On How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

Olasky Books February 2023 Subscribe to Olasky Books

For a mere $5,000 you can host an anti-racist dinner with seven friends as guests plus two hired guests as agitators. As New York magazine reports, “A collection of affluent white women, equipped with varying degrees of vanity and self-delusion, gather at a well-appointed dinner table. There, they face down a pair of unsparing judges prepared to see right through them. Who’s racist? Time to find out. White wine flows; white women admit shameful secrets.”

Or, you can save $4,991 and buy a Kindle version of the wonderfully-written How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith (Little, Brown, 2021).

Smith offers a street-level rather than a suite-level view. He traveled to seven sites important in the slavery annals: Monticello, the Whitney plantation and Angola prison in Louisiana, the Blandford Cemetery in Virginia, and three islands: Galveston, Texas; Gorée, Senegal; and Manhattan. He gives each a chapter filled with evocative detail, stimulating conversation, and his own historical analysis. It’s a reader-friendly way to teach history to those who know little about slave life and those like me who pridefully claimed knowledge. (I lived in Manhattan, but Smith showed me much I had missed at the southern end of the island.)

Smith portrays people learning more and realizing that honoring the old South is wrong. The Whitney plantation now portrays the evil of slavery, and Smith shows the heart of current Whitney owner John Cummings growing two sizes when he learned how earlier owners exploited and brutalized slaves: “That’s when I realized I could not have this property and make it a tourist attraction that would glorify a life of people who exploited human beings. Couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t.”

I’d like to draw attention during Black History Month to three other books. Claude Atcho’s Reading Black Books (Brazos, 2022) discerningly introduces readers to Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and others. Nicholas Dawidoff’s The Other Side of Prospect (Norton, 2022) follows a young black man wrongly convicted of murder because he was a convenient scapegoat from New Haven’s poorest neighborhood. If you’ve never read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, first published in 1952 and republished as one of the “Modern Library 100 Best Novels” in 1954, you should.

February also hosts Presidents Day, a melding of Washington and Lincoln birthdays broadened to include all. The best presidential biography I’ve recently read is Troy Senik’s A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland (Simon and Schuster, 2022). Cleveland, the only president voted out of the White House and returned there four years later, kicked off his 1892 campaign to be president again with a speech to University of Michigan undergraduates about the urgency of virtue and honesty.

Cleveland said, “Never yield one iota to those who teach that these are weak and childish things…. Do not surrender your faith to those who discredit and debase politics by scoffing at sentiment and principle, and whose political activity consists in attempts to gain popular support by cunning devices and shrewd manipulation.” These were more than words to Cleveland: As mayor of Buffalo he “took what seemed the politically suicidal step of vetoing an appropriation for the Fourth of July festivities of the Grand Army of the Republic, the influential group of Union veterans of the Civil War.”

Cleveland praised that organization while saying, “the money contributed should be a free gift of the citizens and taxpayers, and should not be extorted from them by taxation.” He also vetoed a street-cleaning appropriation built on bribes to city councilmen from a close friend. Governor Samuel Tilden thought Cleveland’s gutsy decision proved he was “an ugly-honest man of good purposes and undaunted courage.”

I also recommend two other books about presidents published last year. Jon Marshall’s Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis (U. of Nebraska) shows that press advocacy for good or ill is nothing new, but probably more obvious. The Bitter End (Princeton) by John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck is a detailed examination of the 2020 presidential campaign. And although this Presidents Day has nothing to do with Ukraine, Luke Harding’s Invasion: The Inside Story of Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival (Random House, 2022) reminds us that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Feb. 24 will have survived a year of invasion and assassination attempts.

Four years ago I wrote a WORLD column noting 30 Black History books that had educated me up to then. Some readers now may find it useful. Here it is:

Before transatlantic slavery: Thomas C. Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind shows the work of Augustine and many others. The Africa Study Bible, produced under John Jusu’s supervision, combines the New Living Translation with notes connecting the Bible and Africa. François-Xavier Fauvelle’s The Golden Rhinoceros synopsizes numerous histories of the African Middle Ages.

Coming to America: Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy is a good history of slavery and war in Virginia from 1772 to 1832. Ned and Constance Sublette’s The American Slave Coast is a painful history of the slave-breeding industry. Nicholas Guyatt’s Bind Us Apart shows how “enlightened” Americans invented racial segregation. Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton shows how slavery profited South, North, and England.

Anti-slavery efforts: Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause is a history of the abolitionists who fought the peculiar institution. Christopher Cameron’s To Plead Our Own Cause examines the specific role of African-Americans in Massachusetts, and Jared A. Brock’s The Road to Dawn tells the story of Josiah Henson, an escaped slave who was one of the inspirations for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which in turn inspired the abolitionist movement.

Blind spots: Joel McDurmon’s The Problem of Slavery in Christian America documents the racism of many 19th-century churches and corrects “happy slave” romanticizing. McDurmon quotes Memphis preacher R.C. Grundy’s observation that “the southern rebel church … is worth more to Mr. Jeff Davis than an army of one hundred thousand drilled and equipped men.” Some of the worst racism emerged from the pen of noted theologian R.L. Dabney, whose three-volume Discussions has Himalayan heights and Dead Sea depths.

Post-Civil War: Matthew Harper’s The End of Days examines how Christian understanding helped some newly emancipated African-Americans leave behind a slave mentality. Sadly, many whites backlashed: Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name describes the virtual re-enslavement of sharecroppers and others, and David M. Oshinsky’s Worse Than Slavery zeroes in on Mississippi’s Parchman Farm and Jim Crow justice. Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery, is deservedly a classic of perseverance under pressure.

Into the 20th century: Gene Dattel’s Reckoning With Race starts in the 19th century and shows the Great Migration north during the 20th century and the urban ghettos that resulted. Timothy B. Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till examines the most notorious hate crime of the 1950s. Detroit 1967, edited by Joel Stone, shows what happened in one of America’s worst race riots. The Intersection, by Bridge Magazine and Detroit Journalism Cooperative members, contains up-close-and-personal riot remembering.

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Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.