Clint Smith’s “How the Word Is Passed” named book selection for 2022-2023


In recent years, Americans have heeded our collective history: Journalists, historians, and activists have helped spur national conversations that revisit public monuments and challenge us to tell a fuller story about states. States that does not ignore its legacy of slavery, displacement and discrimination.

Clint Smith, renowned poet and journalist, currently editor at Atlanticrecently wrote “How the Word Is Passed, A Reckoning with The History of Slavery Across America” ​​(Little, Brown & Company, 2021), a non-fiction work that takes the reader on a journey across the United States and the world, using places like prisons, cemeteries and former plantations – including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello – as case studies in a larger project to unearth stories that have sometimes been deliberately hidden in plain sight. .

All freshmen and transfer students will receive a free copy of the “How the Word Got Around” e-book this summer, and everyone on campus is encouraged to engage with the book. Smith will be invited to campus for a talk, one of many One Book events that will serve to foster dialogue within the North West community and at large around the book.

“It’s a wonderful book for the Northwest community,” said Leslie Harris, a historian of slavery and professor of history at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, who will serve as faculty chair. “I see the book as important for its content, but also as modeling a sort of survey of the very geography around us – including Northwestern, Evanston and the Chicago area.”

It’s always interesting to me as a historian to see someone take history and elevate it to art.

Leslie Harris
History teacher

Harris added that she looks forward to seeing how the community rises to the challenge of engaging with both the history of slavery and how other local and national histories are represented and commemorated, including Native American stories and those of women in the United States.

The book, she said, also asks broader questions about who is making change in our world and how they are remembered, which should spark an engaging discussion on campus.

In “How the Word Is Passed,” Smith presents both historical research and interviews with ordinary people at historic sites, painting a picture of both history and a variety of contemporary understandings – and often inaccurate – of it.

The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction in 2021. The New York TimesJulian Lucas called it “a tour of tours and a reckoning with reckoning, which sketches an awe-inspiring and deeply touching human cartography of America’s historical consciousness”.

“How the Word Is Passed” begins in New Orleans – once the most important southern slave trade town in the United States – where Harris and Smith grew up. Harris was an early editor of one of the book’s chapters, which discusses the legacy of slavery in New York. As a historian, her early studies focused on New York City and challenged the idea that slavery was a purely Southern phenomenon.

“In recent years we have been at a time when people have started to question statues, street names and all kinds of things that for most of us have surrounded us our entire lives,” she said.

The book offers an accessible entry point for people who are not historians, asking us both what the history of slavery means and how we see it around us. The fact that it was written by a journalist and poet, Harris said, makes it even more engaging to read.

“It’s always interesting for me as a historian to see someone take history and elevate it to art,” she said. “As a writer, that’s exactly what [Smith] Is. It really is a great gift, both for the general public and for historians.

The One Book One Northwestern program is sponsored by the Office of the President and will include films, lectures, field trips, and other related programs throughout the upcoming academic year. For questions, contact [email protected]


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