How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With The History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith, Reviewed by Mark D. Walker

With today’s Supreme Court ruling rejecting affirmative action at U.S. colleges, this book becomes a must-read as the author examines the legacy of slavery in America and how history and memory continue to shape our everyday lives. Not surprisingly, this New York Times bestseller is one of the top banned books today.

The author begins the book with a quote from Frederick Douglass’s “The Nation’s Problem”:

Our past was slavery. We cannot recur to it with any sense of complacency or composure. The history of it is a record of stripes, a revelation of agony. It is written in characters of blood. Its breath is a sigh, its voice a groan, and we turn from it with a shudder. The duty of today is to meet the questions that confront us with intelligence and courage.

Clint Smith starts this journey in his hometown of New Orleans. He leads us on a memorable tour of six monuments and landmarks, which offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation’s collective history and ourselves.

A well-researched exploration of the legacy of slavery, the author covers stories of the past and the story behind this month’s celebration of Juneteenth. The chapter is entitled “Galveston Island.” The author reveals that the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to eleven Confederate states, and Texas was one of those states that ignored what it demanded. Black American second-class citizenship was recodified through Jim Crow laws limiting voting rights.

The celebration of Juneteenth became dangerous for Black Southerners. In 2010 Black Texans represented 12% of the population and 32% of those incarcerated. In 1979, Texas became the first state to create a holiday in honor of Black emancipation, and this chapter included some critical lessons for actual Texas lawmakers trying to erase history from the classroom.

It is also 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. And it is the story of Blandford Cemetery, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers.

One of the more notorious landmarks is Angola, a former plantation-turned-maximum-security prison in Louisiana filled with Black men who work across the 18,000-acre land for virtually no pay.  According to the author, the person leading a tour failed to mention “…that the land upon which Angola is built had once been the plantation of Isaac Franklin, a man whose business, Franklin and Armfield, became one of the largest slave-trading firms in the United States…” and that the owner of the plantation agreed to a twenty-one-year lease with the state to purchase access to all of the state’s prisoners as long as he was able to keep all of the profits. “A prisoner under James’s lease had a greater chance of dying than an enslaved person did.”

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the author reveals that two-thirds of the people on death row in Louisiana are Black and an estimated one out of every twenty-five people sentenced to death in this country is innocent.

Clint tells his own family’s experience with slavery over the years and how its legacy still impacts their lives:

My grandparents’ stories are my inheritance; each is an heirloom I carry. Each one is a monument to an era that still courses through my grandfather’s veins. Each story is a memorial that still sits in my grandmother’s bones.

 …I think of how decades of racial violence have shaped everything we see, but sometimes I forget its impact on those beside me. I forget that many men and women who spat on the Little Rock Nine are still alive. I forget that so many of the people who threw rocks at Dr. King are still voting in our elections….”

The author concludes, “The history of slavery is the history of the United States. It was not peripheral to our founding; it was central to it. It is not irrelevant to our contemporary society; it created it. This history is in our soil, it is in our policies, and it must, too, be in our memories.”

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction

Winner of the Stowe Prize 

Winner of the 2022 Hillman Prize for Book Journalism 

A New York Times 10 Best Books of 2021

 About the Author

 Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of the narrative nonfiction book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, which was a #1 New York Times bestseller and one of the New York Times Top Ten Books of 2021. He is also the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent. The book won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He has received fellowships from New America, the Emerson Collective, the Art For Justice Fund, Cave Canem, and the National Science Foundation. His writing has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. Born and raised in New Orleans, he received his B.A. in English from Davidson College and his Ph.D. in Education from Harvard University.

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The Reviewer

 Mark Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world. He’s worked with groups like CARE and MAP International, Food for the Hungry, and Make-A-Wish International and was the CEO of Hagar USA.

His book, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, was recognized by the Arizona Literary Association. According to the Midwest Review, it “…is more than just another travel memoir. It is an engaged and engaging story of one man’s physical and spiritual journey of self-discovery.”

His articles have been published in Ragazine and WorldView Magazines, Literary Yard, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Quail BELL. At the same time, the Solas Literary Award recognized two essays, including a Bronze award, in this year’s “Best Travel Writing” Travel Adventure category. Two of his pieces were winners at the Arizona Authors Association Literary Competition, and another was recently published in ELAND Press’s newsletter.

He’s a contributing writer for “Revue Magazine” and the “Literary Traveler.” His column, “The Million Mile Walker Review: What We’re Reading and Why,” is part of the Arizona Authors Association newsletter. He’s working on his forthcoming books, Moritz Thomsen, The Best American Writer No One’s Heard Of, and The Guatemala Reader, What You Might Not Know and Why You Should Care. His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. You can learn more at


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