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NYU Reads

A selection of resources for engaging with the NYU Reads books.

Language, Memory, & Storytelling

"I thought of how this might extend beyond the guides at Monticello, and to the visitors as well. What would motivate a Black family to come spend the day at a plantation if they were concerned about how the story of that land would be told, what kind of people would be standing alongside them as it was told, and who was telling it?"  (p.40)

The book How the Word is Passed is all about language, memory, and storytelling. The author Clint Smith engages with memory and storytelling as a primary thread throughout his research and narrative. The book's title itself is about how stories are shared (i.e. how is the word passed?). He poses important and critical questions - how are stories about slavery in the United States told? Who tells these these stories? How are these stories told (i.e. through what media)? Whose stories are told? What about the untold/unwritten stories? In reflecting on storytelling, the author also engages with questions about language. For example, he states that "there were many occasions throughout the book, especially when I was in an environment in which there were no other Black people present, when I wondered how a tour or conversation might have been different if I was not Black. Would the tour have been exactly the same if everyone on it was white? Would different language have been used? Different framing? What things may have been included or excluded as a result of my presence?" (p. 292). These are relevant critical questions as they relate to language ideologies. Language matters. For example, there is an important distinction to be made between enslaved people versus slaves. The former acknowledges that human beings went through a violent and unjust process that was imposed onto them (i.e. the act of one group enslaving another group in a context of power and domination). The latter term removes this important context and also risks removing the humanity of those who were enslaved. Language is everywhere, from the way we think, how we think with different people, how we reckon with past injustice, how we aim to counter the legacy of slavery, and how we co-imagine a more just world. As such, the following section has resources on language, storytelling, and stories informed by the unjust context and reality of slavery, and also stories of individual and collective determination and resilience.

NYU Library on Language



Video: Documentaries & Movies