How the Word Is Passed: a Conversation with Clint Smith

Clint Smith wants everyone to remember that history is not very far in the past, and still very much a force in the present. 

“I remember learning about slavery in a way that made it sound like it happened in the Jurassic era,” recalled Smith, a staff writer for The Atlantic and author of How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. “It was dinosaurs, the Flintstones, and slavery, like they all happened at the same time.”

That false impression of a far-distant past prevents people from recognizing how deeply our country’s history continues to shape the present, Smith argued in the opening plenary of Thursday’s College Board Forum. A failure to understand how recent the sepia-toned past really is can warp our understanding of everything from educational opportunities to health care policy. “We don’t have any context for understanding history in a way that’s actually commensurate with its impact,” Smith explained. “The scars of slavery are all over this country…. You don’t have to look hard to find places that have a relationship to that history and have something to teach us about that history.”

In How the Word Is Passed, Smith sets out to visit some of the most evocative of those places. He spends time looking at the Civil War graves in Blandford Cemetery in Virginia; visiting the sites of slave markets and African-American burial grounds in New York City; and talking with prisoners picking cotton in the fields of Angola Prison in Louisiana. His aim is to show how much of our physical landscape is still shaped by the legacy of slavery, so that we can more easily imagine how much of our economic, political, and social landscape might bear similar scars. “This history is in our soil, it is in our policies, and it must, too, be in our memories,” he writes.

Contemplating difficult history can be a way to inspire hope, if it’s framed well. “The Black American experience is not singularly defined by slavery or Jim Crow or trauma. It’s shaped by that, but not defined by that,” Smith said. “So depictions of black life and black history should not only portray those things. … You have to find the balance.”

He draws strength from the idea that generations of Black Americans resisted and fought against slavery without living to see emancipation. “There are millions of people who fought for something knowing they might never see it. And because of that, my life is possible,” Smith said. “What does it mean to try and build a better world for people I’ll never meet… to chip away at a wall, not knowing how thick that wall is? My life is only possible because for 400 years, there have been people chipping away at walls. That is the lineage we are a part of as Black people in this country, and it is a remarkable lineage to be a part of, and something we should take seriously.”