Through Poetry And TED Talks, Clint Smith Probes Racism In America

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Writer, teacher, and doctoral candidate in Education at Harvard University Clint Smith. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII) is the 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and has given popular TED Talks on living as an African-American man in the United States.

Earlier this fall he published his first book of poetry, “Counting Descent.” He joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to talk about the book.

Here is Smith’s full reading of his poem “My Father is an Oyster”:

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And here are two of Smith’s TED Talks:

[Youtube]

[Youtube]

Interview Highlights

On what sparked his interest in writing poetry

“I’ve been writing poetry seriously since about 2008, 2009. I had a summer internship in New York City, and I went to the [Nuyorican Poets Cafe], which is a famous poetry cafe on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And so I went there and was just incredibly blown away by so much of the work that I saw, and had never been so viscerally moved by art as I had that evening. And I left, and I was kinda like, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I want to do it.’ And so I’ve been writing since then.

“And then I started graduate school the same week that Mike Brown was killed [in Ferguson, Missouri]. So it was impossible for me to sort of disentangle everything that I was learning of U.S. inequality — and specifically through the lens of race — and then seeing sort of the current manifestations and residue of that history served as catalysts to write this collection. I think for me it was a means of sort of processing and humanizing and seeking to grapple with what we were seeing at that time.”

On how his collection explores black parenting

“I think part of what I’ve been thinking a lot about — and it’s reflected in this collection — is what I call the ‘pedagogy of black parenting,’ and what does it mean for black parents to raise their children in a world that is often taught to fear them, and how does one navigate what is the sort of marathon of cognitive dissonance that it is to grow up in a home in which you feel loved, affirmed and celebrated, and then going out into a world that has been taught to fear you, as a result of nothing that you have done to deserve it.”

On how black people have impacted the U.S. while facing violence and discrimination

“To put it in historical context, the first slaves were brought tot his country in 1619, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, the Civil War ended in 1865, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were 1964 and 1965. And so there have only been 50 years in which black people have even had a semblance of legal and legislative freedom in this country. And for seven times longer than that — for 350 years prior — it was fundamentally legal to discriminate against, to dehumanize and to delegitimize the rights of black people in this country. And I don’t think we put it in that arc of time often enough.

“But the thing is that amid all of that, amid a history in which black people have been subjected to an onslaught of incessant violence, we have still so remarkably embedded ourselves into the social and the cultural fabric of this country. And to me that’s remarkable. I grew up in a home full of joy, affirmation, laughter, and I wanted to capture that as well …we are not singularly defined by that which seeks to kill us, or that which seeks to render us obsolete.”

Poems From ‘Counting Descent’

By Clint Smith

Counterfactual

When I was twelve years old

on a field trip some place

I can’t remember, my friends

and I bought Super Soakers,

turned the hotel parking lot

into a water-filled battlezone.

We hid behind cars

running through the darkness

that lay between the streetlights.

Boundless laughter

across the pavement.

Within ten minutes

my father came outside

grabbed me by the forearm

and led me inside to our room—

his too-tight grip unfamiliar.

Before I could object,

tell him how foolish

he had made me look

in front of my friends,

he derided me for being so naïve.

Told me I couldn’t be out here

acting the same as these white boys—

can’t be pretending to shoot guns

can’t be running in the dark

can’t be hiding behind anything

other than your own teeth.

I know now how scared

he must have been,

how easily I could have fallen

into the empty of the night.

That some man would mistake

that water for a good reason

to wash all of this away.

Ode to the Only Black Kid in the Class

You, it seems,

are the manifestation

of several lifetimes

of toil. Brown v. Board

in the flesh. Most days

the classroom feels

like an antechamber.

You are deemed expert

on all things Morrison,

King, Malcolm, Rosa.

Hell, weren’t you sitting

on that bus, too?

You are everybody’s

best friend

until you are not.

Hip-hop lyricologist.

Presumed athlete.

Free & Reduced sideshow.

Exception & caricature.

Too black & too white

all at once. If you are successful

it is because of affirmative action.

If you fail it is because

you were destined to.

You are invisible until

they turn on the Friday

night lights. Here you are––

star before they render

you asteroid. Before they

watch you turn to dust.

My Jump Shot

My jump shot be

all elbow and no wrist.

My jump shot be

asking what a follow through is.

My jump shot be

hard to look at.

My jump shot be

Medusa.

My jump shot be

the leftovers you don’t really want to eat.

My jump shot be

the fridge that don’t work.

My jump shot be

the sour milk in your cereal.

My jump shot be

getting picked last by the other jump shots.

My jump shot be

old spaghetti.

My jump shot be

gluten-free.

My jump shot be

Michael Jordan when he was seven.

My jump shot be

spending too much time in the library.

My jump shot be

making everybody else feel better about their jump shot.

My jump shot be

asking why we didn’t stick to soccer.

My jump shot be

code-switching.

My jump shot be

making people nervous just because it’s a jump shot.

My jump shot be

the only jump shot in class.

My jump shot be

getting asked to speak on behalf of all the other jump shots.

My jump shot be

wondering why people think all jump shots are the same.

My jump shot be

explaining how jump shots come in all shapes and sizes.

My jump shot be

sounding like it’s talking about snowflakes.

My jump shot be

a snowflake.

My jump shot be

a home.

My jump shot be

the only jump shot I’ve ever had.

Excerpted from the book COUNTING DESCENT by Clint Smith. Copyright © 2016 by Clint Smith. Republished with permission of Write Bloody Publishing.

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