Note: This is another book that really shifted my thinking and opened my eyes to the history of the United States. As an American citizen born abroad (Panama), I absorbed America’s FALSE histories in private, Catholic school education. When the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me discusses the fake historical accounts in American high school textbooks, my textbooks appear in his list of false history proponents. So, much of my “knowledge” had another think coming. I suspect many Americans are in the same boat, and today’s political efforts by bigoted politicians clad in red hats is recognition of America waking up to the fact they’ve been lied to all their lives. Clint Smith’s work is heartbreaking.

Since I read different books on different devices, I found myself perusing Clint Smith’s “How the Word is Passed:A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America." I have avoided books about slavery. It is an unpleasant subject, but given my ignorance of the topic and it’s relevance to social justice education and, ultimately, rediscovering cultural norms and ways others interact, I thought it might be worthwhile.

Of course, the quotes at the start of the book immediately hooked me. I am amazed at Frederick Douglass' words and quotes, and found this one to be gripping:

Our past was slavery. We cannot recur to it with any sense of complacency or composure. The history of it is as a record of stripes, a revelation of agony. It is written in characters of blood.

Wow, the imagery in that portion of the quote is…incredible. I can imagine a slave being whipped, blood dripping from the cuts. I suppose my brain is connecting “a record of stripes, a revelation of agony” with the beating and whipping of Jesus before he was put on the cross to die. What an image of torture and misery. Of course, Douglass isn’t done.

Douglass goes on to say:

Its breath is a sigh, its voice a groan, and we turn from it with a shudder. The duty of to-day is to meet the question that confront us with intelligence and courage. -Frederick Douglass, “The Nation’s Problem”

Slavery can’t be remembered without an awareness of the agony that marks it. It is bloody, miserable, and we want to turn away from it, since it is so horrible, ugly, unpleasant. We can’t allow this revulsion and the pain it causes our sensibilities to overwhelm us, though. We must face it with “intelligence and courage.”

When I clean the dog’s poop, engage in doing something that revolts me, I know it must be done because it is necessary. I cannot be put off by the task because the consequences of NOT doing it are worse than the act of dealing with something unpleasant.

Clint Smith’s book is powerful. It begins with his visit to Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, owned human beings, kept and sold them to pay his debts. It tells the tale of Thomas Jefferson in his 40s taking a teenage human slave, Sally, and having five children with her.

Slavery Defined

One of the tour guides in Clint’s book says:

Slavery’s an institution. In Jefferson' lifetime it becomes a system. So what is this slave system? It is a system of exploitation, a system of inequality and exclusion, a system where peopleare owned as property and held down by physical and psychological force, a system being justified even by people who know slavery is morally wrong. By doing what? Denying the very humanity of those who are enslaved solely on the basis of the color of their skin."

Clint Smith observes, “Having enslaved workers helped Jefferson maintain his lifestyle, by giving him the time and space to do what he cared about most: reading, writing, and hosting guests who came to visit.”

History and Nostalgia

Another quote that has caught my attention in the book?

When you challenge people, specifically white people’s conception of Jefferson, you’re in fact challenging their conception of themselves. “I’ve come to realize that there’s a difference between history and nostalgia, and somewhere between those two is memory,” he said.

“I think that history is the story of the past, using all the available facts, and that nostalgia is a fantasy about the past using no facts, and somewhere in between is memory, which is kind of this blend of history and a little bit of emotion…I mean, history is kind of about what you need to know…but nostalgia is what you want to hear.”

I’m reminded of Greg Epstein’s point again. Although he makes it from his perspective as humanist who does not believe in God, it’s relevant here:

Most religion is not about an all-seeing deity with a baritone voice and a flowing beard. It is about group identification–the community and the connections we need to live. It is about family, tradition, consolation, ethics, memories, music, art, architecture, and much more. Outside traditional forms of religious affiliation or custom, it is hard to find these.

In other words, when our identities are tied up with our group, our community, our culture, history fades in importance, and nostalgia is all there is…a fantasy story of who you are, who you are with others who believe the lies, and how that is expressed.

I’m still reading Clint Smith’s book, and each bit of detail about history tears away a little of my own nostalgia, my own memories of what I was taught, each emotionally bound to who I was and when, where I learned it, and who I “learned” it with. The periphery of memories is powerful, even as the core of what was learned is rotten lies.


This is a powerful book, and it has been incredibly difficult to read. Some quotes have jumped out at me, but you need the context of Clint’s words. Some points stand apart, and I share a portion of those below:

  1. Race is a by-product of racism….“Racism is first and foremost a social practice, which means that it is an action and a rationale for action, or both at once. Racism always takes for granted the objective reality of race…so it is important to register their distinctness.The shorthand transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is, in a sleight of hand that is easy to miss.”
  2. Why didn’t every enslaved person escape as Douglass, Tubman, and Jacobs had? Had they not tried hard enough? This is part of the insidiousness of white supremacy; it illuminates the exceptional in order to implicitly blame those who cannot, in the most brutal circumstances, attain superhuman heights.
  3. It does this instead of blaming the system, the people who built it, the people who maintained it.
  4. In overly mythologizing our ancestors, we forget an all-too-important reality: the vast majority were ordinary people, which is to say they were people just like everyone else. This ordinariness is only shameful when used to legitimize oppression This is its own quiet violence.
  5. When enslaved women were raped by their enslaver, they were up against not only the physical power of the person enacting violence against them but also the power of the state, the power of patriarchy, the power of a society.
  6. These acts were not only permissible but legally encouraged. There were laws stating that almost any crime committed against a white person against a Black person was in fact not a crime at all.
  7. Oppression is never about humanity or lack thereof. It is, and always has been, about power.
  8. Discovered ignorance. It’s a feeling of “discovered ignorance. When you wonder, How could this have happened and I didn’t know about it? How could that happen?"
  9. Texas' Confederate Declaration of Succession: “We hold, as undeniable truths, that the governments of various States and of the Confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent [sic] race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable”
  10. Governor of Texas, Sam Houston, was removed from governorship of Texas by those wishing to join the Confederacy. Houston refused to swear an oath to the Confederacy, writing, “In the name of my own conscience and manhood…I refuse to take this oath.”
  11. I’m left wondering if we are all just patchworks of the stories we’ve been told.
  12. What would it take–what does it take–for you to confront a false history even if it means shattering the stories you have been told throughout your life?
  13. Even if it means having to fundamentally reexamine who you are and who your family has been?
  14. Just because something is difficult to accept doesn’t mean you should refuse to accept it. Just because someone tells you a story doesn’t make that story true.
  15. She wanted them to understand that their ancestry, their history, did not begin with…chains. “I didn’t want them to think, Oh, we popped up and we became enslaved. No, we were thriving communities and nations and did amazing things before we were ever found by the white man. We did so many things that it didn’t mean that we came here dumb and we had to learn somebody else’s way to become truly educated and actualized. I wanted them to see what they brought to the table, and to try to maintain and preserve who they are, and not think that in order to be successful, I have to let go of my cultural stuff and adopt somebody else’s.”

There has been so much history shared in Clint Smith that as I approach the end of the text, it’s overwhelming. The evidence for slavery, for a system that engineered slavery into the very foundations of the United States of America is unavoidable. One of the points that Clint Smith makes sure to pass on is this quote from Damaras, a tour guide of enslaved places and where slavery happened in New York city:

“Thank you for being uncomfortable with me…If there’s anything I can leave you with, question everything. Myself, everything you read, everything you hear. Fact-check, fact-check, fact-check. Don’t believe anything if it makes you comfortable.”

Damaras, and Clint Smith, sure make the case for teaching critical thinking skills, right?

Some other quotes that jump out at me, that are certainly relevant to educators:

  • “…one has to tread very carefully in the dissemination of that alternative interpretation, because to do so I think actually bears the ethical responsibility of relationship building. If you’re going to purport to tell the history of a place, you need to have relationships of trust in that place…that’s a fundamental operational commitment.” (Nelson, quoted excerpt from Clint Smith’s version)
  • Slavery took a toll on West Africa’s population: millions of people were stripped from their homelands and sent across the ocean to serve in intergenerational bondage. The profound harm continued during colonialism