DC Reads 2022

DC Reads 2022

One City. One Book. One Great Read.

How the Word is Passed
About DC Reads | About the Book | About the Author | Events | Related Reads | Online Resources | Discussion Questions

About DC Reads

DC Reads is a month-long DC Public Library event that brings the city together to read and discuss one book. This year's title is the award-winning How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith. During the month of September join members of the community for discussions and events focused on the works that have informed this title and our own local history related to slavery. Take an opportunity to be a part of a community that reads together.

About the Book

How the word is passedBeginning in his own hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader through an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks—those that are honest about the past and those that are not—that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation’s collective history, and ourselves.

It is the story of the Monticello Plantation in Virginia, the estate where Thomas Jefferson wrote letters espousing the urgent need for liberty while enslaving over 400 people on the premises. It is the story of the Whitney Plantation, one of the only former plantations devoted to preserving the experience of the enslaved people whose lives and work sustained it. It is the story of Angola, a former plantation-turned maximum security prison in Louisiana that is filled with Black men who work across the 18,000-acre land for virtually no pay. And it is the story of Blandford Cemetery, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers.

In a deeply researched and transporting exploration of the legacy of slavery and its imprint on centuries of American history, How the Word Is Passed illustrates how some of our country’s most essential stories are hidden in plain view-whether in places we might drive by on our way to work, holidays such as Juneteenth, or entire neighborhoods—like downtown Manhattan—on which the brutal history of the trade in enslaved men, women and children has been deeply imprinted.

Informed by scholarship and brought alive by the story of people living today, Clint Smith’s debut work of nonfiction is a landmark work of reflection and insight that offers a new understanding of the hopeful role that memory and history can play in making sense of our country and how it has come to be.

Check out How the Word is Passed with your DC Public Library Card today!

About the Author

Clint SmithClint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of the narrative nonfiction book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, which was a #1 New York Times bestseller, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the Hillman Prize for Book Journalism, the Stowe Prize, and selected by the New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2021. He is also the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent, which won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award.


Clint Smith at the National Book Festival 
Saturday, Sept. 3, 1:15 p.m. | Washington Convention Center
Kick-off DC Reads at the Library of Congress National Book Festival where Clint Smith will be speaking with Frederick Wherry, Professor of Sociology at Princeton University.

Barry Farm: Community, Land, and Justice
Wednesday, Sept. 14, 6 p.m. | MLK Library
Learn about a former site of enslavement in DC and the vibrant community that is Barry Farm with a screening of the documentary "Barry Farm: Community, Land, and Justice" followed by a panel discussion with filmmakers Sabiyha Prince and Sam George.

Art Afterwords: Pairing Portraits and Prose
Tuesday, Sept. 20, 5:30 p.m. | National Portrait Gallery
Dr. Dana Williams of Howard University will lead a conversation about autobiography and Black representation in the 19th century through the lens of a portrait of Frederick Douglass and the essay "The Site of Memory" by Toni Morrison, both authors whose quotes open "How the Word is Passed."

DC Reads: How the Word is Passed
Thursday, Sept. 29, 6:30 p.m. | MLK Library
DC Reads culminates in a very special conversation between Clint Smith and Hannah Oliver Depp of Loyalty Bookstores. Together they will explore how the legacy of slavery is reckoned with at different historic monuments and the importance of telling the full story of our history.

DC Reads Book Clubs
Multiple Dates and Locations
Neighborhood libraries across D.C. are hosting book clubs all month long to discuss this year's DC Reads title "How the Word is Passed." Check out the library's calendar to find one near you!

Related Reads

Check out these staff-recommended non-fiction, fiction and poetry titles that explore the topics discussed in How the Word is Passed. Click on the images to see the titles in the library's catalog.

Cover image for Set the world on fire : black nationalist women and the global struggle for freedom / Keisha N. Blain. Cover image for The matter of Black Lives : writing from the New Yorker / edited by Jelani Cobb and David Remnick. Cover image for Born in Blackness : Africa, Africans, and the making of the modern world, 1471 to the Second World War / Howard W. French.
Cover image for In search of our roots : how 19 extraordinary African Americans reclaimed their past / Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Cover image for The African Americans : many rivers to cross / Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Donald Yacovone. Cover image for Love for liberation : African independence, Black Power, and a diaspora underground / Robin J. Hayes.
Cover image for Barracoon Cover image for You don't know us Negroes : and other essays / Zora Neale Hurston ; edited and with an introduction by Genevieve West and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Cover image for Snow-storm in August : the struggle for American freedom and Washington's race riot of 1835 / Jefferson Morley.
Cover image for Heroes of the underground railroad around Washington, D.C. / Jenny Masur ; foreword by Stanley Harrold. Cover image for An Afro-Indigenous history of the United States / Kyle T. Mays. Cover image for Unsung
Cover image for Big black : stand at Attica / written by Frank "Big Black" Smith, Jared Reinmuth ; illustrated by Améziane ; lettered by Andworld Design. Cover image for Overground railroad : the Green Book and the roots of Black travel in America / Candacy Taylor. Cover image for Blood in the Water
Cover image for Kindred / by Octavia E. Butler. Cover image for The water dancer : a novel / Ta-Nehisi Coates. Cover image for The house girl / Tara Conklin.
Cover image for The Underground Railroad Cover image for A raisin in the sun : the unfilmed original screenplay / by Lorraine Hansberry ; edited by Robert Nemiroff ; forward by Jewell Handy Gresham-Nemiroff ; introduction by Margaret B. Wilkerson ; with a commentary by Spike Lee. Cover image for If Beale Street Could Talk
Cover image for Hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick : stories from the Harlem Renaissance / Zora Neale Hurston ; foreword by Tayari Jones ; edited with an introduction by Genevieve West. Cover image for The love songs of W.E.B. Du Bois : a novel / Honoree Fanonne Jeffers. Cover image for A Mercy
Cover image for Song yet sung / James McBride. Cover image for The prophets : a novel / Robert Jones, Jr. Cover image for The sweetness of water / Nathan Harris.
Cover image for Freeman : a novel / Leonard Pitts, Jr. Cover image for Sing, unburied, sing / Jesmyn Ward. Cover image for We Cast a Shadow
Cover image for Call us what we carry : poems / Amanda Gorman. Cover image for Black girl, call home / Jasmine Mans. Cover image for Finna : poems / by Nate Marshall.
Cover image for Don't call us dead : poems / Danez Smith. Cover image for Wade in the water : poems / Tracy K. Smith. Cover image for Magical negro : poems / Morgan Parker.
Cover image for Citizen Cover image for Jimmy's blues and other poems / James Baldwin ; with an introduction by Nikky Finney. Cover image for The collected poetry of Nikki Giovanni, 1968-1998 / chronology and notes by Virginia C. Fowler.
Cover image for Felon : poems / Reginald Dwayne Betts. Cover image for In the language of my captor / Shane McCrae. Cover image for Then the war : and selected poems, 2007-2020 / Carl Phillips.
Cover image for Owed / Joshua Bennett. Cover image for Stones : poems / Kevin Young. Cover image for Now and then / Gil Scott-Heron ; introduced by Kate Tempest.

Interested in talking about the topics in How the Word is Passed with your family? Check out these books for children.

Cover image for Your legacy : a bold reclaiming of our enslaved history / written by Schele Williams ; illustrated by Tonya Engel. Cover image for Stamped (for kids) : racism, antiracism, and you / adapted by Sonja Cherry-Paul, from Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds, a remix of Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi ; with art by Rachelle Baker. Cover image for The 1619 Project
Cover image for Controversial monuments : the fight over statues and symbols / Amanda Jackson Green. Cover image for Evicted! : the struggle for the right to vote / Alice Faye Duncan ; art by Charly Palmer. Cover image for Liberty's civil rights road trip / Michael W. Waters ; illustrated by Nicole Tadgell.
Amazon.com: Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness (Ordinary Terrible Things):  9781948340007: Higginbotham, Anastasia: Books Cover image for Kids on the march : 15 stories of speaking out, protesting, and fighting for justice / Michael G. Long. Cover image for What is the civil rights movement? / by Sherri L. Smith ; illustrated by Tim Foley.
Cover image for Juneteenth : our day of freedom / by Sharon Dennis Wyeth ; illustrated by Kim Holt. Cover image for The Clothesline Code The Story of Civil War Spies Lucy Ann and Dabney Walker / written by Janet Halfmann illustrated by Trisha Mason Cover image for The real story behind the Founding Fathers / Rachael Morlock.
Cover image for Never caught, the story of Ona Judge : George and Martha Washington's courageous slave who dared to run away / by Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Kathleen Van Cleve. Cover image for Midnight teacher : Lilly Ann Granderson and her secret school / by Janet Halfmann ; illustrated by London Ladd. Cover image for The thirteenth amendment and its legacy / by Duchess Harris, JD, PhD with Samantha S. Bell.

Online Resources

How the Word is Passed explores whose story gets told and how. The title is derived from a quote from a descendant of Monticello's Black community. It is a reference to the history that is passed down through generations through oral histories that have historically been neglected in how the broader story of Monticello has been recorded and shared. DC Public Library has a variety of online resources, including genealogy databases, oral histories and research tools to help you find your story and learn the story of others.

Family History and Geneaology

Ancestry Library Edition Ancestry Library Edition
Explore the amazing history of you. Answers await everyone - whether professional or hobbyist, expert of novice, genealogist or historian - inside the more than 7,000 available databases. Here, you can unlock the story of you with sources like censuses, vital records, immigration records, family histories, military records, court and legal documents, directories, photos, maps and more.
HeritageQuest HeritageQuest
Powered by Ancestry, this collection consists of a variety of core data sets, including the US Federal Census, FCity Directories, Military Records, Wills and Probate Records, Freedman's Bank Records, US Obituaries from newspapers as well as books, maps and photos. 
Oral Histories
Asbury United Methodist Church Oral History Project
Asbury United Methodist Church Oral History Project features interviews from members of Asbury United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. These episodes are drawn from oral histories of members of one of Washington’s historic Black churches. Asbury has been at the corner of 11th and K Streets Northwest since its founding in 1836. These church members share their personal experiences with Black history, national history and the history of the Washington, D.C., area.
Empower D.C. | Barry Farm Oral History Project
This project interviewed current and former residents to record details about their lives and viewpoints living in a place that, although highly stigmatized and marginalized, has been their home and that of their kin and other members of vital social networks for decades. In documenting the added tension of a community undergoing the dramatic and inexorable shifts of urban redevelopment, changes the community did not request or desire, this project endeavors to capture a disappearing way of life as well as the contours of resistance to displacement.
Ward 4 Redistricting Task Force - Councilmember Janeese Lewis George Mapping Segregation in Washington D.C. | School and Neighborhood Desegregation in Ward 4
Mapping Segregation in Washington DC: School and Neighborhood Desegregation in Ward 4 documents the transformation of Ward 4 neighborhoods and schools during the 1950s and early 1960s. Ward 4 was predominantly white in the early 1940s, but saw a shift in demographics as white families fled after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Bolling v. Sharpe, in which public school segregation was deemed unconstitutional in the District of Columbia. This project primarily consists of interviews with longtime or former Ward 4 residents.
Over the River and Through the Woods | Long Time Residents and Parklands of Ward 8
The forests in Ward 8 lack many of the features we expect of public parks and are sometimes seen as impassible. However, many older residents speak of how they once explored the woods, or of catching crayfish. Some even trapped small mammals. Some built fortresses or played tag among creaking tree trunks. This project collected the memories of Ward 8's people, its wild spaces and hiking trails.
Ralph J. Bunche Oral Histories Collection on the Civil Rights Movement Ralph J. Bunche Oral Histories Collection on the CIvil Rights Movement
Search over 700 transcriptions of interviews of individuals who made history in the struggles for voting rights, against discrimination in housing, for the desegregation of the schools, to expose racism in hiring, in defiance of police brutality, and to address poverty in the African American communities.
The Washington Section, National Council of Negro Women Monument or Movement: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
This project explores the impact of programs and activities The Washington Section, National Council of Negro Women past presidents, members and other key people. The interviews were meant to form the basis of an assessment of the organization’s importance from its founding in 1943 to the present and a guide for the future. The stories collected speak to how the Washington Section established and maintained a strong presence through its involvement with women, children and their families in Washington, D.C., as it worked to meet the mission of the national organization.
Voices of the Fort Totten Storytellers
Voices of The D.C. Fort Totten Storytellers interviews Black residents who lived in Fort Totten in the 1950s, when families began to enjoy the equal opportunity of purchasing homes in the community developed by Morris Cafritz.
We Are Penn Branch DC
This oral history project documented the personal narratives of the first generation of African Americans who integrated Penn Branch, a neighborhood of approximately 550 single-family homes in southeast Washington, D.C. (Ward 7), between 1960 and 1968. The Penn Branch neighborhood east of the Potomac River is bound by Pennsylvania Avenue SE to the south, Pope Branch Park and Pope Creek to the north, Branch Avenue to the west, and Fort Davis Park to the east. It is the sister neighborhood to Hillcrest, which is proudly considered by many to be 'the best kept secret in DC.'

Research Tools
Accessible Archives Accessible Archives
Accessible Archives provides a searchable collection of African American Newspapers from 19th century that includes Washington DC resources. It emphasizes eyewitness accounts of historical events, editorials, popular culture, and commerce during the 19th century for America from resources such as: Christian Recorder, Colored American, Frederick Douglass's Paper, Freedom's Journal, National Era, North Star, Provincial Freeman and Weekly Advocate.
African American Experience The African American Experience
Contains 500 full-text reference and scholarly articles and over 4,000 slave narratives. Includes primary documents, maps and images, lesson plans, and searchable timelines.
African American Studies Center African American Studies Center
Contains over 5,000 biographies, more than 7,500 articles, and hundreds of maps, documents, images, timelines, and charts and tables of African-American life, history, and culture.
Black Freedom Struggle in the United States Black Freedom Struggle in the United States
Website focused on Black Freedom, featuring select primary source documents related to critical people and events in African American history. The resource supports a wide range of students, as well independent researchers and anyone interested in learning more about the foundation of ongoing racial injustice in the U.S. – and the fights against it.
Fight For Racial Justice And The Civil Rights Congress Fight for Racial Justice and the Civil Rights Congress
Search over 56,000 pages of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) involvement in notable civil rights and civil liberties issues such as Willie McGee, the Trenton Six, Martinsville Seven and many others.  The CRC also held many high-profile protests in Washington DC and the UN.  Due to its Communist Party affiliations, the Civil Rights Congress was cited as subversive by  President Harry S. Truman’s Attorney General, Thomas Clark.
Historical Black Newspapers Historic Black Newspapers
Full historic content from five major black newspapers: The Chicago Defender (1909-75), The New York Amsterdam News (1922-93), The Atlanta Daily World (1931-2003), The Baltimore Afro-American (1893-1988) and Los Angeles Sentinel (1934–2005).

Discussion Questions

"Our Past was slavery. We cannot recur to it with any sense of complacency or composure. The history is a record of stripes, a revelation of agony. It is written in characters of blood. Its breath is a sigh, its voice a groan, and we turn from it with a shudder. The duty of today is to meet the questions that confront us with intelligence and courage" - Frederick Douglass

"You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be." - Toni Morrison

"The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future." –Theodore Roosevelt

"History is important. If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it." —Howard Zinn

  1. In what ways has this book affected your knowledge and opinions about the history of slavery in the United States? 
  2. How does this book make you think about differences in the ways schools in the United States teach about the cause and justification for the Civil War? Smith reflects on some of them in the Blandford Cemetery and Galveston Island chapters. How do these differences impact all of us today?    
  3. The book highlights how both the Union states and Confederate states had interests in keeping and maintaining the containment of African and African American people through the system of slavery and disenfranchisement. What are some of the reasons discussed in the Galveston Island, New York, and Gorée Island chapters? 
  4. How were Black women viewed and treated during slavery?
  5. In How the Word Is Passed, Smith relates slavery to lynchings and racially instigated terrorism during the Jim Crow era; to the unjust racial profiling and killings of Black people by law enforcement agents; to the entire mass incarceration system; and to the disparities in access to education, health, employment, and housing opportunities experienced by Black people in the United States today. Do you agree or disagree with him and why? 
  6. Are there monuments, memorials, or museums in your community that memorialize slavery in a manner similar to that discussed in this book? Are there examples of local sites that do the opposite? How does this make you feel?    What historic sites in the US have you visited or want to visit in the future and why?
  7. What kind of power and influence do the monuments associated with hate and racism have? Should they be removed?
  8. Who besides schools has responsibility for telling and teaching our collective (shared) history of slavery? 
  9. Should children learn about the history of Native American genocide, slavery,  and the exclusion from the electoral process of non-propertied men of all colors and all women? Why? 
  10. Some say this book is not an “easy read.” What do you think? 
  11. What does the truth and reconciliation process mean to you? 
  12. Clint Smith identifies several “gaps” in what is known, remembered and discussed about the history of slavery. In what ways has this book helped you identify gaps in your and our collective(shared) memory of slavery? 
  13. What is something you can do to pass the word about the history of slavery in the United States and to help bridge the gaps in our collective misunderstanding and mistreatment of marginalized communities in the U.S.?
  14. Think about your family today and how stories are passed down or not passed down from generation to generation.  Do the stories you have heard growing up have an impact on how you view and interpret US history and culture? Give some examples.
  15. During the era of slavery in the US, enslaved people were constantly under the threat of being sold and or separated from their children, husbands, wives, and other family members, in many cases never to be seen again.  Review and discuss some examples that are mentioned in Clint Smith’s book.  How might American families with formerly enslaved relatives interpret and pass down stories through the years?  How might your view of American history have changed if you had a fuller understanding or had read more about the impact of slavery on some American families while in school?
  16. How the Word is Passed demonstrates and gives us several examples of what we read and understand about history is directly related to how the story is being told.  What are some of the examples mentioned in this book?   
  17. There is a movement underway today in certain communities around the country to remove books from schools and libraries in some communities around the country.  Is this a new way of reinterpreting and denying our understanding of who we are as Americans?
  18. Juneteenth and Emancipation Day are recognized holidays in the District of Columbia.  These days are also celebrated in other parts of the country.  Discuss what you know about these events and whether or not they should be included in discussions about American history?
  19. Based on what you have learned by reading or discussing “How the Word was Passed”, do you think that you might dig a little deeper and be open to hearing other stories that make up who we are as Americans?  

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