How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with The History of Slavery Across America is a book that utilizes a blend of historical research and stories collected by writer and poet Clint Smith.

Author Clint Smith, center, with Northwestern President Michael Schill and History Professor Leslie Harris.

Smith’s debut non-fiction work, which is an award-winning New York Times bestseller, was the One Book One Northwestern selection for the 2022-23 academic year. He was on campus to talk about it this week and had a keynote conversation Tuesday, Oct. 18, with  One Book faculty chair and History professor Leslie Harris.

Smith talked about his personal journey to different sites of enslavement and his experience examining how different parts of the United State’s history were impacted by slavery.

Northwestern President Michael Schill, who spoke at the beginning of the event, said One Book One Northwestern is a tradition important to the greater community, bringing members together to read and attend programming on a topic of shared importance.

Smith’s book “offers a unique historical tour, one that spotlights how Americans grapple with the reality and legacy of slavery.” Schill said. 

Smith said he wrote the book for the 15-year-old version of himself, who never really learned about slavery in school and did not know how to push back against the racist narratives he encountered growing up.

Author Smith and Professor Harris onstage. Credit: Richard Cahan

The book aims to give young people the tools and information to push back against bigotry. He hopes readers approach this book with curiosity and “leave the book with a deeper, more acute sense of American history.” 

One of the experiences Smith reluctantly shared was visiting a Confederate cemetery, a “bizarre experience filled with cognitive dissonance.”  

Those he met at this site did not believe the Civil War was about slavery – tapping into one of the greater themes of the book exploring how the history of slavery is remembered across the country.

Smith said he recognizes the bigotry in the viewpoints. But, he said, changing their viewpoints is difficult for people as it presents an existential crisis, shattering how they view their families and what they believe to be true.

Rather than being something fixed in a book, he said, for many “history is [often] a story that is told – that heirloom passed down from generation.”
The conversation with Smith and Harris concluded with a brief Q&A session and a book signing. Further programming surrounding the books themes will continue throughout the academic year.

More information is available at Upcoming Events: One Book – Northwestern University

Sara Ibrahim

Sara Ibrahim is a third year student at Northwestern University studying Political Science and Legal Studies. She has written for The Daily Northwestern, North by Northwestern and Northwestern's Undergraduate...

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