How America Remembers — and Distorts — Its Slavery Past

In The News Piece in New York Times
Stuart Monk /
June 1, 2021

Clint Smith's book How the Word is Passed was reviewed in the New York Times.

Perhaps the only way to get a clearer picture is to visit individual communities, where the national culture war yields to quieter yet no less monumental struggles over the meaning of particular historic sites. A growing number of books feature such analyses — “Denmark Vesey’s Garden,” by Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, for instance, focuses on Charleston, S.C. — but none have attempted an appraisal quite so expansive or intimate as “How the Word Is Passed,” a cross-country survey of slavery remembrance by the poet and Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith.
Gregarious, learned and engagingly open-minded, the book meets America where it is on the subject — which is to say, all over the place. Beginning in his hometown, New Orleans, Smith visits nine places that memorialize or distort their link to the legacy of slavery, from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan. He skillfully braids interviews with scholarship and personal observation, asking, “How different might our country look if all of us fully understood what had happened here?”
The result is a tour of tours and a reckoning with reckonings, which sketches an impressive and deeply affecting human cartography of America’s historical conscience. The book’s standout quality is the range and sincerity of its encounters. Smith walks with tourists, guides, teachers, scholars, ex-convicts, local historians and heritage zealots, managing to catch nearly everyone in a moment of unscripted candor.