In case you missed it: An Evening with Clint Smith, author of “How the Word is Passed”

In our In Case You Missed It series (also known as ICYMI), students working at the Office of Sustainability offer reflective reports on sustainability-related events and lectures at UW–Madison. The following entry is by Narayani Meghna Varanasi with input from the Social Sustainability Coalition.

How the Word is Passed, a book by Clint Smith, reckons with the heterogeneity of conversations around slavery and the Civil War. The author takes readers on a journey to seven different places through seven different stories and uncountable memories. All examine slavery and seek to account for the brutal and inhumane practice. In Monticello, we encounter a historically misrepresented Thomas Jefferson; in Angola, we see the shocking, heart-wrenching visual of a gift shop at a prison for inmates who have life and death sentences. Many more surprising and shocking scenes painted by Smith bring to light the conversations and histories through which the reality of slavery is distorted in the present.

In the words of the author, “Our country’s teachings about slavery, painfully limited, often focus singularly on heroic slave narratives at the expense of the millions of men and women whose stories might be less sensational but are no less worthy of being told” (64). 

How the Word is Passed was chosen as the 2022 Go Big Read selection at UW–Madison, and on November 2, Clint Smith spoke at an evening event dedicated to the book. The conversation covered the writing process of the book, from its conceptualization to the editing process, as well as the author’s future projects. The crux of the evening, however, was the stories that Smith told.

“I had a big section on plantations weddings because I really wanted to understand what is it that led someone to want to celebrate … the most joyous day of your life on a site of intergenerational torture and exploitation. And like we don’t often talk about plantations as torture sites,” said Smith, discussing a chapter on plantation weddings that had been cut from the final draft of the book. 

“I spent time talking to a lot of wedding planners who had worked with or had very strong feelings on both sides of what it meant to hold a wedding at a plantation … [For instance,] the former slave cabin is the bridal suite. I was kind of shocked by how common a practice those sorts of things were.” 

Go Big Read author Clint Smith gestures while talking to Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin in Shannon Hall at the Memorial Union Theater at the University of Wisconsin–Madison on Nov. 1, 2022. Go Big Read (GBR), a common-reading program, is designed to engage students, faculty, staff and the community in a shared, academically focused reading experience. (Photo by Althea Dotzour / UW–Madison)
Go Big Read author Clint Smith speaks with Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin in Shannon Hall at the Memorial Union Theater. (Photo by Althea Dotzour / UW–Madison)

Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, who spoke with Smith during the event, also shared a piece of history about the city of Madison and its ties to the historical inhabitants of Monticello. 

“A father and mother and their three teenage children came to Madison from Ohio looking for better opportunities,” Mnookin said. “They were mixed racial heritage and their father had been freed from slavery. They’d been part of the free black community in Ohio. Here in Madison, they passed as white. The three children became prominent members of the community and some of their children earned degrees right here at UW–Madison … And a number of them are buried here in Forest Hill Cemetery, including the father. The gravestone reads, EH, Jefferson and Hemings. Jefferson was born at Monticello and he was the youngest child of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.”

Continuing the conversation

How the Word is Passed was given to freshmen at convocation and was part of 160 courses at UW–Madison in fall of 2022. In addition, student interns at the Office of Sustainability read the book during the summer of 2022, during which they reexamined their own education and knowledge of the brutality of slavery. 

Among other passages, one stood out to interns because it encapsulates how the legacy of slavery is often unacknowledged in the American economy, educational system, and collective memory. Smith writes, “There are gaps that exist inside me, a Black man in America unable to trace my roots past a certain point in history. Whose lineage beyond the plantations where my ancestors were held remains obscured by the smog of displacement” (269).

As they read the book together, interns agreed that literature like How the Word is Passed is only a beginning in our societal journey towards acknowledging and fully understanding our histories and beginning the process of healing and reforming as a country. 

As Smith said during his event at UW–Madison, “When people asked me about who the audience was, I tell them it’s a 15-year old version of me. I wrote the sort of book that I felt like I wanted to read, that I needed to read my high-school American history class.” 

Smith’s book is a reminder that not being provided the truth is no reason to stop seeking it.