In joy and discrimination, poet explores duality of growing up black

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Clint Smith is the author of "Counting Descent" published in September 2016.  Photo by Elnatan Melaku.

Clint Smith is the author of “Counting Descent” published in September 2016. Photo by Elnatan Melaku.

Poet Clint Smith says he began writing “Counting Descent” in response to the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. That shooting by a white police officer sparked weeks of protests and led to a national debate about racial bias among law enforcement officers.

“I was wrestling with what my role was in that socio-political moment. For me, as a writer, I wanted to name and humanize the violence that we were experiencing. It was something real and visceral. And it was something that I didn’t want us to become numb to.”

“How do you navigate a world in which you grow up in a home where you are loved and celebrated and affirmed. And then you go out into a world where you are followed by the police?”

The result is a collection of poems that examine what it means to grow up black in America. Smith recounts moments from childhood when lives were celebrated and juxtaposes them with incidents that have become all too common in the lives of young black men.

“How do you navigate a world in which you grow up in a home where you are loved and celebrated and affirmed? And then you go out into a world where you are followed by the police or discriminated against in the workplace? And how does one make sense of that complicated duality?”

Smith says he experiences that duality all the time, even as he is completing his PhD at Harvard University. He wrote the poem, “For the Taxi Cabs that Pass Me in Harvard Square” after an incident one night when he and several black friends tried unsuccessfully to hail a taxi.

“Cabs continued to pass us until a white friend stepped to the curb of the street and was able to hail one on his first attempt. It is moments like those that disabuse me of the notion that race won’t matter once you attain a certain level of education or credentials or prestige. Blackness remains the coat you can’t take off.”

Smith says black parents have had to develop a new pedagogy in raising children. Last year in a Ted Talk, Smith recalled an incident from his own childhood when he and some white friends were playing with water guns at night until his father pulled him away, sternly lecturing him. “You can’t act the same as your white friends”, his father told him. “You can’t pretend to shoot guns . You can’t run around in the dark. You can’t hide behind anything other than your own teeth.”

And yet in spite of all of the frustration that Smith regularly experiences and witnesses, he remains hopeful that progress is being made. After a year of writing poems that focused on violence, Smith realized that he also needed to write about the small activities of joy that happen everyday, whether it’s his parents dancing in the living room or children playing in the school yard.

“While violence is part of what it means to be part of the black diaspora in the United States, that is not all it means to be black. I felt myself falling into the trap of being defined by acts of violence. But being black is not that one dimensional.”

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He penned the poem, “No More Elegies Today” as a way to help illustrate that complexity. He said poetry for him is always about trying to make sense of the complicated world that he inhabits.

“Sometimes a poem should just be about a girl jumping rope. It doesn’t have to be something that is imbued with more despair.”

NO MORE ELEGIES TODAY

Today I will

write a poem

about a little girl jumping rope.

It will not be a metaphor for dodging bullets.

It will not be an allegory

for skipping past despair.

But rather about the

back & forth bob of her head

as she waits for the right moment to insert herself

into the blinking flashes of bound hemp.

But rather about her friends

on either end of the rope who turn

their wrists into small

flashing windmills cultivating

an energy of their own.

But rather about the way

the beads in her hair bounce

against the back of her neck.

But rather the way her feet

barely touch the ground,

how the rope skipping across

the concrete sounds

like the entire world is giving

her a round of applause.

Reprinted from “Counting Descent” with permission from the author.


Clint Smith is a writer, teacher, and Ph.D. Candidate at Harvard University. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion, a Cave Canem Fellow, and his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, The Guardian, and Boston Review. His TED Talks, “The Danger of Silence” and “How to Raise a Black Son in America” have been collectively viewed more than 5 million times. His first full-length collection of poems, Counting Descent, was published earlier this year.

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