‘How the Word is Passed’ chosen as UW–Madison’s 2021-22 Go Big Read book

There are the stories of our past that we all know and celebrate. And then there are the stories that we do not talk about and often do not know.

Clint Smith’s “How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America” illustrates how some of our country’s most essential stories are hidden in plain view and how much we can gain from listening to them. The book is the 2022-23 Go Big Read selection.

A staff writer at The Atlantic, Clint Smith’s essays, poems and scholarly writing have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, the Harvard Educational Review and other publications. Carletta Girma

In his narrative nonfiction debut, Smith visits eight sites, including his hometown of New Orleans; Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello; New York City; and Angola Prison, using archival research as well as interviews to dig deep into the past and offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation’s collective history and memory.

“Smith takes readers on a tour of places we have read about before but shows the people and stories behind them that history has so often left out,” says Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “It reminds us how much we can learn from our past and the importance of honoring the people who have come before us.”

“How the Word is Passed” has been named in numerous Best Book lists for 2021, including those by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Economist, Smithsonian, Esquire, The Christian Science Monitor, TeenVogue, Publishers Weekly , Kirkus, and by both the New York Public Library and the Chicago Public Library. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and was one of former President Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2021.

Book cover with title HOW THE WORD IS PASSED, all text with no illustrations

A staff writer at The Atlantic, Smith earned his bachelor’s degree in English from Davidson College and his doctorate in education from Harvard University. His essays, poems, and scholarly writing have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, the Harvard Educational Review and other publications. Smith’s two TED Talks, “The Danger of Silence” and “How to Raise a Black Son in America,” collectively have been viewed more than 9 million times.

Smith teaches writing and literature in the DC Central Detention Facility and is also the host of the YouTube series ”Crash Course Black American History.” Previously, I have taught high school English in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

“It was as a teacher that I first began to fully account for the way the history of this country shaped the landscape of my students’ communities, from slavery to Jim Crow apartheid to mass criminalization and beyond,” Smith writes. “I have come to realize that those conversations with my students, now a decade ago, about how we might begin to understand our lives in relation to the world around us were some of the earliest sparks of this book. I tried to write the sort of book that I would have wanted to teach them. I hope I made them proud.”

The Go Big Read program is an initiative of the Office of the Chancellor. It engages members of the campus community and beyond in a shared, academically focused reading experience.

Go Big Read events connected to the book are expected to include a visit from the author. Planning is underway for how students, faculty and staff will use the book in classrooms and for special events. Copies of the book will be given to first-year students at the Chancellor’s Convocation for New Students and to students using the book in their classes. UW–Madison instructors or event planners interested in using the book can request a print or e-review copy.

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