Clint Smith’s How The Word is Passed features important information about the places and personalities that fed the slave trade, including how cities like New Orleans played major roles in the growth and maintenance of the slave trade.
Smith takes readers to New Orleans, the Whitney plantation and other southern locales and explains how these places and their leaders contributed to the horror and how some of the vestiges of that sad time can still be seen and visited today.
For example, in his retelling of his visit to the Whitney Plantation, Smith introduces readers to Yvonne, one of the plantation’s tour guides. Yvonne’s family has roots in the Mississippi Delta where the Whitney is located. She left a career in Chicago to return to Mississippi and join the staff of the Whitney to “do something more meaningful and attached to the community.” Smith and Yvonne walk readers through the horror that was plantation life and the remnants of the Mississippi plantation featuring a Wall of Honor memorial documenting some 354 people trafficked to the Whitney in the 1800s. Some were brought directly to the plantation in the transatlantic slave trade while others were born into slavery in the U.S.
In his book, we learn about the plantation’s church where two dozen lifesize clay sculptures represent children who once lived at Whitney. The Children of Whitney was designed by artist Woodrow Nash as a reminder of the impact of slavery on children who, after the formal end of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, bore the weight of the institution.
Reading how women were designated as plantation breeders and impregnated solely by white men to renew and grow the labor supply is heartbreaking. To say the system of breeding was inhumane is an understatement, but it’s hard to disagree with Smith that the rape of defenseless women represented “physical power against them, but also the power of the state, the power of patriarchy and the power of a society” and resulted from uncontrolled and vicious power.
A 1851 quote from an enslaved woman, Julia Woodrich, recorded on the wall at Whitney gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes. “My ma had fifteen children and none of them had the same pa. Every time she was sold she would get another man.” Slavery was cruel to men, women and children alike, but for women, who had absolutely no agency over their bodies, it was beyond heartless. When I think of this kind of maltreatment of women to supply black bodies to power the economic engine of capitalism, I’m more persuaded than ever that reparations are the minimum America owes the descendants of those who routinely suffered such inhuman treatment. I also have to say that recent laws outlawing a woman’s right to choose are reminescent of the cruelty dealt to enslaved women.
Smith’s exploration of slavery and its legacy is painful to read but it certainly deserves to be reviewed by all Americans, most of whom, like me, will realize how gaping a hole exists in their knowledge of the subject.