urgency coupled with humility. He confesses to his own lack of knowledge about slavery growing up in New Orleans, including lies rooted in white supremacy that he believed until he knew better, such as his childhood questioning of why more enslaved people didn’t fight back or escape. Through his vulnerable admissions of “the gaps that exist inside me,” Smith encourages readers to take difficult steps alongside him toward a more expansive knowledge. Still, through his own process he makes no excuses for white readers unwilling to face hard questions in pursuit of more honest answers.

As an educator, Smith believes that a true reckoning with America’s legacy of slavery would shift the ground we stand on. “How different might our country look,” he wonders, “if all of us fully understood what has happened here?” At various turns, questions of access underlie his journey. Not everyone can travel to these sites of memory, and Smith’s book serves to extend their reach. 

As he considers what it takes to move forward, Smith contends “it is not enough to have a patchwork of places that are honest about this history while being surrounded by other spaces that undermine it. It must be a collective endeavor to learn and confront the story of slavery and how it has shaped the world we live in today.”

I imagine Smith’s readers not needing to be convinced by his arguments so much as provoked further into consciousness, and, ideally, action. What of those who won’t believe its corrections, even in the spirit of openness in which they are offered? This is not a shortcoming of Smith’s book, which is not only accessible but revelatory in its storytelling method, but a wider question undergirding Smith’s investigation.

I wondered if the white people Smith encountered along the way would read this book and find any of their deeply held narratives troubled. Then I turned my attention to the people in my life: could we arrive somewhere new together? Smith makes me believe it could be so, that all of us are responsible for this reckoning.