How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America

Written by:
Clint Smith
Narrated by:
Clint Smith

Unabridged Audiobook

Release Date
June 2021
10 hours 6 minutes
This compelling #1 New York Times bestseller examines the legacy of slavery in America—and how both history and memory continue to shape our everyday lives.

Beginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader on an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks—those that are honest about the past and those that are not—that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation's collective history, and ourselves.

It is the story of the Monticello Plantation in Virginia, the estate where Thomas Jefferson wrote letters espousing the urgent need for liberty while enslaving more than four hundred people. It is the story of the Whitney Plantation, one of the only former plantations devoted to preserving the experience of the enslaved people whose lives and work sustained it. It is the story of Angola, a former plantation-turned-maximum-security prison in Louisiana that is filled with Black men who work across the 18,000-acre land for virtually no pay. And it is the story of Blandford Cemetery, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers.

A deeply researched and transporting exploration of the legacy of slavery and its imprint on centuries of American history, How the Word Is Passed illustrates how some of our country's most essential stories are hidden in plain view—whether in places we might drive by on our way to work, holidays such as Juneteenth, or entire neighborhoods like downtown Manhattan, where the brutal history of the trade in enslaved men, women, and children has been deeply imprinted.

Informed by scholarship and brought to life by the story of people living today, Smith's debut work of nonfiction is a landmark of reflection and insight that offers a new understanding of the hopeful role that memory and history can play in making sense of our country and how it has come to be.


Instant #1 New York Times Bestseller 

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction

Winner of the Stowe Prize 

Winner of 2022 Hillman Prize for Book Journalism 

PEN America 2022 John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction Finalist 

A New York Times 10 Best Books of 2021 

A Time 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2021 

Named a Best Book of 2021 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Economist, Smithsonian, Esquire, Entropy, The Christian Science Monitor, WBEZ's Nerdette Podcast, TeenVogue, GoodReads, SheReads, BookPage, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Fathom Magazine, the New York Public Library, and the Chicago Public Library 

One of GQ’s 50 Best Books of Literary Journalism of the 21st Century 

Longlisted for the National Book Award Los Angeles Times, Best Nonfiction Gift 

One of President Obama's Favorite Books of 2021
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Mr. Smith captures the 200 and 300-year-old questions that linger on the trees and the grounds where enslaved children undoubtedly escaped from the powerful and unrelenting sun. A history lesson with a strong, compassionate narrative connecting the past to the now.

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Trinidad F.

This was an amazing book and beautifully written. When the author describes a scene, you feel as if you are there with him.

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Invaluable resource! So much gratitude to Clint Smith for filling the void of an educational system that taught to me to only see a sliver of the truth and not the whole. The story of America, for a young country and its place in the world, is complex but needs to be understood from all the voices.

Wonderful depiction of important history that many may not be aware of. Deep, disturbing and profound. The narrator was outstanding! Because as he was also the author, he fully understood what was needed and how it must be done to move his readers.

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David Q.

Book reviews inherently reflect the likes and dislikes of the reviewer; I’m sure my review will be no different. Overall, I liked the book. I learned a lot about early American social history, and the role that chattel slavery played in our becoming a nation as well as the development of our nationality. Most of the interviews and physical descriptions of the slave economy were very revealing, as their substance certainly was not part of my formal education. The book ‘takes the reader there’ to witness and in many cases to relive the the moments being described. In this regard, the book was fascinating and revealing. The author, being Black himself, was able to put me, a White male, behind his eyes and into his mind as he painted scene after scene of the struggles and inequities endured by those bound by slavery. The accomplishments made by many people despite unimaginable hardships were fascinating to learn. However, as my interest in the book’s title was my reason to read it, I got the feeling as the read continued that I was reading a personal manifesto of sorts and not just a historical presentation. This I was not expecting. Mr. Smith’s reading gave me some inflectional challenges as his voice ‘drops off’ at the ends of his sentences. All-in-all it was a very good read. I learned a lot I didn’t know, and last I knew, a main purpose of reading is to expand one’s knowledge and experience, and this book certainly does not disappoint.

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Susan S.

Excellent book. The writing is beautiful. And the sites he reports on give another layer of understanding to the story of African Americans in the United States.

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