First thoughts on ‘How The Word Is Passed’

I suspect this may become a series of posts.

It’s a fairly recent development in my reading life that I know enough to anticipate a particular book’s release. This has a lot to do with social media and following writers and readers who regularly geek out over what’s hot and what’s not; who is ascendant and who is new on the scene. Having followed Clint Smith for a few years and shared his poetry with friends, colleagues and followers, I was aware that his next book, following the completion of his PhD (I, mean, what??), would be a reckoning with slavery and how it is handled (or exactly not handled) in America’s telling of its own history.

As the publication date drew nearer, I read some articles, listened to podcast interviews and also included an announcement in my social justice newsletter for educators. I was ready. Or, so I thought.

At the end of his talk with Brene Brown, Clint Smith reveals that people often presume him to be older than he actually is. He graduated high school in 2006. He’s only 34 years old. I can say “only” because he’s more than 20 years younger than I am. When I think, HS senior in 2006, I think of my track team that spring. My strong sprinters claiming their flowers before they left the stage of international school track meets. It blows my mind to think of Clint Smith as someone I might have coached or taught (based on age, not geography).

At any rate, I almost immediately began reading. Here’s what I noticed:

The book presents places, locations, sites as leading characters that help us get proximate to the book’s central question of how we come to understand the role of slavery in American history. As I read I am thinking about place. Clint Smith takes us with him, sharing details with a poet’s eye for detail and nuance.

I’m also thinking about this book in conversation with other things I’m reading. My nightstand currently looks like this:

Image of 3 books on a flat wood surface: Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Muhammad, We Do This Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba and How The Word Is Passed by Clint Smith

These texts are in conversation with me and with each other. All three address the overlapping concerns of history, education and liberation. They prod me to observe carefully, acknowledge what I don’t know, to stay curious especially if and when the material is difficult.

I’ve noted in other places that history has never been my strong point. How The Word Is Passed takes me on a series of distinct field trips. Clint Smith uses remarkable sensory detail – the sound of the wood beneath his feet, the roughness of the jail cell wall, the reddening of his conversation partner’s face – to place us in each scene with him. I found myself needing to take deeper breaths while reading about him sitting in a replica of the electric chair at Angola Prison. I marveled at his patience in probing the thinking of Sons of Confederate Veterans at a Memorial Day event at a Confederate Cemetery. I can’t quite get over how he maintains the level of mental and emotional presence that these encounters, individually and taken together, require to bring them to the page with such immediacy.

I’m nearly done reading and I’m sure I’ll have more to say later. For now this is me taking stock of the book’s initial grip on me. Someone on my timeline described it as enthralling. Yes, and/but/or consuming, piercing while also fundamentally clarifying and mind-shifting.

That’s a lot for one book, for one author. And yet, here it is.