nonfiction

Book Review: How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith

There has been an amazing crop of history books the past few years that reckon with a lot of the ugly parts of American history, and slavery and racism have been high on the list of subjects covered. I’ve read a bunch of them, with more on my list (I try to space them out; my brain tends to burn out if I read too much on one subject at any one time). How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) is one of the best ones, and it left me not only wanting to learn more, but to read more from Clint Smith.

Author Clint Smith travels around the US and even beyond its borders, in search of the history that continues to bleed from the past and stain the present. Slavery has touched all of American history, no matter how much some groups want to pretend it barely existed or wasn’t a big deal, and Mr. Smith shines a light on much of the history those groups would rather we forget about: Thomas Jefferson’s fathering six children with Sally Heming, his teenage slave; the plantations that dotted the South and were veritable small cities of enslaved people living in hideous conditions while the owner lived in luxury; the plantation-turned-prison that highlights exactly how far we haven’t come (they give tours of Death Row?!?!!?!??).

This isn’t the dry history textbook you read in school. Clint Smith’s voice absolutely shines through, giving this book and the subject the personal, more emotional touch that it deserves. He travels all over the US and even to Africa, where he traces the origins of the slave trade and the scars it left on that continent as well (something I hadn’t yet encountered in writing before, and which made me think). This is history writing at its finest.

The subject matter alone is enough to make anyone with more than one brain cell scream; it’s difficult to read about such horrific injustice, injustice that continues today in different (and not-so-different) forms, without being overcome with rage that people can be so disgusting to each other. But Clint Smith tempers that rage with his calm observances and insight; the people he interviews provide thoughtful commentary and sharp observations on the way the past still affects our present.

This is an amazing, intelligent, perfectly-written book on history that some of the loudest groups out there would like for you to forget exists. Read it for that, but read it more because it’s an incredible piece of writing that will stretch your worldview and make you better-informed about history that the US continues to grapple with every day.

Visit Clint Smith’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz

Sometimes books end up on my TBR because people I love have read and raved about them, and that’s how I came across Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz (Vintage, 1999). My friend Sandy had read it years ago and mentioned it in my parenting forum- she may have even recommended it directly to me as something she thought I’d like. Onto my TBR it went! To be honest, if I’d seen the publication date, I may not have read it; I was a little iffy about starting it when I did see it. Not because I have anything against older books, but sometimes older nonfiction can be out of date and irrelevant. Not so with this book; if anything, this book reveals how long today’s problems have been simmering. It should have served as a massive, massive red flag when it was first published.

The American Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, is still a source of deep fascination for many Americans (and some non-Americans, as Mr. Horwitz shows!). From amateur history buffs to hardcore reenactors, from condescending politicians to red-faced parents screaming in stuffy high school gyms about Confederate flags and racist high school mascots, so many people think they know exactly what the Civil War was fought for and what happened at every step of the way. Some of these people get it. Others have rewritten their own version of history and have dedicated their lives to living in a way that honors that revised history. For so many people, for a multitude of reasons, the Civil War didn’t end and it’s still being played out in various forms today.

Tony Horwitz travels all over the South, visiting battlefields, gravesites, reenactments, museums, and the people who are still living out the consequences of Americans fighting Americans. He covers the tense racial climate that persists in this country, that we never really dealt with and that will continue to persist until we do. He follows a few hardcore reenactors who wear grimy, period-appropriate costumes (that they don’t wash, for authenticity, right along with their bodies…ew) as they tramp across various battlefields in the heat of a southern summer. He profiles a murder that happened because of a Confederate flag, a woman makes a career of performing as Scarlett O’Hara (and is beloved by the Japanese, who apparently adore Southern culture), and visits dusty museums with sometimes bizarre period relics.

There are so many times where this book fairly screams out, “You should have seen this coming, 2021 reader!” The hatred, the racial tension, the division, the utter selfishness and concern for no one but oneself, all of this is right there in the text and makes it fairly obvious that the rise of Donald Trump and the cult that follows him was inevitable and shouldn’t have surprised anyone. It wasn’t a surprise to me, based on other things I’ve followed for most of my adult life, but this book lays it all out there and makes it utterly, utterly obvious in a way that’s honestly pretty depressing.

You don’t have to be a history buff or love the Civil War in order to read this, but it helps. Tony Horwitz has an almost jovial writing style that makes the reader feel as though they’re riding in the car next to him, tramping along beside him on a Virginia battlefield, and listening to him interview his various subjects. He goes places that I wouldn’t feel safe or comfortable in, even after his interviewees make hideous antisemitic comments (Mr. Horwitz was Jewish), and his bravery here is to be admired. This book is a fascinating look at what some people take away from history, what they choose to cling to, and what we as a country can’t move on from. Perhaps we don’t really want to.

There are other Tony Horwitz books that I’d like to read, but as he died, far too young, in 2019, my brain is already screaming at me to space them out, to make what he left for us last, so I don’t know when I’ll pick up another of his books, but this definitely won’t be my last. His style and clarity really spoke to me, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his insights.

Tony Horwitz, who was married to author Geraldine Brooks, died in 2019. Visit his website here.