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Clint Smith

A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

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36 Min.

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'How the Word Is Passed' by Clint Smith is a non-fiction book exploring the legacy of slavery in America. Through immersive visits to historical sites, Smith examines how slavery is remembered and how it continues to shape the country today.


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    New Orleans

    It’s dusk, and New Orleans’ French Quarter is vibrating. Notes from a brass band mingle with sounds of passersby. Above the Mississippi River, the sky is huge. The river itself is still and amber-colored, full of sediment that’s been transported across thousands of miles.

    A little over 200 years ago, when the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed, more than 100,000 people were transported south along the same route. Leon A. Waters, a local historian and revolutionary, gestures at a plaque outlining this history.

    Signs like this have begun to appear throughout New Orleans, which was once the largest slave market in America. Each details a certain place’s link to enslavement, acknowledging a history that was previously ignored – that paved the way for continued oppression.

    For years, Black people in the US have died because of this legacy of oppression. Only now – after a white supremacist shot nine people in a Black church as they prayed, after neo-Nazis marched to protect a Confederate statue, after George Floyd was asphyxiated by a police officer’s knee on his neck – does it seem that the country is starting to reckon with its past.

    Leon has worked to highlight New Orleans’ reckoning, leading tours that showcase the city’s hidden history and mentoring members of Take ’Em Down NOLA: a group of young Black activists whose self-proclaimed mission is to remove “ALL symbols of white supremacy in New Orleans as a part of a broader push for racial & economic justice.”

    This evening, Leon’s giving a tour to the author, Clint Smith. Despite being born and raised in New Orleans, Clint didn’t know much about the role his city had played in perpetuating slavery. It was only in 2017, when the statue of Confederate general and enslaver Robert E. Lee was toppled from its 60-foot pedestal, that he became curious about how people grappled with the centuries of bondage.

    Although some commemorations like the Robert E. Lee statue have disappeared in New Orleans, hundreds of others remain – hiding in the names of streets, parks, and schools that pay tribute to Confederate leaders, enslavers, and proponents of slavery.

    Leon and Clint drive past the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, formerly the St. Louis Hotel, where men, women, and children were bought, sold, and divided. They pass tourist-filled Jackson Square, where enslaved people were executed for rebelling. The tour ends on Marigny Street, where Clint’s parents now live. A testament to Bernard de Marigny, who owned over 150 enslaved people, the name echoes a sentiment made by historian Walter Johnson: “The whole city is a memorial to slavery.”

    But New Orleans is just a microcosm of the country’s legacy of white supremacy. To understand the bigger picture, Clint will need to visit more places – those attempting to tell the truth, those denying it, and those fumbling somewhere in between.

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    Worum geht es in How the Word Is Passed?

    How the Word Is Passed (2021) is a travelogue that underscores how slavery has shaped America’s collective history and its reality today. Nine locations serve as gateways to important stories that are hidden in plain sight. They exemplify how communities have reckoned, or not, with their roles in the history of slavery and invite us all to dig deeper into what we believe – and why.

    Wer How the Word Is Passed lesen sollte

    • Anyone who wants to better understand America’s relationship with slavery
    • Community members seeking historical context on Black Lives Matter
    • Activists and history buffs interested in how the past informs the present

    Über den Autor

    Clint Smith is a staff writer at the Atlantic and the author of Counting Descent, an award-winning book of poetry. His writing has also appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Paris Review, and Poetry, among others. Smith has been awarded fellowships from the Art for Justice Fund, Cave Canem, New America, and the National Science Foundation. He holds a BA in English from Davidson College and a PhD in Education from Harvard University.

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