Black Literacy: How The Word is Passed by Clint Smith

Disclaimer: This is not a review. I do not review books. This is a reflection of my experience with the text. The purpose of this post, and posts like these, are to highlight Black literature that I consume in hopes of introducing my audience to Black works.

Publication DateJune 1, 2021
PublisherLittle, Brown and Company
Overall Personal Experience* Heavy on the trauma
* Unbelievable history that everyone should know
* Powerful delivery of facts that are very hard to process at times
Method(s) of ConsumptionAudible and Kindle

Blessed. Stressed. Motivated. Affirmed. Pissed. I experienced all of these emotions while listening and reading How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning With The History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith.

I had been eyeing this book on the Target shelf for months before I finally made the decision to consume it. My hesitation was about whether or not I felt like I had the capacity to process the trauma I was sure to experience. Finally, I made the decision to download Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed on Audible. In light of the length of the book (352 pages), and knowing my limitations in time, I knew listening was the best route. However, as I dove into the mastery of this body of work, I ordered the Kindle version because I needed to document my thoughts and highlight mentions of decisions and behaviors so egregious that they needed to be revisited through conversation. To say that I was baffled by the lengths that people have gone to continue to mollycoddle the privilege of white people while gaslighting the very real reality of Black people does not even begin to describe the emotional rollercoaster I was on.

This is an amazingly detailed articulation of the way American historical monuments  (statues, plantations, prisons built over plantations) are so strategically placed about the United States, and how their glorification continues to represent and embody the oppression Black people continue to experience today. While on his journey to research these monuments, Clint Smith was able to capture the perspectives of white people who were seemingly oblivious to the devastation their glorification of white history does to the country as a whole. At times, their unwitting naïveté to American history and the misery of Black people was so abrasive that I had to put the book down or pause the audio for the sake of my mental health. This was further solidified for me when Yvonne, a Whitney Plantation tour guide, and Black woman, was asked, “…were there any good slave owners? (70)”. This was definitely a point to pause the Audible and check the book because clearly I’d misheard this question… Nope. Exactly what I heard.

“Number one question [we get from white visitors]: ‘I know slavery was bad… I don’t mean it this way, but… were there any good slave owners?” Yvonne took another deep breath, the frustration from thinking about the persistence of the question visible in her face – the look of someone professionally committed to patience but personally exhausted by the emotional toll it has taken on her.”

How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America

One thing that consuming this text confirmed for me is that Black trauma is mostly, if not only, understood by Black people. Many times our trauma is used as a form of entertainment. However, dependent on who you are in the audience, you may experience the “entertainment” in a very different way. Black people visiting plantations and white people visiting plantations are two different experiences. At times in this book, white people’s delivery of historical “facts” were devoid of emotion you would expect to see in any human being. It is unfathomable to process the amount of hatred our ancestors had to endure and, what’s more, understanding that while some people are disbelieving of factual history, other people are really out here trying to get it back.

Ultimately, I felt blessed to have been able to consume a body of work so rich in my history despite the continued attempts to hide and erase us. I am thankful to the Clint Smith’s of the world who suffer through the trauma of learning our history, first-hand, and then presenting it in a consumable manner for people like me who don’t have the bandwidth to visit places like Angola Prison, Monticello Plantation, and Gorée Island. Because of the bravery, diligence, fearlessness, and perseverance of these authors, the rest of us get to learn our history. These are our history books.

Powerful Quotes

I highlighted so many powerful quotes in this book that I cannot possibly put them all here. Instead, here are some of the ones that brought about the greatest epiphanies for me:

  • “The splitting of families was not peripheral to the practice of slavery; it was central.” (p. 15)
  • “I’ve come to realize that there’s a difference between history and nostalgia, and somewhere between those two is memory,” he said. “I think that history is the story of the past, using all the available facts, and that nostalgia is a fantasy about the past using no facts, and somewhere in between is memory, which is kind of this blend of history and a little bit of emotion…I mean, history is kind of about what you need to know…but nostalgia is what you want to hear.” (pp. 40-41).
  • “If in Germany today there were a prison built on top of a former concentration camp, and that prison disproportionately incarcerated Jewish people, it would rightly provoke outrage throughout the world. I imagine there would be international summits on closing such an egregious institution. And yet in the United States such collective outrage at this plantation-turned-prison is relatively muted.” (p. 101) [Angola Prison]
  • “History is written by the perpetrators,” (p. 255)
  • “They had similar conceptions as to how teaching history, a full history, would shape how students navigated the world. They were acutely aware that this knowledge gave their students new eyes, a new sense of freedom and understanding—the ability to know the lie, so they could not be lied to anymore.” (p. 262)

Who Should Read It

Sometimes, in an effort to be “culturally competent,” people bring things into secondary classrooms. I don’t believe this book has a place there. It is thought-provoking and rich with history. However, the ability to consume the information within certain time frames may not be the same for everyone. In reading and listening to it with my sister, things that triggered her were not as horrible for me. Places where we needed a break were not the same. Readers deserve to be able to tap out as they need to without requirement for additional processing or conversation. It took me longer to experience this text than others because sometimes, I just needed a break. And to be completely transparent, sometimes that break was an entire week. Unfortunately, when reading about Black trauma, everyone is not as considerate as they should be. Secondary children may not have the language to express what they are feeling or the emotions the text is evoking from them. To protect all readers, I would say this is a college level read, at minimum.

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