LISTEN UP If you are unlucky enough to have an interminable drive in your future, you would be wise to bring the audio version of Clint Smith’s “How the Word Is Passed” as your companion. The book — which our reviewer described as a “cross country survey of slavery remembrance,” braiding “interviews with scholarship and personal observation” — is narrated by Smith, a poet and Atlantic staff writer whose sonorous voice carries hints of his New Orleans roots and emotion about his subject.
Between October 2017 and February 2020, Smith visited nine places where, as he writes in an author’s note, “the story of slavery in America lives on.” Readers follow him from Monticello to the Whitney Plantation, from Galveston Island to Gorée Island off the coast of Senegal, where tens of thousands of human beings became shackled to the slave trade.
How did Smith plan his itinerary? “I didn’t know where this book would take me,” Smith said in a phone interview. “I thought I was going to write a chapter on Civil War battlefields, so I went to Petersburg, Va., and went on a tour, walked around and asked people about their experiences. One of them said, ‘You should go to this Confederate cemetery down the road.’ I’d never heard of it.”
Smith had extended child care that day — his son and daughter provide a subtle shimmer at the edge of painful stories — so he ventured to Blandford Cemetery, which he said “ended up being one of the most pivotal, central experiences of the book.” On Smith’s second visit to the final resting place of 30,000 Confederate soldiers, he attended an event hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans; he describes how attendees quietly began filming him.
“There are these moments where, as a nonfiction writer, you’re like, Oh, the path has been laid out for me. I just need to follow it. There were a lot of moments like that,” Smith said.
What was more difficult for him was approaching strangers — “Absolutely not something that comes naturally to me” — for their thoughts about how history shadows the present. But Smith knew that “How the Word is Passed,” which debuted at No. 1 on the hardcover nonfiction list, needed to go beyond his own reflections. He said: “It has to be in conversation with the way others are experiencing this place. Because if I want to understand how slavery is remembered or misremembered, I have to have a broader human landscape of people to pull from.”