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How the Word is Passed

Written by Clint Smith | Reviewed by Rosemary Jones

I read this book with the RAF group this fall, as it was being read as the Go Big Read book at the University of Wisconsin. It is a very interesting and readable book which turns much of the history of slavery as we know it on its head.

Smith focusses on places and how their history has been portrayed over the years, along with his own travels, interviews, and observations of how this portrayal fits with Black history and the history of slavery. He visits Monticello, The Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island, and New York City in the US, and Gorée Island in Senegal. He listens to how the stories are told, with close observations and in depth questioning of the people telling the stories. It’s easy to look at some of these places, like Blandford, as beautiful (a chapel full of Tiffany windows) and to not think of what they represent to formerly enslaved people and the propaganda that they present of the Lost Cause.

Much of what we learn is surprising and disrupts romantic visions of the past that have been perpetuated over the years. What is surprising is that the stories of the north have as many distortions as the south- and that the north was heavily dependent on slavery as well, in a more indirect manner. Our whole economy depended on it, as it also (to a lesser extent) depended on Jim Crow after the Civil War.

Smith shows us how stories are told and what we take from these stories- and how they can be retold to reveal our true past. In a sense, in the last chapter, on Gorée Island, the stories are not necessarily factual, but convey the “story” in a meaningful way, so can’t be discounted.

I’d encourage everyone to read this book!

Note: this book is available in the church library!

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