Last Updated on September 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725
Clint Smith’s debut work of nonfiction, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, is a collection of essays about several important monuments, historical sites, and landmarks that intersect with the transatlantic slave trade. Smith begins this tour in his hometown of New Orleans before traveling to the Monticello Plantation, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island, New York City, and finally Gorée Island off the coast of Dakar, Senegal. In each chapter, Smith unpacks how the location under discussion relates to the history of slavery in America; he also critically analyzes how that site chooses to portray its own history.
At Monticello Plantation, Smith examines the relationship between nostalgia and history, particularly focusing on how Thomas Jefferson is remembered. There appears to be an inherent contradiction between the man who penned the Declaration of Independence and privately acknowledged the inherent immorality of slavery, and the man who wrote Notes on the State of Virginia and owned six hundred human beings—among whom were his own children by the enslaved Sally Hemings.
In contrast to the Monticello Plantation, which is only beginning to reckon with the complicated legacy of Thomas Jefferson, the Whitney Plantation is a historical site dedicated to centering the Black experience. The Whitney, through exhibitions such as The Children of Whitney and Field of Angels, and the incorporation of first-hand accounts of slavery gathered by the Federal Writers’ Project, attempts to reveal a narrative often hidden by other plantations.
Smith then visits Angola Prison, an institution that deliberately obfuscates its relationship with the history of slavery in America, despite the fact the site has its origins as the Angola Plantation. In this chapter, Smith relates how emancipation left a sudden gap in the workforce for cheap labor and how Southern states circumvented this problem by passing a series of “pig laws” in the wake of the Civil War. In the Jim Crow era, these laws led to the mass incarceration of Black Americans, who could then be legally forced to work for as little as two cents an hour.
Blandford Cemetery holds the corpses of over thirty thousand Confederate soldiers who died fighting both for their state and their families and for the continuation of slavery in the South. The cemetery, and the famous Blandford Church that sits on the property, is one of many Confederate monuments and memorials that litter the South, commemorating the “lost cause” of the Confederacy. As Smith examines, there is a fine line for white Southerners between the impulse to honor their ancestors and the urge to revise history in order to portray those ancestors in a more flattering light.
Much like Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island—where news of emancipation was officially declared in the State of Texas—represents the issue of remembrance. Each year it hosts Juneteenth celebrations, but for many Black Americans, the promise held by Juneteenth was a false one, or at least one that never fully came to fruition. Smith describes the history of Juneteenth, once publicly celebrated throughout the South. It was only after the period of White Terror and Jim Crow had forced celebrations into private residences that Juneteenth finally reemerged as a nationally recognized holiday.
The final location Smith visits in the United States is New York City, which predominately sits in the public consciousness as a center of progressive politics, having abolished slavery in 1827 and become a forerunner of the Union cause. However, as Smith unearths throughout the chapter, this current perception allows New York to usher its centuries-long relationship with slavery and racial inequity into the shadows. Manhattan was developed using slave labor, and Smith notes that Wall Street continued to thrive off of slavery until the Civil War due to its strong trade connections with the Southern plantations.
Finally, Smith visits Gorée Island—home to the infamous House of Slaves and Door of No Return—in order to grapple with the continuity of African history. One of the greatest mistruths told about slavery in the United States is that African American history began when the first slaves stepped onto US soil, rather than acknowledging a millennia-long culture disrupted by a forced diaspora. Smith reflects on the disjointed cultural relationship between Africans and African Americans, noting that the common thread of Eurocentrism runs throughout both peoples’ histories.
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