In the Epilogue to his New York Times bestselling book How the Word Is Passed, Clint Smith writes:
The history of slavery is the history of the United States. It was not peripheral to our founding; it was central to it. It is not irrelevant to our contemporary society; it created it. This history is in our soil, it is in our policies, and it must, too, be in our memories.
Below are lessons, discussion questions, and writing prompts, which can take students more deeply into Smith’s brilliant book. As Smith suggests, one cannot understand the history of the United States without focusing on the centrality of slavery — and this history is essential to helping our students make sense of the world around them.
How the Word Is Passed arrives at a moment when Republican legislators in at least 27 (now 35+) states are offering the country a lesson in How the Word Is Suppressed. Proposed legislation takes aim at a host of curricular initiatives, approaches to understanding society (e.g., Critical Race Theory), and organizations — including in Missouri’s House Bill 952, which would ban use of Zinn Education Project materials in all of the state’s schools. What unites these measures is a determination to keep students away from studying how slavery and exploitation based on race are fundamental to thinking intelligently about our lives today.
Teaching an accurate, honest, critical history is an act of resistance to these initiatives. As the Zinn Education Project’s “Pledge to Teach Truth” insists:
From police violence, to the prison system, to the wealth gap, to maternal mortality rates, to housing, to education and beyond, the major institutions and systems of our country are deeply infected with anti-Blackness and its intersection with other forms of oppression. To not acknowledge this and help students understand the roots of U.S. racism is to deceive them — not educate them.
The Pledge concludes: “We will continue our commitment to develop critical thinking that supports students to better understand problems in our society, and to develop collective solutions to those problems. We are for truth-telling and uplifting the power of organizing and solidarity that move us toward a more just society.”
Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed can play an important role in that truth-telling. We hope these lessons can help connect students to the critical wisdom contained in this book.
Echoes of Enslavement — Not Only in the South, but Everywhere
By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca
Students discover “echoes of enslavement” in their own state — discrete sites of remembering, forgetting, honoring, lying, or distorting — in this lesson based on How the Word Is Passed.
How We Remember: The Struggle Over Slavery in Public Spaces
In this lesson, students receive information about each of the sites of memory in How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith and imagine how they might choose to commemorate what occurred there. They then compare that to how the respective site is commemorated and described by docents.
Lives in Our Lineage: A Lesson on Oral Histories
By Cierra Kaler-Jones
In this lesson, students use key excerpts from How the Word Is Passed as inspiration for a project where they tell their and their loved ones’ stories.
Discussion Questions, Writing Prompts, and Teaching Ideas
Here are teaching ideas, discussion questions, and writing prompts to use with Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed.
Poetry of Defiance: How the Enslaved Resisted by Adam Sanchez. Through a mixer activity, students encounter how enslaved people resisted the brutal exploitation of slavery. The lesson culminates in a collective class poem highlighting the defiance of the enslaved.
Clint Smith’s work has been an invaluable resource for my African American History class. His Crash Course YouTube series has served as a great tool for building background content knowledge before diving into documents and sources and coming to our own conclusions.
How The Word Is Passed is another excellent work of Smith’s that I used in my unit on slavery and agency. We used passages from the book as a basis for our in-class project on slave revolts, wherein enslaved people used various forms of resistance to fight back and claim power in an otherwise powerless social and economic construct. We also connected the information in the book to the Netflix documentary, 13th, to further explore Smith’s connection between slavery and the mass incarceration of African Americans even to this day.
I used many of the excepts and quotes that were selected in the Zinn Education Project’s discussion questions for the book as warm-ups for students to get them thinking about slavery not just as an isolated period of our history but as a system that continues to influence economic, political, and social conditions today.
Share Your Teaching Story
Share your story about using any of the lessons or discussion questions for Clint Smith’s book. In appreciation for your teaching story, you can choose Eyewitness: A Living Documentary of the African American Contribution to American History, a compilation of hundreds of first-person stories and primary documents edited by William Katz, or Faces and Masks by Eduardo Galeano, the second volume in his brilliant, student-friendly Memory of Fire trilogy. (These titles were donated to us to share with people’s history teachers.) Share your teaching story.