In How the Word is Passed, Clint Smith recounts his visits to seven locations as part of what he calls in the book’s subtitle “A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.” Monticello Plantation. The Whitney Plantation. Angola Prison. Blandford Cemetery. Galveston Island. New York City. Goréee Island (Ghana). Along with a prologue in New Orleans, the city where he grew up, and an epilogue of talks with his surviving grandparents, these seven locations — chosen from the dozens that Smith saw as research for the book — show important historical aspects of slavery in America. More than that, they demonstrate how people in the country reacted and continue to react to the facts of slavery.
The locations represent a judicious cross-section of slavery and its many legacies in contemporary America. Starting with Monticello Plantation brings the contradictions of slavery in America into immediate focus. Indeed, by insisting that Thomas Jefferson’s home be named as a plantation in the chapter’s title, Smith ensures that readers will have to consider it as a center of enslaving people, like many others across what became the United States. Jefferson, his soaring rhetoric and high ideals was essential to the creation of the United States of America. The unpaid labor of the enslaved persons whom Jefferson owned were essential to who he was and what he achieved.
Smith talks with tour guides and visitors to learn more about how the guides choose to present the history of Jefferson and Monticello, and to learn about what some visitors knew before they came, how they saw things afterward. Smith describes how the staff at Monticello addresses the lives of enslaved persons; there are different tours with different emphases. He also finds out that from the 1920s when Monticello first opened as a museum until 1951, all of the guides were Black men dressed in the livery of house servants. “‘Some of them were descendants of people who were enslaved here,’ Niya [Bates, Monticello’s public historian] said. Sometimes the stories the men told about the plantation had been passed on to them by family members.” (p. 47)
There is no story of Monticello—there is no story of Thomas Jefferson—without understanding Sally Hemings. We have no letters or documentation written by Sally (birth name likely Sarah) Hemings and nothing written by Jefferson about her. There are no photographs of her. Almost all of what we know of her physical appearance comes from Isaac Jefferson, who was enslaved at Monticello at the same time as Hemings and described her as ‘mighty near white [three of her four grandparents were white] … Sally was very handsome, long straight hair down her back.” Other than that, all portraits that depict her likeness are rendered from the imagination of the artists. She is a shadow without a body. A constellation for whom there are no stars. And yet the story of Sally Hemings sits at the center of Monticello. For two centuries, Jefferson scholars, as well as Jefferson’s acknowledged descendants, rejected the idea—despite evidence to the contrary—that Jefferson had either a romantic or a sexual relationship with Sally. They most certainly rejected the idea that he fathered all six of her children. (p. 29)
DNA evidence has proven the connection, and that has forced re-evaluation at Monticello, just as it has brought home to non-Black Americans how common it was for slave owners to have sex with people they owned. Jefferson’s own children were raised as slaves on his plantation. He did not free any during his lifetime, although when he was old in the 1820s Beverly (who was male) and Harriet Hemings left Monticello and were not pursued. Smith writes that they passed as white after leaving Monticello; with that, they passed out of the historical record. Jefferson freed his other surviving children in his will.
From Monticello, Smith turns to the Whitney Plantation, what had been a sugar plantation on the Mississippi river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Whitney is different from many of the plantations in Louisiana that are now open to visitors:
The voices and stories of enslaved people are the foundation of how visitors experience the Whitney. They are especially important because, apart from a single photo of an enslaved man, there are no images or stories of the many people who once lived on the plantation itself. “Their voices are forever gone and silenced,” Yvonne [Holden, director of operations] said. (p. 63)
Not every step the Whitney has taken in that direction has been universally acclaimed. There is a jail on the site that was transported from a different location. Other artifacts come from different places as well. Smith shows how slippery a concept “authenticity” can be. The background is also fraught, or at least complicated. The development of the Whitney as a museum has been driven and bankrolled by John Cummings, a white multimillionaire lawyer and real estate mogul who bought the plantation in the late 1990s from the plastics and petrochemical corporation Formosa. A longtime New Orleans liberal, Cummings “worked alongside Black activists to reopen the Audubon Park swimming pool in New Orleans when the city kept it closed to avoid making it an integrated facility.” (p. 75) He had an epiphany, he said, when he read an inventory about a twenty-nine-year-old enslaved woman that listed her as a “good breeder.” Cummings continues, “That’s when I realized that I could not have this property and make it a tourist attraction that would glorify a life of people who exploited human beings. Couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t.” So he has plowed more than ten million dollars of his own money into making a new kind of museum. The Whitney was up to more than 60,000 visitors a year before covid changed tourism.
The other chapters similarly combine first-hand experience, interviews with people on the scene, and historical background to show the shadows that slavery casts even into the present. At Angola Prison, Smith finds institutional reluctance to acknowledge its past as a plantation. He certainly does not find any eagerness to explore the similarity between slave labor in the past and convict labor in the present, nor how closely the system of leasing prisoners resembled the slavery that had preceded it by just a few years. At Blandford Cemetery, one of the largest burial grounds of Confederate soldiers, Smith attends a Confederate Memorial Day remembrance. With a white friend. He talks with people about what they are doing there, and he writes of how many states still have public holidays that commemorate people who committed treason in defense of slavery.
The question that serves as the epigraph for Smith’s chapter on New York City is “We were the good guys, right?” New York was the second-largest slave market in the United States, after Charleston, South Carolina. In the days when New York was still a colony, the wall that gave its name to Wall Street was built by slave labor. New York banks accepted enslaved persons as collateral on loans, and two of the predecessors of JPMorgan Chase “took ownership of approximately 1,250 [enslaved persons] when the plantation owners defaulted on the loans.” (p. 221) Smith closes the chapter with a discussion of how the Statue of Liberty almost had a pair of broken shackles in her left hand, rather than the now-familiar tablets.
Smith brings the locations to life, he connects past and present, he shows how people today are living with the legacy of slavery. A full reckoning with the history of slavery across America would be impossible, but How the Word is Passed offers a reckoning, one that shines light into dark corners, and never forgets that history is made of and by people, and renewed each time a story of the past is told.