How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America
Book by Clint Smith, published June 1, 2021 Book review by Emily Kulzer, HCSCC Director of Museum Operations
“I’ve come to realize that there is a difference between history and nostalgia, and somewhere between those two is memory.” – David Thornton, Tour Guide, Monticello Plantation, p. 41
The connection between history, memory, and the present day has always fascinated me. Why do we remember the events and people that we do? Who gets to decide what makes it into the history books? How do dominant narratives of the past shape the places that we live, the people around us, and who we are? Why do we often look back at the past with a feeling of nostalgia and think “those were the good ol’ days”? I think most people like to believe that history is a factual account of what has happened in the past. But the more I learn about and study history, the more it becomes evident that history, and the memories tied to it, comes with a lot of emotional baggage.
Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia contains a mass grave of 30,000 Confederates who were killed in the Siege of Petersburg during the American Civil War. The stone arch above the entrance road reads “Our Confederate Heroes.” In 1866, Blandford was the site of one of the earliest known Decoration Day ceremonies, which many believe to be the inspiration for the Memorial Day. Smith attended the annual Sons of Confederate Veterans Memorial Celebration at the site which still takes place every Memorial Day. Image Source: Noah_Loverbear, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
In How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, author Clint Smith takes readers on a nation-wide tour of plantations, memorials, museums, cemeteries, and prisons and examines how each site memorializes and reckons with the legacy of slavery. Smith’s accounts of each site are based on historical scholarship and brought to life by the story of the people who care for and interpret these historical sites today. Each site is a case study that reveals how historians are choosing to tackle difficult history. Some sites choose to face the past head on, they dig it up with the ugly truth and bring it to the surface. Other sites prefer to keep the ugly parts of the past buried.
The thing that I admire most about this book is the way that Smith combines historical scholarship and journalism. It reads like a history book, yet it’s more personal. During his investigations, Smith starts up conversations with visitors, tour guides, and administrators at each site and asks them thoughtful questions regarding their understanding of the legacy of slavery and how it is told at the site. I think it’s easy to judge others who might not know about or who might choose to ignore the messy parts of the past. Especially when we live in an age where we have access to so much knowledge and the ability to connect with people from all over the world. How the Word is Passed offers a thorough and thought-provoking investigation of the differing understandings of the horrors of slavery and those who fought to keep it.
Louisiana State Penitentiary quarters, ca. 1901. Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, is a historic maximum-security prison farm that is still in operation today. It is named Angola after the former plantation that was at the same location, and for the African country from which came many of the people who were kidnapped and enslaved in Louisiana. In How the Word is Passed, Smith visits the prison’s on-site museum to discover how they confront their ties to slavery. Source: State Library of Louisiana Digital Repository
One of the goals that the staff and I here at HCSCC have is to have deeper conversations with our audiences and create more thought-provoking content. Learning about how other historical sites around the United States and the world is a great way to find out what is working for other museums. I found the case studies in this book helpful, not only as a public historian, but personally as well. I always strive to understand my fellow humans in the hopes that I can better understand myself and become a more compassionate and empathetic person. I recommend this book not only to my fellow historians but to anyone wanting to know more about impact that the legacy of slavery has had on our society.
Now, this is the part where I make a shameless pitch for the new exhibit that we have coming up. I invite you all to join us on Tuesday, March 22 at 5:00 PM for the opening reception of one of the three (yes, I said THREE) new exhibits that we have opening in March. Stories of Local Black History examines the rich history of African-American and African people in Clay County and the surrounding areas. The exhibit travels through time, highlighting some of the most fascinating and influential people to live in our community, like Civil War veteran Felix Battles, professor and jazz musician James Condell, as well as Judge and former Mayor of Moorhead, Jonathan Judd.