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Publisher's Summary

Instant #1 New York Times Bestseller

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction

Winner of the Stowe Prize

PEN America 2022 John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction Finalist

A New York Times 10 Best Books of 2021

A Time 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2021

Named a Best Book of 2021 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Economist, Smithsonian, Esquire, Entropy, The Christian Science Monitor, WBEZ's Nerdette Podcast, TeenVogue, GoodReads, SheReads, BookPage, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Fathom Magazine, the New York Public Library, and the Chicago Public Library

One of GQ’s 50 Best Books of Literary Journalism of the 21st Century

Longlisted for the National Book Award

Los Angeles Times, Best Nonfiction Gift

One of President Obama's Favorite Books of 2021

This compelling #1 New York Times bestseller examines the legacy of slavery in America—and how both history and memory continue to shape our everyday lives.

Beginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the listener on an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks—those that are honest about the past and those that are not—that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation's collective history, and ourselves.

It is 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. It is the story of Angola, a former plantation-turned-maximum-security prison in Louisiana that is filled with Black men who work across the 18,000-acre land for virtually no pay. And it is the story of Blandford Cemetery, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers.

A deeply researched and transporting exploration of the legacy of slavery and its imprint on centuries of American history, How the Word Is Passed illustrates how some of our country's most essential stories are hidden in plain view—whether in places we might drive by on our way to work, holidays such as Juneteenth, or entire neighborhoods like downtown Manhattan, where the brutal history of the trade in enslaved men, women, and children has been deeply imprinted.

Informed by scholarship and brought to life by the story of people living today, Smith's debut work of nonfiction is a landmark of reflection and insight that offers a new understanding of the hopeful role that memory and history can play in making sense of our country and how it has come to be.

©2021 Clint Smith (P)2021 Little, Brown & Company
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

Critic Reviews

"Raises questions that we must all address, without recourse to wishful thinking or the collective ignorance and willful denial that fuels white supremacy.” —Martha Anne Toll, The Washington Post

"The detail and depth of the storytelling is vivid and visceral, making history present and real. Equally commendable is the care and compassion shown to those Smith interviews — whether tour guides or fellow visitors in these many spaces. Due to his care as an interviewer, the responses Smith elicits are resonant and powerful. . . . Smith deftly connects the past, hiding in plain sight, with today's lingering effects.”—Hope Wabuke, NPR

"What [Smith] does, quite successfully, is show that we whitewash our history at our own risk. That history is literally still here, taking up acres of space, memorializing the past, and teaching us how we got to be where we are, and the way we are. Bury it now and it will only come calling later." —USA Today

What listeners say about How the Word Is Passed

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Sincerely grateful read

At 53, it's shameful to be hearing much of this information for the first time. Thank you Clint, I am truly humbled from the experience.

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A story that catches your breath unlike any other.

If you are looking for a book, please do yourself a favor and read this one.

From the slave cabins of the Whitney Plantation to the Red Hat block of Angola prison all the way to Wall Street... This book is a heartbreaking reckoning of a past this country has yet to make peace with told in the beautiful, poetic voice of Clint Smith, one of this country's most precious treasures whose voice will surely echo through our history long after I'm gone.

I recommend the audio book just for the opportunity to hear Clint tell this story.

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Must Read

This book deserves to be read by every high schooler in the United States of America.

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I stopped everything to listen to this.

Doing the dishes? Listened to this book. Folding laundry? Book. Making a graduation lei? Book. Working from home in a pandemic? Book. Please listen to this very important and beautifully crafted text. Thank you Clint Smith for your thorough and descriptive account of each place and all the stories that you could fit in these pages. I really enjoyed your conversations with the guides and the people who were right along with you in these historic sites. I look forward to watching this book gain the praise that it deserves.

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This book will mobilize those sitting on the sidelines and win over those cheering for the other team.

Who in your life blindly opposes the cause of racial justice, blaming the oppressed for their misfortune?

If any book can bring them around, this is it.

7 people found this helpful

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A Real Eye-Opener!

Although I was familiar with much of the factual information in this book, Clint Smith really broke it down to the “nitty-gritty to show that no matter what was “said” about slavery, the bottom line was and is money! Recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand America, past and present. The performance was a little deadpan, but that only bothered me at the very beginning (I usually read fiction), but it was a perfect tone to carefully me through the book. Twice. Getting ready to start it again!

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white people please read

a must read to help understand critical race theory and why it should be taught today

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Reckoning with history through its landmarks

It is no surprise to anyone that knows me that I like to read history. History gives us insight into our current realities by exposing the forces that shaped our reality. But history is also narrative, the stories that we tell ourselves about how the world came to be. Many historians are incredible writers. Clint Smith’s background as a poet is evident. His language is personal, evocative, and at times searing. I am not brand new to Clint Smith; he hosts the YouTube CrashCourse series on Black American History. During a road trip to visit my parents, my wife and I listened to podcasts and a 90-minute discussion between Clint Smith and Brené Brown. When the podcast was over, I immediately purchased the audiobook of How the World is Passed, and we only listened to this audiobook for the rest of the trip.

About 15 years ago, I listened to the audiobook of Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation. With her trademark voice and humor, Vowell traveled through the country to visit sites of political violence. If you have read that book, How The Word is Passed is a more serious similar idea. Clint Smith starts in his hometown of New Orleans and explores monuments’ role in understanding the history of slavery. Then he visits Monticello and the Whitney Plantations and explores how plantations handle the story of slavery and the mythology of the plantation. That history of plantations naturally leads to Angola Prison, one of the country’s largest and most infamous prisons built on a plantation.

Blandford Cemetery has been a cemetery since 1702 but was significantly expanded after the Civil War battle of Petersburg and is now mostly a Confederate Cemetery. I will expand on this description a bit more because this chapter is a perfect illustration of what Clint Smith is attempting to do with the book. He initially goes on a tour of the cemetery and the church that was on site. Then, referencing the earlier discussions of how plantations told their story, he details the discussion with the tour guide and the cemetery director. During the discussion, he discovers a Confederate Memorial Day commemoration at the cemetery that the Sons of Confederate Veterans put on. Along with the narrative of the visit, Smith recounts the history of the Lost Cause, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans and their roles in shaping education, the memory of the Civil War, and southern identity. Finally, during the discussion of the program and recounting of interviews with participants in the program and attendees, Smith discusses how various forms of white nationalism and confederacy remembrance are often interlinked. All of this gives context and depth but feels natural; a visit leads to another visit, and talking to one person leads to an exploration of the person’s ideas.

Most importantly to the impact of the book, Smith is always a character in the story. He talks about how being a Black man on a tour of a Confederate cemetery feels. He talks about the tension between himself and the cemetery director when he sees the Confederate Memorial Day commemoration. She attempted to hide the brochure before he can see it. He talks about bringing a White friend to the Memorial Day program because he assumes that he will be the only Black man there. He talks about the singing of the Dixie and the rhetoric of both sides of the Civil War being honored as heroic impacts him. The tours of plantations or prisons or cemeteries, or later New York slave auction and Gorée Island in Africa, are real things that he participated in. The reader could also attend if we chose. That personal, emotional account, along with (on the audiobook) Smith’s melodic resonate narration, draws the reader/listener into the book as more than just dry history.

If you are an audiobook person, this is a book that I would listen to as audio because the poetry of his writing stands out, and the emotion of his voice draws you in. There is a reason that Clint Smith seems to be everywhere right now. This is a book that should be read. But also, this is the type of book that can help change the narrative and seeks to do so.

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Great listen/ great info

I heard the TED radio hour got the book, amazing experience. I wish it was easier to find more books like this!

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A Must Read/Listen for understanding!

Loved it! If you're looking to fill in some missing history, you're in luck. Treat yourself with kindness & open your mind & heart to the past.

2 people found this helpful