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

A Review by Phil Alderton

The book that really got me into US history and, in particular, the US Civil War era, was Tony Horowitz's Confederates in the Attic, a travelogue of the late 1990s South trying to understand what that war and its legacy meant in the contemporary era. It remains a fun and compelling read, but what stands out these days is how white it is.

Clint Smith's new book is, like Horowitz's work, a tour of various locations in the US and further afield where the author grapples with the history and legacy of slavery, but from the perspective of people of colour. As such, it takes a very different direction to Horowtiz's work and speaks more directly to our time and the current debates or fights over race, slavery, and historical memory.

We travel to plantations, to prisons built on plantations, to Jefferson's Monticello, to New York's hidden history, a Confederate cemetery, and on to Gorée Island, Senegal. In every location he describes how people are trying to grapple with realities of slavery, or how they aren't. He ends the book with his own family, noting that his grandfather's grandfather was enslaved and how slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, and all the other horrors detailed in the work is not ancient history but lived experiences.

Unlike Horowitz, this isn't a book filled with wry humour. Smith is determined to bring out the realities of the places he visits, how the stories are told, and, whenever possible, let us hear the voices of those who suffered. When reading it, there were several times when I had to take a break after reading a horrific description or even a statistic (I never knew that by 1860, out of 4 million enslaved people, 57% were under twenty). This is powerful writing.

I'm really glad I read this, and I think it deserves a more detailed re-read to really understand the issues and questions he raises. It's certainly caused me a lot of introspection and thinking about how I should approach these topics and interpretations of the past and present.

As a result of reading this, I'm also going to refer to enslaved people rather than slaves when discussing these topics from now on, as the book makes clear that by using this phrase we are forced to remind ourselves and our audience of the humanity of those suffering under the system.

My book of the year so far.


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