The massacre at a Black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 was the beginning of Clint Smith thinking about the legacy of the Confederacy, but when four monuments associated with the Confederacy were removed in his hometown of New Orleans in 2017, he started to write. How the Word Is Passed (June, Little, Brown), his debut nonfiction book, looks at how different places relate (or don’t) to their connection with slavery.
“When the statues came down,” Smith says, “I was watching the architecture of my childhood coming down and wondered about what it meant to grow up with all these homages to the oppressors of enslaved people. I thought about how these statues were not just statues, but memorialized the lives of slave owners and how history was reflected in different places.”
Smith began visiting plantations, cemeteries, battlefields; he traveled to Angola prison in Louisiana and Gorée Island in Senegal to see the House of Slaves. He went to dozens of places, making day trips in the Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia area. He was living in Maryland and wanted to be close to home and his newborn son. He didn’t write about every site he visited, but “all of them informed the book, all of them were helpful,” he says. “Often one place led to another.”
In How the Word Is Passed, Smith examines eight sites in the U.S., as well as the House of Slaves in Senegal, exploring how they reckoned with the history of slavery. “Some,” he notes, “worked to not have a discussion about slavery.”
At the Civil War battlefield in Petersburg, Va., a ranger told Smith about the nearby cemetery of Blandford, which contains the remains of 30,000 Confederate soldiers in the largest mass grave of Confederate soldiers in the South. When he returned there for the Memorial Day ceremonies, “Dixie flags bloomed from the soil like milkweeds,” he writes. “There were baseball caps emblazoned with the Confederate flag.... lawn chairs marked with the letters UDC, the abbreviation for the United Daughters of the Confederacy.”
Smith felt as if he was “walking in on someone’s family reunion,” he writes. He tells me the experience “taught me why people disregard historical evidence—they need to keep the central story of how they see themselves.”
When he went to these sites, Smith says, he had no idea whom he would be meeting. “I wanted the sense of surprise, of wonder,” he recalls. “I love the idea of the person who wanders, a flaneur, a protagonist who strolls around observing the granular details of a place so you experience it through their eyes. My goal was to take historical scholarship and bring to it sensory, emotional, human texture.”
Smith is uniquely qualified to accomplish this goal. A staff writer for the Atlantic and a published poet (Counting Descent), he is, as his agent, Alia Hanna Habib at the Gernert Company, says, “a polymath—he has a PhD in the sociology of education from Harvard and the skills to appeal to a novel-reading audience.”
Years ago, Habib read a piece by Smith in the New Yorker on soccer. She admits to knowing nothing about the sport (Clint, however, she says, knows “everything about soccer and went to Division I Davidson College on a soccer scholarship”) and was impressed enough to reach out to him. “He was already represented!” she tells me.
But then, in 2018, Smith’s agent left the business, and as he began searching for another, he got in touch with Habib. “We had a creative connection, he was friendly with clients of mine; we talked and really hit it off,” she says.
Smith came to Habib with a collection of essays for what would become How the Word Is Passed, and she had two things to offer: reassurance that he had the material for a book and the suggestion that the best way to present the material was an overall narrative. “Lots of readers want a journey,” she says, “and this was obviously a journey, so we reconceived it.”
Habib submitted a proposal for a narrative nonfiction book widely in 2018. She says there was a great deal of interest and a “robust auction” that resulted in 17 offers and 17 meetings.
Vanessa Mobley, executive editor at Little, Brown, says she was “immediately intrigued when Alia shared the proposal.” She knew Smith was a slam poet (he discovered poetry at the Nuyorican Café in New York City when he was an undergraduate doing an internship at Scholastic) and was then working toward his PhD . “He’s a fresh voice, full of information that I had never been taught. I learned a lot reading Clint’s proposal. You know the adage, ‘You cry, you buy’? For me it’s, ‘You learn, you buy.’ He was going out beyond libraries and archives. He was in real time with real people.”
And Smith says he was “blown away” by Mobley, who acquired North American rights in November 2018. About choosing her, he notes, “I wanted an editor who was going to have my dedication, who would read every word. Vanessa was so thoughtful about getting these stories into the world. She has such a deep passion and saw the book as an extension of her values. It was important to me to have an editor who was emotionally invested.”
Smith and Mobley spent hours editing over Zoom. He remembers sessions that lasted three to four hours. “She was always so willing and excited,” he says. “No question was too small.” In May 2020, he had a finished manuscript.
Little, Brown will publish How the Word Is Passed simultaneously in the U.K. with Sharmaine Lovegrove at Hachette UK’s Dialogue Books on June 19. The book will be “HBG on both sides of the Atlantic,” Mobley says.
How the Word Is Passed is a necessary, important, and totally engaging book. In his epilogue, Smith writes that “the history of slavery is the history of the United States.... It must be a collective endeavor to learn, confront, and reckon with the story of slavery and how it has shaped the world we live in today.”