How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith


Clint Smith tells how the story of slavery is conveyed to the general public by describing his visits to seven historical sites. I was especially interested in the book because I knew the author had visited Monticello and described the changes that have occurred to the narrative about Thomas Jefferson to broaden the story from “author of the Declaration of Independence, Founding Father, visionary,” to include “he owned human beings, sold them, held his children in bondage.”

The author took two tours with a guide named David Thorson who began the tour by capturing the essence of chattel slavery in a few sentences in a way the author said few of his teachers ever had. In essence, David Thorson said that slavery became a system during Jefferson’s lifetime, a system of exploitation, inequality, and exclusion, a system where people are owned as property and held down by physical and psychological force, a system being justified even by people who knew slavery was morally wrong. It denies the very humanity of those who are enslaved solely on the basis of the color of their skin. This was not new to Smith, but he hadn’t expected to hear it in that place with almost exclusively white visitors. The tour began with that statement and having been on a tour led by David Thorson, I can attest that he goes on as powerfully and unequivocally as he began.

Descendants of the enslaved at Monticello have been interviewed in recent years to preserve the histories their families pass down and make their stories part of the tours. “This is how the word is passed down,” remarked one of the descendants in an interview for the project. The Monticello Foundation began the Getting the Word African American Oral History Project in 1993 and its work continues.

One change that has occurred at Monticello is that the tour guides now state unequivocally that Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemings. Clint Smith writes about Annette Gordon-Reed’s book that establishes that fact and the references to it as far back as Jefferson’s lifetime. He didn’t mention the book I remember by Fawn Brodie published in 1974 that left little doubt in my mind about Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

One statistic that Smith mentions in this section is that for the time that slavery existed in North America, the number of births exceeded deaths and that this is unusual, perhaps unique, in the history of slavery. He quotes scholars Michael Tadman and C. Vann Woodward on this topic.

I could write endlessly about this book because there is so much I want to remember, but I will end with a brief mention of a few points:

  • In the section about Gorée Island in Ghana, he makes the point that the slave trade deprived Africa of its workforce.
  • The end of slavery has been only celebrated in certain locations and at different times. The Juneteenth celebration in Texas was a refutation of the Lost Cause mythology. What, you might ask, has been the effect of failing to recognize this important change in a meaningful national celebration?
  • The section that describes a tour in New York City made me realize how little I know about that history in New York.

This is an important book:  Clint Smith’s voice is one that needs to be heard. The visits to Monticello and Whitney Plantation were encouraging stories that tell how the narrative has changed, but other location visits were disturbing.

Clint Smith, How the Word is Passed, Little, Brown and Company, 2021, 480 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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