"How the Word is Passed"
Tonight I am hosting the first meeting of the Civil War Memory book group for this site’s paid subscribers. We are meeting to discuss Clint Smith’s book, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.
As I prepare some notes and questions for this gathering, I’ve been thinking about the book’s title. It’s so evocative of the ways in which Americans have attempted and often struggled to tell stories about the past and to ensure that those stories are passed down to the next generation.
The “Word” in Smith’s title can be parsed or broken down in so many ways, but it is a reminder of the importance of words to the stories we tell about ourselves, our families, our local communities, and nations over time.
The words that make up the stories of our collective past are woven by academic historians, tour guides, museums, teachers, politicians, elders, religious leaders, and poets. Now add to that list, artificial intelligence.
These words form complex webs that shape and even determine our identity. They give meaning to our lives and locate us in communities both local and abstract.
The “How” in the book’s title points to the mechanisms or tools that we utilize to tell and share these stories. It evokes process. Stories about the past are passed down through families, books, tours of historic sites, social media, the classroom, through inscriptions on monuments, to name just a few.
But the title also forces us to step back and ask, what or whose stories are told and passed down. It’s a constant battle because there is so much at stake when we reflect on the words that populate our stories about the past.
Acknowledging the past in all of its richness, complexity, and messiness is also about recognition in the present. Each of us wants to be seen and valued.
We look to the past to help provide meaning in the present and in hope that we may be able to she a little light on an uncertain future.
See you tonight at 7PM EST. Don’t forget your book. :-)
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