Clint Smith: “Black Poems” | Talks at Google

[MUSIC PLAYING] [APPLAUSE] CLINT SMITH: Much appreciated. How’s everybody doing? AUDIENCE: Good. CLINT SMITH: Good? I appreciate you all coming out. It’s always funny, these
events at workplaces, because you’re just
not doing your work, and you’re like, we’re just
going to put it aside and come kick it. So I appreciate you
coming to kick it. And even if your
supervisors or bosses are like, what are you doing? Maybe they don’t
do that at Google. Maybe they’re like,
yeah go be full people. Or maybe that’s just what it
seems like from the outside. But yeah, I really appreciate
you all being here. And so I’m going to
share some poems. We’ll have some conversations. It’s going to be
chill, intimate. Hello, everybody in
the other places. This is trippy in this
very Google-y way. But I am deeply
appreciative of being here and deeply appreciative
of Google Maps and everything you all do to get me
where I need to be. And so this was
positioned or talked about as MLK, black poems–
thinking about the relationship of blackness to poetry and art. And so we’re going
to talk about that. So for some background– so
I taught high school English for several years in Prince
George’s County, Maryland, before I went to
start graduate school. So I’m a fourth year
PhD student now. I taught in Prince George’s
County starting in 2011. And I tell this
story because I think it’s necessary to understand
how I’m thinking about this work generally is that the
first day of school, I came into my classroom. I had this whole plan for how
things were going to work out. And I had clearly watched
way too many teacher movies, because I was just like, OK,
I got the whole thing down. And so my students were
coming into the room. They were streaming in,
first day of school. Nobody’s very excited. They wish it was still summer. They’re coming in, and
I’m sitting on my chair. And my feet are like
kicked up on the desk, and my arms are crossed, and
I’m just watching kids come in. And I don’t have a
beard at this point. So I’m this person who
looks just like them, like a bunch of 16-year-olds. And they’re like,
who is this student sitting in the teacher’s desk? [LAUGHING] And they’re streaming in. And I get up very dramatically. And I walk to the
board, and I walk over, and I pick up the
chalk, and I write, mass incarceration, food
insecurity, immigration, poverty. And I just write all
of these social ills. And then I throw the
chalk on the ground. And I say, this year, we’re
going to solve all that. And they were just like,
Mr., where’s the worksheet? This is too much. [LAUGHING] What are you doing? This is too much. And it was clear
that I had watched far too many Denzel movies. But I had also read
Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” I’m not sure if
anybody’s read that book. But he’s a pioneer, in many
ways, of critical pedagogy, thinking about education
as a emancipatory project and thinking about how we
can move away from singularly thinking about education in
terms of a teacher bestowing information that a student
simply receives and rather a collective project to
have young people or anybody engaging in this project
understand that the world is a social construction and
thus can be reconstructed and deconstructed and
made into something new and that the
existence of the world is not an event of inevitability
but is instead something that was built and thus
something that can be rebuilt. And so I was like,
I read that book. I watched a couple
Denzel movies. I was like, I’m ready
to be a teacher. Here we go. So I come into the classroom. I do that very dramatic thing. The students are
like, this is strange. I don’t understand. And part of why I say that is
I think I came in and expected to cultivate this classroom of
young revolutionaries from the get. And part of what I realized is
that before you get to shaping and having someone think about
their political sensibilities and thinking about what
they care about politically and socially, I think
what has to happen is people have to do
the work personally to understand who they are
and what they care about, what kind of factors and
conversations and people and places have
shaped who they are. And thus, that gives
them a better sense of how they have a sense of what
they do and don’t care about. And so before I get overly
ostensibly political with my work, I’m a new father. And so I have a little
seven-month-old at the house. And he has just been sleep
trained, which is a miracle. It really makes you
look at parenthood. And you’re just
like, man, everybody who has more than one
child, you are Jesus to me. I don’t understand. I really don’t understand
how people do it. It’s amazing. And shout-out to
single parents, too. I think intellectually
I understood that being a single parent
is a difficult thing. But it’s not until you have
a kid that you are just like, it is astonishing and
astounding what a single parent has to do in order to bring
their child up in a world that specifically– and we have public
policy that specifically make it difficult
for single parents, from your school system to tax
breaks to all of these things. So I’m going to
start by reading– a lot of what I’ve been
writing and thinking about and what’s been
animating my work is fatherhood and a
bunch of dad poems. And so my first book
was this reflection on the history of political
violence against black bodies. And my second book is, my son
is 2, and he likes to smile. [LAUGHTER] So it’s the full scope. So I’m going to
read some dad poems. And just so people know– I think people understand. But this is not a
traditional poetry reading. I think people sometimes
go to a poetry reading, and they think you’re
supposed to sit there, and you’re supposed
to say, hmm, hmm. And then you do a
polite little golf clap. That’s a whack. We don’t do that here. So if you like
something, can you snap? [SNAPPING] If you really, really
like something, we say you do the delicious
chocolate noise, and that’s when you go, mmmm. OK, everybody go, hmmm. AUDIENCE: Hmmm. CLINT SMITH: If you really,
really like somebody that just viscerally moves you, hits
you in the chest, that’s when you say, Jesus,
but with a “SHA” because it’s a secular
space, so we say “Shesus,” and you fall over on
the person next to you. But please check with the
person next to you first. This is flu season. We don’t want people
leaving in bad spirits. Word. It’s funny because
I always do that. I perform and read my poems in
high schools, middle schools, and prisons and universities. And I would do that little
bit for middle schoolers. And so I would go and be like,
yeah, and then you say Shesus, and you fall over on
the person next to you, which was a huge mistake. I should have never done
that, because I said that, and then two seconds
into the poem, it was just a bunch of
10-year-olds “Shesusing” all over each other, and
they were just like– I was like, “The history of
slavery,” and they were like, “Shesus,” and they would just– [LAUGHTER] They were just rolling
on top of each other, and I was like, all
right, we’re going to have to figure out
a new way to enter the poem for the 10-year-olds. So one thing about
having a kid is that things that were previously
these quotidian tasks that you didn’t really put much
effort or thought into become these like very
Herculean activities. And so going to the
grocery store used to be this little thing
you did on the way home. And now it’s, you
grab the diaper bag, and you grab the
bottle, and then you balance him on your foot. And so this is a poem about me
taking him to the grocery store and what our experience is like. In the grocery store, you are
wrapped tightly onto my chest in a cloth that is sturdy
enough to secure you but flexible enough not to let
you breathe without straining. We are perusing
the cereal aisle, and they are playing
Stevie Wonder over the loudspeakers,
which I didn’t realize is something grocery stores did. I mean, I guess I didn’t realize
they played music at all. I mean, I didn’t realize
they could turn aisle seven into a soul train line of
Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Apple Jacks. And at first, I was just
going to nod my head to “Songs in the Key of Life.” But who are we not to take full
advantage of this small moment of funky glory? So I wrap my right
foot behind my left and spin my body like
David Ruffin’s taught us. And when I come back around, I
see you looking at me saying, dad, is that all you got? And you didn’t use those words
exactly because, you know, you have not yet
learned how to speak. But I could tell by
the way your eyes widen and your mouth hung ajar
that you were telling me I needed to step it up. So I took on your clarion
call and pushed the cart aside and grabbed the Aunt
Jemima syrup from the shelf and turned the aisle seven into
a medley of Motown throwback moves, spinning and
dipping past the oatmeal, bopping among the
Fruit Loops, moon walking around the pancake mix. I mean, we turned the space
between Pop Tarts and Quaker Oats into “Showtime
at the Apollo.” And after what seemed like hours
of loosening our appendages to the beat, I looked down to
see the spread of your plump cheeks. And I knew that you were proud. And I looked up and I
saw a store employee at the end of the
aisle staring at us. And I’m sure she is
about to burst out into applause because how
can you not be impressed by the swift pirouette
of a father and son and your favorite cereal bar? And though she does
not clap and though she seems to have called the
manager and though he comes over to say, Sir, we
appreciate your patronage, but your sudden movements
are keeping other customers from purchasing
their breakfasts, we know that we
have put on a show that people will never forget. [SNAPPING] So people always
get this confused. So you snap during the poem,
and you clap after the poem. [APPLAUSE] It’s fine. If you snap after the poem,
it becomes this weird ’90s R&B video, and that’s not the vibe
we’re trying to create here. It’s not even past 5:00 yet. You know you’ve got to hold off. Another thing is that you grow
to deeply appreciate things that you did not
necessarily before. So you have deep
appreciation and love for not only people and not
only the small human being but some of the
inanimate objects that come alongside
this small human being. And so I find myself writing– I just feel overwhelmed with
joy and appreciation, which I think is really important,
because especially over the last several
years and especially in a post-Ferguson moment, been
thinking a lot about blackness and what it means to be
black in this country, as I think many of us
have and putting that in a larger historical arc. And I think having a
child and having a son, having a black boy,
pushes me to recognize the existence of blackness
beyond the violence that we experience. And I think that that’s
incredibly important. People are always thinking
about, how do you find joy? How do you self-care? And for me, there
is no better joy than just getting off
of work and seeing him or the first time that he
laughed or when he smiles. And it’s almost
cliche, because it’s, oh, I love it when
my son smiles, or, I love it when
my daughter laughs. But it really is a
transformative emotional experience. But it is not only
with your children you have that transformational
emotional experience. It is with objects. And so this is my ode to
the electric baby swing. [LAUGHTER] When we first met, I
wasn’t really thinking I needed someone like
you, but a friend told me we’d be a good fit, especially
with everything happening in my life, all the changes,
all the uncertainty. And he said it would be nice to
have someone you can count on. He said he used to have
someone just like you. And while I think he and I
have slightly different tastes, I thought it couldn’t hurt
to at least be introduced. And my wife said it might be
nice to introduce something new into the fold, which left me
a bit confused by how open she was to the possibility of you. I mean, she was never
this open to throwing new things into our relationship
before, but anyway, I agreed. And when you first
showed up at my door, you didn’t look anything
like you did in the pictures I saw online. But you came so broken and
in so many different pieces, which left me worried because
I wasn’t looking for a project. I need to focus on
my career, you know? [LAUGHTER] But you were already
here, and the residue of my Catholic guilt wouldn’t
let me shut the door on you. So you came in, and we
sat together on the floor, and I put on my
favorite podcast, which I hope you didn’t mind. And I helped you put
yourself back together the best way I knew how. And man, am I glad that we got
past that first awkward stage, because now you are literally
the best thing that has ever happened to me. [LAUGHTER] I literally cannot imagine
my life without you. The moment I handed you my son,
he fell asleep in your hold, and I danced in the living
room, because before, he refused to sleep, and now
he sleeps when you hold him, and my wife thinks I love
you more than I love her. And I’m not saying she’s right,
but I’m not saying she’s wrong. But I am saying you
give me something. You give me something
she doesn’t. And don’t get me wrong. I love the mother of my son. It’s just that you make
me feel young again. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] And so part of what having
kid does as well is– a lot of what
shaped my first book is this idea of the
talk, the proverbial talk that black parents have with
their children about how to navigate a world
that is taught to fear. And I think there are different
iterations of that talk. And part of what’s been
fascinating about going on tour with this book and
speaking to different people is you remember how many
different iterations of the talk there are. So when I taught, I taught a
lot of undocumented students. And I hadn’t considered
before that there exists a talk in the immigrant
and undocumented community. I had students who were
coming of age who were eight, nine, ten years old. And a lot of what
we did in our class was creative
writing, and so they would write these first person
accounts of the first time that their parents told them
that they were undocumented or that their parents
were undocumented and that they had this entire
contingency plan for what would happen if ICE came
to the door in a way that I could never imagine
being nine years old and being told by my parents– OK, if ICE comes
you need to go out– I mean, it was
literally like, you need to go out the back door. Go to your aunt’s house. Don’t tell anybody
you know who we are. Don’t tell anybody
your last name, and all of these different
things that I had not fully taken into account that I
think are really important. And I think that women
who are coming of age have a certain type
of talk oftentimes with their parents
about how to navigate a world that’s deeply imbued
with patriarchy and sexism. And obviously, we’re
in a moment where we’re having a necessary and
unfortunately new, more public conversation around that
now and this idea of power and this idea of
consent and making sure that it is not simply women
who have to account for having to navigate what different kinds
of power and consent look like. So a lot of what I’m
thinking about is the talk. And part of what I’m thinking
about in this context is how my father had a
certain conversation with me. His father had a certain
conversation with him. And how different
is that conversation from the conversation that I’m
going to have with my own son? And so it’s this
intergenerational lineage of conversations about how you
navigate a world that tells you who you are or
assumes who you are before you get the opportunity
to define it for yourself. And that’s something that’s
animating a lot of my thinking now. And I recently went
to the National Museum of African American
History and Culture. And I’ve been twice. I went once when
they first opened, and then I went
once another time more recently with
my grandparents. And that was a really
fascinating experience because I was there with my
grandfather and also my son. And so you could feel the
lineage in a very direct way. But we were in this
place in a space that represents a set of
time that we tell ourselves was a long time ago. And I think being there
with my grandfather helped me realize that it
wasn’t that long ago at all. And I had been thinking
so much about that. I remember when I first
read that the woman who cut the ribbon to
open the National Museum of African
American History was the daughter of
an enslaved person. And I was just like, it
wasn’t long ago at all, you know what I mean? I always give this
timeline because I think it’s really important. But the first slaves
came here in 1619. Emancipation
Proclamation was 1863. Civil War ended in 1865. The Civil Rights Act and Voting
Rights Act were 1964 and 1965. So it’s only been 50 years in
which black people have even had a semblance of legal
and legislative freedom. For 350 years prior to
that, it was fundamentally legal for black people to be
dehumanized, delegitimized, disenfranchised in
the eyes of the state, not in an interpersonal– somebody being mean
and using the n-word, but you are a state sanctioned
second class citizen. So if you kick
somebody for 350 years and then you stop kicking them
for a seventh of the amount of time that you
kicked them, it would feel disingenuous to then look
at that person and be like, why don’t you have
the same jobs as me? Why are the health
disparities different? Why aren’t your educational
outcomes different? But we have that
ahistorical conversation in this country all the time. And you can make a very
compelling argument, as I would, that it’s only
a semblance of freedom over the last 50 years because
there is a sort of evolution of and different iterations
of a system of oppression with regard to zoning
law, housing segregation, school segregation,
mass incarceration– the list goes on and on and on. And we have to like empirical
data to demonstrate that. So I think that for
me, I’m obsessed. With history and I’m obsessed
with the way that we– especially in the
American context, because we’re also just
such a young country. I remember when I went to
England for the first time, and I was at Oxford, and they
were like, this building was built in 1012. I was like, AM or PM? What are you talking about? [LAUGHTER] And it was a wild moment
because you’re just like, man, we are not– and then if you go to
China or you go to Iran– you go to some of
these different places. They look at us,
and they’re like, you’re little 250 years
is cute or whatever. But I think that it’s just
fascinating because I remember growing up, and I would look at
the videos of people spitting on the kids integrating
the schools. I would look at the pictures
of people being lynched. And I’d be like, man, thank
god we don’t live in that time anymore. Thank god we have
moved beyond that. But like in those moments, I was
forgetting that people I loved were there, the people I
loved who are still alive, and that the people who were
doing that, the people who were in that lynching photo
who were looking and pointing at that dead black body are
still voting in our elections. And I think that when we have
this conversation about how far have we
progressed, I think we should have an honest
conversation about what progress looks like and
the proverbial moral arc of the universe. And I think it does move
toward progress when it is pushed in that direction. But I think we also misdefine
what progress looks like and how it happens. All that’s to say this
is a poem that I’m thinking about along
those lines and was inspired by my grandfather’s
trip to the museum. We took my grandfather
to the National Museum of African American
History and Culture. He’s 85 years old and his breath
still sings of Mississippi. He is tall but not as
tall as he once was. He is still here in the
way the ocean is still there even when its tide has
receded a bit more into itself. I ask him if he
wants a wheelchair. The museum is large
and expansive, I say, and the doctor says you
shouldn’t be on your feet for too long. He can still walk, though it
is slower and more precarious. He hates when I
bring up the doctor, but he knows that his knees
aren’t what they once were. So he sits on the chair,
lays his walking cane across his lap. And I push him
through the exhibits of time we tell ourselves
we’re long ago even though they were not long ago at all. We passed the
exhibit on sit-ins. And he tells me that those
were the same counters he tried to eat his lunch. We passed the exhibit on
Roosevelt’s New Deal , and he tells me his father
didn’t receive any of its benefits. We pass Emmett Till’s casket,
its bronze hue radiating under the museum lights. I do not need to see the
dead boy’s face in the casket to remember its
tragic contortions. I do not need to listen
to anything other than the light softly buzzing
above us to hear Mammy Teal’s unceasing sobs. My grandfather
looks at the casket. He doesn’t say
anything for a while. He just moves his eyes
unhurriedly across its frame. “He was killed in the next town
over where I grew up,” he says. I nod but do not say anything. I think about the history
of race and racism in this country all of the time. I think about how it shapes the
landscape of everything we see. But sometimes I forget its
impact on those right next to me. I forget that many of the
men spitting on Ruby Bridges in the photo down the
hall are still alive, that the people who
threw rocks at Dr. King are still voting
in our elections. I do not misunderstand
the language of progress, though I do not yet have the
words for a crime that is still unfolding. [SNAPPING] I do not know how to
say that time does not pass as quickly as we
tell ourselves it does. [APPLAUSE] So another part of what’s been
shaping my thinking as of late is– I think we’re in a moment
where, with regard to race, we’re having a conversation
that is more intersectional. And so I’m in academia
and intersectionality, especially in black
feminist circles, has been a conversation that’s
been happening for a long time. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined
the term years ago. And now we are in a moment– which is good that it has
become more mainstream. Online and in news
media articles, people are talking
about intersectionality in a way that does not
remove it as this piece of academic jargon that
is separate from the real, lived material
experiences of people. And so this idea that when we’re
thinking about race that we also have to account
for gender, that we also have to account for
sexuality, that we also have to account for
class is very real, and that any analysis of racism
devoid of those other phenomena is not a rigorous analysis of
how racism manifests itself. My experience in the world
as a straight black man is uniquely different to someone
who is a queer black woman or is uniquely
different to someone who is a trans disabled
person– or whatever it is. I think there are so
many different iterations of blackness and different
ways to understand how a confluence
of identity factors create unique circumstances
and unique ways of navigating the world. Part of what I’ve also
been thinking about a lot is beyond the different facets
of our provincial identity, this idea of a geopolitical
intersectionality and this idea that in
order to understand– and I think it’s been especially
clear over the last few weeks– that in order to understand
racial and social inequality domestically in
the United States, you can’t do that
without accounting for a history of
US foreign policy and US imperialism and
the role that colonization has played in
shaping the landscape of our global community. And I think that
what we’re seeing now is a very real example
of that, that you can’t have an honest conversation– that we’re about to kick
thousands of Haitians out of this country
and not accounting for the centuries of economic
and political exploitation and isolation that Haitians
have experienced since they won the Haitian Revolution in 1804. After Haitians won
the revolution, white people in the West
were like, this is crazy. Slaves are going to
revolt everywhere. Haiti is the first
black republic to exist in the
Western hemisphere. And so we have to make sure
that they are not at all a part of the global ecosystem. And so every Western
nation completely cut Haiti off economically. They didn’t trade with Haiti. They didn’t recognize it
as a legitimate institution until decades and sometimes,
for other countries, centuries later. And you can’t disentangle that
from the economic condition that Haiti exists in now. You can’t say, Haiti
is a poor country that has cholera and
violence and corruption without accounting for the
decades of global corruption that was specifically
pointed toward Haiti. And same with El Salvador. You can’t have a conversation
about El Salvador unless you’re going to talk
about how the US government was specifically funding a civil
war in that country, again, for decades. And so the conversation
around immigration is not something that
can be disentangled from the conversation around
race and racism in the US. And that conversation
can’t be disentangled from what the US and
other countries have done historically
throughout history in order to create destabilized political
and economic conditions in these countries
that are subsequently seeking refuge in our
country because we like– you know what we do? We bomb these countries. And then when they
seek refuge somewhere, we’re like, no, no, no. You can’t come live here. And it is so deeply insidious. And I think that it is
something that I’m trying to account more and more for. And on that note, thinking
about the ways in which how does that, specifically
ideas of nationality– in what ways does that shape
who we deem worthy of empathy and who we don’t? And in what ways does that shape
who we deem worthy of mourning and who we deem worthy of grief? And I think we’ve had a range
of different terror attacks over the last few years. And I think that
it’s become clear– there more than 300 people
who were killed in Somalia a few months ago. Right after that, there
were more than 300 people who were killed in Egypt. A year before that, there were
500 people killed in Iraq. So the most violent and
deadly terror attacks are happening in places
where there are brown people or people who are not from
the west, people in the Global South. And it doesn’t get
the same coverage that Manchester or Berlin
or London or Brussels does. And that’s not to say that
those places should not get attention. I think death anywhere
should warrant investigation and mourning and attention. But it does push us
to ask, why do we find the death of some people
more morally egregious than we do other groups of people? And I’m complicit in that. I have to have a moment,
and I have to be proactive. I remember when I saw what
happened in Somalia, I was like, 300 people, and I
was like, that is terrible. And then I moved
to the next thing. And I was like wait,
wait, wait, wait, wait. What is happening in me? What messages have I been
inundated with that make it so that this feels normative
but when people are killed in a concert in
Manchester, which, again, is egregious and horrible– but I have a very different
emotional reaction to that. And why is that? Why is it that I’ve accepted
that some places just have drones flying
over them all the time? And especially now
that I have a child, I’m so much more acutely
aware of these things. But there was a
little play drone that was flying around
our neighborhood, and everybody in our
neighborhood was like, what is happening? This was a little drone
you buy on Amazon. It was some kid. You had an entire neighborhood
of folks freaking out. I was like, can you
imagine living under drones that you thought
had bombs on them and that could
drop at any moment for every day of your life? And then we think about the
trauma that that exacts? Anyway, I think that
that is the next step in my own thinking around this. And I think that I’ve had a very
provincial conception of race and racism. And part of what
I’m trying to do is work toward understanding the
intersecting phenomenon of how different parts of geopolitical
events and globalization shape these things. So these are three
different poems that I’ve written
thinking about that. And I’m going to just
read these three in a row. Imagine each continent a
splintered tessellation of wayward fragments, each
mass of land attempting to jostle itself free. Pangaea was the last of the
supercontinents, a mass of land that came together and broke
itself apart several times before. It should come as no surprise. Don’t we all find
ourselves coming back to something we can lose
ourselves inside of? Can we blame the desert
for missing the breeze that tumbles across the grassland? Can we blame the
tundra for a desire to witness the
wrestling of pines? Just the other day, a bomb
killed 70 people in Pakistan, and no one around
me heard a sound. These days, I find myself
blaming Pangaea for the sounds I cannot hear. I decry the continents
for their careless drift. I detest the tectonic plates
for their indifferent quake. I wake up in love with
the ocean and fall asleep despising all that it
has put between us. Perhaps if the continent had
never shaken themselves free, we might find ourselves
disabused of this apathy. Perhaps if we could
hear the bomb dropping, we might imagine
what would happen if it struck our own home. I’m nostalgic for a proximity
that may not have mattered. I find my self-loathing
a miracle. The drone was once
a scrap of metal. The drone looked as
if it might be a toy. The drone is not a toy. The drone could
have been something other than a killing machine. The drone could
have been a house. The drone could have been spoon. The drone could have been swing. The drone does not know
who is going to kill next. The drone is going to kill next. The drone has learned
to disguise itself as a shard of sky. The drone’s soft hum
is a disembodied echo. The drone was mistaken
for a star once. The drone renders
itself celestial. The drone scoffs at sovereignty. The drone asks, what is a border
if you can fly right over it? The drone was built by a man. The drone killed a man
and a woman and a child. The drone killed a child
and did not see her face. The drone does not see a face. The drone sees a body,
and then the body is gone. “The New York Times” reports
that 200 Iraqi civilians have just been killed by
US military airstrikes. And the man on television calls
it unfortunate yet inevitable collateral damage. And I wonder what it is that
turns mourning into a metonym or proclamation of conjecture. And I read his bio and
see that he has a wife. And I can’t imagine he
would call it inevitable if her body were pulled
from the quiet implosion of scattered rubble. And I see that he has a son. And I can’t imagine
he would call the boy who bears his name
collateral in someone else’s war. And I see that he
has a daughter, and I think of what it
might mean for someone to render her final
breath an inevitability of global politics. And I understand what he means. I know he means that war
is callous and unforgiving, that a militant can surround
himself with a dozen women and children so that
the pilot must decide between the target and the
soft ache of his own heart’s detonation. I do not misunderstand
the cruelty of war, but I regret the way we
talked about its casualties, how their lives become
tacit admonitions, how the tyranny of a border
made out of thin air means bombs are only
dropped on one side of it. But I too have felt the
empathy corrode inside the most cavernous parts of me,
have taken the quarters from my pocket and used
them to cover my collusion. Who among us has not used
spare change to ornament our contrition, made a garland
of rations atop the bodies of names we do not know? And I’m not sure what it means
for us not to be the ones to fire the bullet but to
behave as if the bullet always belonged in that
chest and not our own. [APPLAUSE] And so to bring it back
more domestically– so everybody’s familiar
with Thomas Jefferson. What I was taught my
American history class– Thomas Jefferson is one of the
first presidents of the United States. He is the intellectual founding
father of this country. He is singularly responsible
for the conception of the Declaration
of Independence and the Constitution. He is the intellectual
founding father of our time, the
paragon of our ideals. And what I didn’t learn
until much later in my life a few years ago when
I read his book “Notes on the State of Virginia,” which
is his manifesto of sorts– and he says in it–
very explicitly, he says, “Black
people are inherently inferior to white people
both in the endowments of body and mind.” And he says, “The slave
is incapable of love. And a slave is incapable
of possessing or sustaining complex emotion.” And he writes about Phillis
Wheatley, who was largely considered to be
the first published African American poet in the
history of the United States. He says, well,
black people don’t possess the intellectual
or artistic acumen with which to create art. So we can call that
something else, but we can’t call it poetry,
because black people do not possess the necessary emotional
capacity to create art. And I think about that. And I think about how that’s
a version of Jefferson that I was never taught. And I think about how
Jefferson is in many ways a microcosm for
the ways in which our notions of American
history are presented in this very narrow, myopic
way, where we are so committed to the idea of
American exceptionalism that we inevitably
suppress anything that makes us look unexceptional. Even the people that we look up
to who were not slave owners– I think about Abraham Lincoln. And I think about how I was
singularly taught that Lincoln was the great emancipator. Lincoln said, slavery is bad. I’m going to free the slaves. Boom, bam, boom. Him and Frederick
Douglass dapped up, and it was cool, right? Right. [LAUGHTER] That is how I thought
about what happened. And then you learn about it. And you’re like, actually, it’s
far more complicated than that. You don’t have to go
over the whole history, but Lincoln had some very
not sophisticated ideas around race. You can go back to the
Lincoln-Douglass debates. And that man is saying, I don’t
think there should be slavery, but I also don’t want a black
person living next to me. So it’s this idea that– I think you are presented
with abolitionism or you are presented
with freeing the slaves as a representative of
a of universal goodness without complicating
that with the idea that like there were a lot of
abolitionists who are also very racist. And how do you hold those kind
of two seemingly paradoxical, complicated things at one time? And then you dig into it and
you realize it’s not necessarily that paradoxical, but it is
complicated in the same way that we have to
recognize that Jefferson is a brilliant, brilliant man
and that he is deeply racist. The same way we have to
recognize that Lincoln– his thinking was evolving and
changing throughout his life. Who’s to say where he would
have ended up had he not been assassinated? But whether it was for
political expediency or whether it represented
his personal views– although Lincoln signed
Emancipation Proclamation, he also didn’t think
that black people were equal to white people. And he was for most
of his life, before he signed the Emancipation
Proclamation, he was trying to get
black people to colonize in Liberia or South America. He was like, we got
to free you, but we don’t want you living here. So another part of my own
political and scholarly project is pushing for a more
complicated and holistic conception of American history,
because I think without that, we fail to understand the where
this country is coming from. And thus, we kind of
fail to understand like where we are as a country. And we can find ourselves,
after Obama gets elected, having what obviously now seems
like a ridiculous post-racial conversation. But I’ll go back and watch
some of my YouTube videos of the coverage right
after he was elected, and I was was just like,
man, very, very smart people were very serious when they
were like, racism is not a factor in America anymore. And I think that part of
why we even had that moment, which a decade removed seems
utterly ridiculous considering what we’ve seen
now, is because we don’t have a true understanding
of American history. And we create mythologies
around our history that are not reflective
of what actually happened. So this is a poem– I’m really interested
in thinking about like our founding
fathers and who they were, their complicated dualities. What we know is that 12
of our first 18 presidents owned slaves. Eight of them owned slaves
while they were in office. And this poem letter
to five of them. I used to memorize all
my poems, and I have not because I’ve not gotten
sleep for like seven months. So if I stumble over this
be like, it’s OK, Clint. I can imagine it’s difficult
to not get consistent sleep. And then we’ll just
keep it moving, and I’ll read
something from paper. “Letter to Five
of the Presidents Who Owned Slaves While
They Were in Office”– George Washington, when
you won the revolution, how many of your soldiers did
you sent from the battlefield to the cotton field? How many had to trade in
their rifles for plows? Can you blame the slaves who ran
away to fight for the British because at least
the redcoats were honest about their oppression? Thomas Jefferson, when
you told Sally Hemings that you would free her children
if she remained your mistress, did you think there was
honor in your ultimatum? Did you think we wouldn’t
be able to recognize the assault in your signature
as raping your slave when you discussed it as bribery
and make it less of a crime? When you wrote the
Declaration of Independence, did you ever intend
for black people to have freedom
over their bodies? James Madison, when
you wrote to Congress that black people
should count as 3/5 of a person, how long did
you have to look into slaves to figure out the math? Was it easy to chop them up? Did you think they’d be
happy being more than just half human? James Monroe when you proposed
sending slaves back to Africa, do black bodies feel
like rented tools? When you branded them, did
the scar on their chest include an expiration date? When you named the
country of Liberia, were you trying to be ironic? Does this really
count as liberation? Andrew Jackson, was the Trail
of Tears not enough for you? Was killing Cherokee, Choctaw,
Creek, Seminoles not enough to quench your imperialism? How many brown
bodies do you have to bulldoze before you
can call that progress? Mr. Washington, Jefferson,
Madison, Monroe, Jackson, when you put your
hand on the Bible and swore to protect
this country, let’s be honest in who
you were talking about. When the first Independence Day
fireworks set the sky aflame, don’t forget where we
were watching from. So when you remember
Jefferson’s a genius, don’t forget the
slaves who built the bookshelves in his library. When you remember
Jackson’s victories in war, don’t forget what he was
fighting to preserve. When you sing that this
country was founded on freedom, don’t forget the shackles
dragging against the ground. My entire life, I’ve been taught
how perfect this country was. But no one ever told me
about the pages torn out of my textbooks, how black
and brown bodies had been bludgeoned for three
centuries and find no place in the curriculum. Oppression doesn’t disappear
just because you decided not to teach us that chapter. [SNAPPING] If you only hear one side
of the story, AT some point you have to question
who the writer is. [APPLAUSE] Keeping the theme
of history going– and I’ll just do this one,
and then I’ll one more so we have some
time for questions. Another thing that’s
an example of something that I didn’t know– my next book is– I’m writing lots of
dad poems, and then I’m writing lots of, you lied
in history class, poems. And so in the next book, it’s
going to be like, oh, man. His first carrot. That was so cute. And then it’s like, the
Confederacy is a lie. But something that’s
an example of something that I was taught,
a discrepancy– so I was taught the New
Deal, as many of us– this was in my
American AP class– that the New Deal was the
most progressive series of legislative acts that
have ever been signed, especially in the 20th century. They are responsible for
intergenerational wealth. They are responsible for
millions of families moving up to the middle class,
into the suburbs, being able to purchase
homes, get an education. They are literally
the economic bedrock upon which the
contemporary middle class in the 20th and 21st century
is founded, which is true. What I wasn’t
taught, what I didn’t realize till much later is that
black people were specifically left out as beneficiaries of
these pieces of legislation for many decades after
it was first laid out. So black people
didn’t have access to social security, minimum wage
protection, housing mortgages, health care, government,
higher ed assistance, Veterans Affairs. And so you have the thing that
is responsible for creating the contemporary middle class. You give it to one
demographic of people. Then you don’t give it
to an entirely different demographic people. And then people want to
act surprised generations later when these groups have
like disparate outcomes, again along the lines of education,
along the lines of economics, along lines of political
representation, all of these different things. And so I gave that
timeline earlier. But again, this is the 20th
century when this happened. We don’t even have to
go back to slavery. We don’t have to go back to
what happened between the 1619 in 1865. We could go back to
what happened in 1944. We could go back to
what happened in 1963. And so that’s shaping
a lot of my thinking. And I think the New Deal,
especially because even today we discuss it as the universally
celebrated singular good, and its history is much
more complicated than that. So this is a poem
about the New Deal. In 1932, the Great Depression
had taken America by the throat and rendered it an alchemy
of dust and rations. The country had been
decimated by a market that could no longer hold up
a history of hypocrisy, and it crashed like something
that has never before known what it meant to fall. In response,
Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a series of legislative
acts designed to lift the country from its knees. The laws transformed
the economy and are responsible for the
foundation that created the contemporary middle class. In the 1930s, 75 percent
of southern black folks were either maids
or farm workers. In the 1930s, the
only workers who didn’t qualify for the
benefits of the New Deal were maids and farm workers. I was told you can only call
something a coincidence if it wasn’t done on purpose. A coincidence is
texting with a friend and then running into
them at the grocery store. A coincidence is
showing up to the office in the same new shirt
as your coworker. A coincidence is walking
past a vending machine and finding some
quarters in your pocket. Taking away all federal benefits
from an entire demographic of people feels like
we should call it something different,
something a little more honest, something a little
more empirically grounded. But see the thing
about racism in America is that if you don’t
call it racism, people think it isn’t there. It’s the shadow no one can
see when it is standing right behind you. It’s the carbon
monoxide killing you in a room where
there is no smoke. A million black folks
end up in prison, and people shrug and
ask, what happened? An unarmed man is
shot by police when he is running in the
opposite direction, and people call it self-defense. Interstate highways are built
through black communities, and people suddenly
can’t explain why all the businesses have failed. If you take away social
security, minimum wage protection, housing
mortgages, and health care, you don’t get to then turn
around see poverty and act like you’re surprised. How can you take the
water from a fish tank and not expect the fish
to suffocate, to gasp for its life, to flap
violently against the surface while you watch from the
other side of the glass? When a fish dies
from having no water, do we call that a coincidence? If you block the sun
from reaching a tree, do you have to ask
why it doesn’t grow? The government won’t
give you a loan to buy a house in a
better neighborhood. Then they blame you
when your son gets shot. The city never built a
hospital on your side of town, then they tell you it’s your
fault that the cancer spread. They stuff you in
the public housing and then tear it down and ask
why all the schools are empty. If we didn’t say
it directly, you can’t blame us when it happens. If we continue to
keep our eyes shut, it can’t be our fault
that we don’t see you. But see, this
country is only able to whisper the words
“American exceptionalism” because we’re so good
at covering our ears while someone else is screaming. [APPLAUSE] I’m going to read one more poem. So this from my book, which I
guess is for sale in the back. It’s been out for a
little over a year now. I feel very proud of it. I remember when
I first got it, I was just touching it and just
rubbing it against my face. And I emailed my publisher,
and I was like, yo, what is this
texture of the book? It feels so good. I just can’t stop touching it. And he responded, and it
was spelled, M-A-T-T-E. And I was like, oh, matté. [LAUGHTER] And my wife– she was
like, no, it’s “matte.” And I was like, that might
be “matt,” but this is matté. [LAUGHTER] So I think personally
they messed up with the pronunciation. But I have no control over that. So I’ll read one
more poem from this, and then if anybody
has any questions. And if not, I appreciate
you all coming out. So again, this book is
thinking a lot about, what is the marathon
of cognitive dissonance that it is to grow up as a young
black person in this country? And how does one navigate
a world in which– in my case, in which I grew
up in a home in which you feel loved affirmed and
celebrated and then go out into a world in which
you are constantly rendered a caricature
of someone else’s fear? And how do you make sense
of that constant sense of cognitive dissonance? Dubois talked about it– double consciousness. How do you make sense
of seeing yourself one way and the rest of the
world seeing you another way? And so that shapes a lot of
how this book is formatted. And what I wanted to do– there are a lot of poems in here
that– this was written largely in the two years
after Ferguson when I’m trying for myself to
make sense of everything that I see happening. And this is also
at a moment where I’m encountering a lot of this
history for the first time. And so it is thinking a lot
about history and violence. But I gave that timeline before. But what’s most remarkable to
me about that timeline is not simply how long it is
or even how short it is but what black folks have
been able to do despite it, what black– and this is
another wonderful part of the African
American History Museum is that you move from slavery
to reconstruction to Jim Crow, and you continue to move up. And as you ascend floors,
you get to the top. And it’s like all of the
things that black people have contributed culturally
to this country, and it is astonishing
that you’ve had your foot on people’s neck for centuries. And while you’ve had
your foot on their neck, they have still
created and deeply embedded themselves into
cultural and social fabric of this country. And for me, that’s astonishing,
and that’s something I think about all the time. So I wanted those moments
captured in this book as well, the moments of
celebration and laughter and levity. And there was a lot
of that in my home. And my parents always listened
to Maze and Frankie Beverly. Do you folks know who Maze
and Frankie Beverly is? The black folks are like, yeah. The white people are like,
I’m going to Google it. [LAUGHTER] And so it’s a funk
band, and it’s played at every black
family function of all time. And it was a just like
ever-present fixture in my home. And it was always on. And so my parents
used to dance together a lot in the kitchen, which when
I was a child, I was like, ew, that’s gross. You’re doing too much. I’m trying to eat my
spaghetti, and you’re out here jiggy, jiggy. That’s too much. And now as an adult, as a
married person with a child, I’m like, OK, you all just
trying to keep the fire alive. I see you. Do your thing. I’m going to go
to the other room and finish my Thanksgiving
turkey, but do you. And so this is an ode to them. When Maze and Frankie
Beverly come on in my house, mom’s eyes close. She raises the
spatula as if she were going to orchestrate
the gumbo into existence turns the knob so that we
feel the bass thundering in the walls. At the start of verse
one, she points to pops, walks over, shoulders
oscillating back and forth between the melody. Pop does the same dance
he’s been doing since ’73– left knee, right me, pop, snap,
left knee, right knee, pop, snap. At the start of verse two,
pops drops his shoulder, bites his bottom lip, and does
some sort of spin move pivoting on his left foot. When he does this, it’s
unclear if he’s hurt his back or if he’s doing an unauthorized
version of the sprinkler. The way his hands flip
and turn and slap boxes the sky between them, the
way mom looks confused as to what exactly is
happening, but she goes with it because she’s fly
like that and has never left pops hanging on the dance floor. At the start of verse
three, smoke alarms are going off in the kitchen. Their hands are
clasped now, fingers interlocked, swinging
each other back and forth. Their feet are now
music of their own. At the end of the song,
Frankie’s voice begins to fade, but they keep dancing. She holds her hand on
the back of his neck. He pulls her in closer. She looks at him, kisses him
between the sweat rolling down his forehead, and they
laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh, long after
the song has stopped. Thank you all. [APPLAUSE] Any questions? AUDIENCE: How’d you
get into poetry? What inspired you? Was it a figure who
resonated with you? Or was this all [INAUDIBLE]? CLINT SMITH: How did I
first get into poetry? I remember the first poem
that I wrote was at a place called Sonship Earth. And it’s this program
in Louisiana where they take public school kids. And they bring them to the
woods for this environmental and conservation training. It’s a little three-day thing. We had this thing
called our magic spot. And so every day, we were
supposed to go out into– this is held in the woods,
and you go to your magic spot. And it’s this weird
thing, looking back now, because it was these benevolent
white people who were standing in front of these little
black and brown children, and they were, like, run, go. And then they stood behind us
as we ran into the woods, which is a strange aesthetic. But we ran into the woods. We ran to our magic spot. And in my magic spot was where
I first started writing poems that I can remember. I remember I came
back that night. And at dinnertime, everybody
presented, if you wanted, the work that you had done. And I came back and
I remember the poem. It was, “An animal is a thing
that lives and breathes. We must not mess with its needs. If we do, we’ll pay the price
with a future world not so nice.” And then all the girls
were like, oh, my god. And I was like, oh, this
is the joint right here. Who needs to play sports when
you can just make rhymes? So that is real. But more seriously, I think–
in 2008, I went to a place not far from here, the
Nuyorican Poets Cafe. If you haven’t been, it’s the
Lower East Side of Manhattan here. It’s every Friday night. I know that they’re
closing soon. But I think it’s still
happening on Friday nights. And it’s just astonishing. And I remember the
first time I went there. The first poem I ever heard was
a woman who had cerebral palsy. And in three minutes, after
I heard that poem, the way I thought about an
entire demographic of people completely changed. And I had never experienced
spoken word vibe before. I had seen Def Poetry Jam, and
I was like oh, that’s dope. That’s cool. But seeing it in person
was an intimately different experience. And I remember being
like, man, disability is never something that
was at the forefront of my consciousness. And then I heard this poem
that was fundamentally transformative for the way
I thought about the lives and rights of disabled people. And from that moment
on, I have like never thought about the issue
the same way again. And I was like, I
don’t know that I’ve been moved by a
piece of art that quickly in that way before. So I was like, I don’t know what
this is, but I want to do it. And I started writing very
bad spoken word poems, like many of us do
in college, I think. And I just wrote bad
poems for a long time. And I started to poach
a group where I went to college, Davidson College. And then I lived in
South Africa for a year. And in Johannesburg,
there’s actually a very vibrant
performing arts scene. And so I think I
learned a lot there. And I came back and moved
to D.C. Where I taught, and I was on the DC Slam Team. And that’s where I got very
immersed in the poetry slam competitive community. And I don’t slam any
more in the sense that I don’t do competitions. But I think, for
me, that community has shaped every
part of my writing and political life,
honestly, since then. And it’s interesting to now
be in a moment in my career where I contribute pretty
regularly to “The New Yorker” and different
publications like that. And I think people
sometimes have this idea that, oh, either
explicit or implicit, they’re like, I have
graduated from spoken word on to like the more like
esteemed literary spaces. And I have to like remind people
that that’s not a compliment, because part of
what it is, is it reflects this a historical
and both racist and classist conception of what is a
legitimate literary product and the idea that spoken word
exists lower in many people’s minds on the literary hierarchy
than writing for “The New Yorker” or things like that. I try to disabuse people
of that false dichotomy, because I’m like, I
recognize that these are uniquely different types of
mediums through which writing is presented. But only reason we think that
one is better than the other is because we’ve been
inundated with messages that are like
based on capitalism and white supremacy and
notions of what is legitimate and what is not. And there’s nothing more
legitimate about publishing something in a fancy
New York magazine than there is about doing an
open mic in southeast D.C. And so for me, whether it
be an essay in a magazine or whether it be me presenting
my poems, whatever it is, I think that for me,
they are all just extensions of the same
intellectual and artistic project and not reflective
of thinking that one is better than another. It’s simply recognizing
that each of them resonate in different ways. And there are
certain things that I write that I think are better
poems than other things that I think are better
essays and other things that I think are better social
science peer reviewed article journals. And that’s a very long way
of answering your question. But yeah, I guess
that’s my therapy, too. I’m like, let me tell you– [LAUGHTER] AUDIENCE: Sort of building
on [INAUDIBLE] question, what are some of your favorite
or most influential authors, works, books? I was going to ask, what
are you reading right now, but then I remembered you
have a supplemental, so feel free to pass on that one. CLINT SMITH: That’s fair. And I appreciate the
consideration and the empathy. What am I reading right now? And what authors have
been influential to me? Man, so many. Right now, I am
reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Lowland,” “Lowland.” She’s also one of
my favorite authors. I remember the first time I
read “Interpreter of Maladies,” I was just knocked out. I also had a huge crush
on her for many years. I was just like,
this was amazing. So I’m reading that. I’m reading “Stamped
From the Beginning” by Ibram Kendi, which is a book
about the history of racism and racist ideas. I’m reading “The Can’t
Kill Us Until They Kill Us” by a friend of mine,
Hanif Abdurraqib, who’s an amazing poet and
cultural critic. Generally, people who
have been influential– Jhumpa Lahiri, Juno Diaz
Dave Eggers, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison. She’s only written one
book, but it blew me away. Yaa Gyasi wrote “Homegoing.” And that book was
just like, oh, my god. I recently read “Exit
West” by Mohsin Hamid. I never read him before, and
that was my favorite piece of fiction last year. I admire fiction writers because
writing a novel in my mind is one of the hardest– I wrote a novel for
my senior thesis. It was a “novel.” It was a very thinly
veiled memoir. [LAUGHTER] I showed my mom. And it was very clear that
certain people in our family were the characters whose
names were just switched, and it was the exact
same biography. But yeah, so those are
more literary folks. But a lot of sociologists
and historians– David Blight– writes a
lot about the Civil War. What’s his name, who wrote– Ira Katznelson,
who’s the historian who wrote about the New Deal. He wrote that book. I can send you a whole list
if you want to email me, yeah. Yeah. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]? Do you think Lincoln can
be forgiven as [INAUDIBLE] his time? And in contrast,
50 years from now, what do you think
maybe people of color will not forgive
white people of today? CLINT SMITH: Can
Lincoln be forgiven as a product of his time? And 50 years from
now, what do I think– what people of
color will be not be able to forgive
white people for? So Lincoln’s complicated,
because in many ways, I admire Lincoln a lot. I think that Lincoln
is someone who did something that was
incredibly unpopular when he did it, despite
the objections of like many, many people,
despite months before he signed that document of it looking
like the Confederacy might win. Did he have not very
sophisticated, not very well-developed racial
analysis and ideas? 100%. He was racist. He was racist lite. He wasn’t lynching people. It depends on what the
metrics of that time are. If everybody else around
you is lynching slaves, and you’re just
like, I’d rather not live next to a black person,
but I’ll shake their hand, you’re not not racist. You’re just– but
it’s all relative. But again, it’s this
strange kind of factual. Lincoln was killed in
’65 after the war ended. And what Lincoln– what
I admire about Lincoln is that his ideas evolved a lot. And that he was open to being
pushed and that he was open. I mean that’s what the whole
Doris Kearns Goodwin book is about, “Team of Rivals,” right? That he’s surrounded
himself with people– [INAUDIBLE] himself
with people who didn’t agree with him, who
didn’t agree with each other. And I think that that is the
case along lines of race to me. The movie “Lincoln”
was great, but I wish that Frederick Douglass
was in it because in real life, He and other black and
white abolitionists played a huge role in pushing
Lincoln to get to the point where he would sign something
like the Emancipation Proclamation. So I think that we
should just call it like it is– that
Lincoln was a very impressive man on many fronts. He could have been less racist. But– and if he
had not been killed at a relatively
young age, maybe he would have come around
to thinking even more differently, because he
was on a certain trajectory. But it’s difficult to say. So it is not– I bring up about
Lincoln what I did because I think it is important
to analyze people holistically, not because I think that he is
worthy of like a specific sort of castigation or
anything like that. What do I think that
people 50 years from now will think about what
white people have done? There’s probably
a lot of things. What I will say is– so I’ll say one more thing
about the person of their time. Part of me is sympathetic
to that and part of me is like, there were many
people of that time who weren’t racist. There were many people
of that– you know, like, that’s the argument
that’s like, oh, well, can’t we forgive
people because they were products of their time? I think that that
is in part true. I think it is difficult
to grow up in a world where something is
seen as normative and then to move beyond that. I think about the way
that this country– and it happens in different
ways at different times. I think this country clearly– you know, just over the course
of the Obama presidency, the way that issues of
LGBTQ folks was discussed was completely
different at the end than it was at the beginning. You know, represented
mostly through him, who started his campaign being
like, I don’t think gay people should be able to marry, and
then ended with like rainbow flags on the White House. And I think that that is
reflective of people’s capacity to change. And I think that those are
moments where I’m like, Lincoln could have changed
in a similar sort of way, but we’ll never know. But it is also important
to know that the “they are men of their time” argument
doesn’t go all the way, because there were many people
of these times who did not subscribe to these sorts
of really harmful mindsets around these things. The thing that I think about,
50 years from now and 100 years from now, that I think
many of us participate in, and that I have
to wrestle with– I think that people are
going to look back and say, I think there are many– so
I’ll say it on two fronts. I think that people
generations from now will look back at the
way we use fossil fuels and they will be like,
how could anybody– how could you all know what
you were doing to the planet and then still do it? Right? In the same way– in a similar way that
we look at people who owned slaves and we’re
like, how could you do that? I mean, not to make them
analogous, because they’re not, but I’m just thinking to
create sort of analogs, like, we look back
and we’re like, I would never own a person. And I think that it
is not far-fetched that people decades from
now will look back and be like, I would have never put oil
in my car, like, that’s crazy. How could you do that when
you knew what it was doing? I think about it– I’m doing my
dissertation on people who are serving life sentences
and in my scholarly work thinking a lot
about incarceration. And I think about that in
terms of the death penalty all the time. I think it’s egregious
that we still kill people in the name of the state. We, like, murder people, right? And that we have
convinced ourselves that there is any
sort of justice in that is utterly bizarre. But I think to go further, that
like putting people in prison for the rest of their lives. I mean we are the only
country in the world that sentences children to life
without the possibility of parole. Only country in the world. And many of the men
that I’m interviewing for my dissertation,
the men and women, they’ve been in prison since
they were 15, 16, 17 years old. And I’m just like– I’ve been working in prisons
for the past few years. It’s not until you
are in a prison that you are fundamentally
aware that you are in a cage and that you have human beings
that have been sentenced to spend the rest of
their life in a cage with no opportunity to get out. I think that generations from
now we will look back at that and be utterly disgusted
by the fact that we– the same way we look back
now at the guillotine. The guillotine. You know, the French were out
here chopping people’s heads off left and right. And we look back,
we are like, those unsophisticated silly people. Even hanging– like hanging. It wasn’t until a
couple of decades ago– in some countries,
they still do that, right? Not only do you get the death
penalty, but you will be– you are lynched and
you are put in a noose. So those are a couple
of things that I think. And it is hard. And I think that part of
what we have to try to do is think about
the things that we are doing that seem like
normative for what’s around us, even though we know
they are harmful. And that’s easier
said than done. But it’s important
to think about. SPEAKER: Clint, will
you say, are there any other questions on the GVC? CLINT SMITH: Any other
questions on the TV? Hey. AUDIENCE: We are in
Boulder, Colorado. CLINT SMITH: Oh, that’s so cool. AUDIENCE: So, nice to meet you. CLINT SMITH: It just popped up. AUDIENCE: My question is
geared towards the conversation that you will eventually
have with your son about how he is to do this space, just
emphasizing general– like, what is that conversation
going to look like between you and your son? And how is that going to
vary the conversations that you’ve had from
[INAUDIBLE] in the past? CLINT SMITH: Yeah, thank
you for your question. I would say I think the thing
that’s most important about navigating that conversation
is, how do you convince a young person– and a child– how do you make them aware of
the very real realities that exist in the world and
the very real dangers that in many ways for many people
are like an existential threat to their very existence,
without making them seem or feel as if it is their fault? Right? Like, how do you navigate
that difficult line between– people make a decision about
who you are before you ever open your mouth. And the fact that
people are doing that is not a reflection of you,
it is a reflection of them, it is a reflection of a
larger culture in society that has problems around
racism or sexism or– you know. And I think that there
are a lot of conversations I’m going to have to
have with my son that are similar to conversations
that my family had with me that are also different. I think the nature
of the conversation that I have with my
child about consent will probably be
different than the conv– I didn’t really have
any conversations about consent growing up. That wasn’t the– not because
my parents didn’t care. But that wasn’t
something that they were thinking about in the same– I think we’re in a moment
where we’re thinking very differently about it. And I think that’s the power of
the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up. I always think of
political change with a big P and then the little
P. So I think big P is like, Black Lives Matter happens,
progressive DAs are elected, mass incarceration decreases,
better police practices are implemented. Those are all important. It’s also different– there were
some Pew polls that came out a couple months ago,
and they’ve asked– this is kind of tangential
to your question, but still related. And they’ve asked
black people who over the course of the last–
since like ’74 or something. These are rough numbers,
but essentially one of the– they’ve asked a
series of questions every year. One of the questions
is, do you think black people are responsible for
their own economic conditions? And they did split it by
Republicans and Democrats. For Republicans, it was
like 70% or 80% think yes, and that’s remained
pretty steady throughout. And then for Democrats,
it was like 60% think yes. And then in 2014, there
was this precipitous drop– not for Republicans, which
is a whole other talk, but like for Democrats– that went from like
60-something to 30-something, in terms of people
responding to that question. Because we found ourselves in
a cultural and social moment where people were
having completely different conversations
about the history and different manifestations
of race and racism. And so then, like a 30%
drop in like three years, around people thinking
that black people are responsible for their
economic conditions and political conditions,
and then not thinking that is pretty significant. In the same way that
the #MeToo movement, in the way that
it is navigating– and all movements
are messy and are going to have things that
are difficult for anybody in that movement. But I think what it has
done, because it has brought to the forefront an entirely– it has shifted the framework
and paradigm of the conversation around consent in
a very public way, in a way that was
simply not the case. I’m having conversations with
my friends on my group chats that are talking
about consent in a way that we have never
spoken about consent. And that is powerful to me. And that’s important. And so those are
all conversations that I’m going to have to figure
out how to have with my son. And some will be the same,
some will be different. And I think one
thing you also learn as a parent is how imperfect
your own parents are, because you realize
how imperfect you are. Because I think you
grow up and you know, sometimes you’re like,
oh, there’s– like, something happens when you
become a parent that you just got it all figured out. And you like definitely don’t
have it all figured out. And so part of it
is giving myself space and room to go back
into the room the next day and be like, you know,
I said this one thing, but I really want to correct
myself or build on that. So yeah. SPEAKER: Two more questions? CLINT SMITH: Sure. Or two more questions. One, two. AUDIENCE: First of
all, I’m a huge fan. I listen to you all
the time, Clint Smith. I, I, I– CLINT SMITH: [LAUGHS]
Subscribe to “Pod Save the People,” if you’ve not. Rate us, it’s five stars. AUDIENCE: How do you think
race relations and race dynamics will change as the
population or the demographics become a little bit
more interracial? And how do you
think racial lines will start to blur in
terms of [INAUDIBLE]?? CLINT SMITH: Yeah. Yeah, I think you
alluded to it there. How do you think that
race is going to shift, and racism and ideas
of race and racism will shift over
the course of time as the demographics of this
country shift, in essence? So do I think the final piece
you brought up, around how race– that alluded to the fact that
race is not a definitive line, right? You know, I always tell people
that the Irish and the Polish and the Italians,
they were not white when they came to this country. They were not– they were
considered like a fundamentally different– of a fundamentally
different race. And it was only over time
that they became white, that they were acculturated
and assimilated into whiteness in
the way that we think about it in a
specifically American context. And so we have all these stats. What is it, by 2043 or
something like that, that it’s going to be a
majority minority country. Yes, and I think it’s
important to consider the ways that certain people
who may not necessarily be considered– who are considered brown
now, or may not necessarily be considered such
30 years from now. I think all you have
to do is look at– think about if Ted Cruz didn’t
have the last name Cruz, you know, what– there’s nothing about his
politics that reflects brown– not to say brownness
and blackness is homogeneous in terms
of political talk. But you know, you
have Marco Rubio and you have Ted
Cruz as examples of people who but
for their last name, they would navigate the
world as white men, right? And I think Latino folks are– that is the next sort of– you have many people coming
to the United States who are of Latino origin
who marry white people, and their children might
not necessarily identify– depending– and part of it
depends on their last name, it depends on a lot of things. But they might not
necessarily readily identify as a brown
person more than they would do as a white person. I think you see that
already beginning to happen. And I think that’s going
to continue to happen and I wouldn’t be surprised– and
that’s why I think people were kind of surprised at– at the exit polls from
the 2016 election, people were like, oh, like the
Latinx community is going to– like, that is who’s going to
overwhelmingly vote Democrat and going to save everything. And I think it’s 35% of
people who are on the census Hispanic voted for Trump. So like, it is, again,
these political blocs are not homogeneous. You have a lot of
people who think of themselves as
Hispanic, but also think of themselves as white. And over time, that is going
to continue to look different. The demographics of this
country are certainly shifting in ways that
are important and helpful for progressive politics. I think you also have a party
on the right who knows that, and that is why they try very
hard to suppress the vote, to gerrymander districts, and
to make it so that there’s only a certain type of political
power in certain communities. SPEAKER: So before we
go to your questions, will you ask over GVC if
there are any more questions, just since you’re here. CLINT SMITH: GVC,
any more questions? I appreciate you all. Yes? AUDIENCE: Thank you so
much for being here. I’m curious having the
context in the media. So earlier you brought up
when Obama was elected, how many people
in the media were eager to say racism is dead, and
clearly that wasn’t the case. Where I think we’re
still seeing– I’m probably not
phrasing this correctly. Like with the #MeToo
movement, I think the media has been a lot
more willing to say– call out sexual assault,
condemn Harvey Weinstein, but we’re not necessarily seeing
that when it comes to race. Like you’ve seen it time and
time again with the problem last week with the
shithole comment, they weren’t willing to
call out racism within that. And I’m curious what you
think we as Americans and we as consumers can do to
push the media to call it what it is and kind of
spur that social change, because they do have power. CLINT SMITH: Yeah. I mean, I think
that there were– AUDIENCE: –the question? [INAUDIBLE] CLINT SMITH: In essence. What do I think about the
difference between the #MeToo movement, making it so
that people call out sexism in a way that does
not necessarily seem analogous to how people
call out or don’t call out racism in the media. So I think a couple things. So I think that there were some
people who did call it racism. I think I always remember
the clip that went viral with Anderson Cooper, who
was saying very explicitly, unfortunately that was not
reflective of the larger landscape. People still using “racially
tinged” or “racially charged” and creating a whole
set of euphemisms for what is very explicitly
and clearly racist. So part of why I think
that happens is– and this is just my own theory. But like, intuitively,
I think that part of it is the issue of proximity. And so I think that half
the country is male, half the country is female– generally. Obviously, people who are gender
non-binary and things like that also exist. But that is– I think because of that,
as compared to, what, 13%? 12%, 13% in this country
being black if we’re thinking specifically
about anti-black racism. People exist in a
different proximity to someone of the opposite
sex in a fundamentally different way than they do
someone of the opposite race. Part of that is because the
history of segregation, most people in this country do
not live or work near anyone or alongside anyone who
does not look like them. Obviously, offices
like this are very much the exception to that rule. And I think because
of that, there’s a different level of empathy
that exists in people’s ability to think of– part of this is like– a lot of
times it’s framed as, you know, this could have
been my daughter, or, this could have been
my sister or my wife, which in and of itself is
like, even if you don’t have a daughter or a
wife or a sister, like this is a
human who has been– experienced violence, and that
in and of itself should be bad. But that is the way that
people often frame it in their own minds, right? And if you don’t know
any black people, when somebody does something
that is imbued with anti-black racism, you may or may not feel
that viscerally in the same way you would because you
can’t say, oh, that could– in the same way
that like somebody– you know, you hear Harvey
Weinstein, you’re just like, I can’t imagine if
that was my daughter. There’s not– for most people,
lots of people in this country, there’s no analog for
that, for black– there’s like, oh, that’s not
nice, or, that’s not good. And I think also
the other part of it is that what it means to
be honest about racism in this country is
not always analogous and tied to what is
like politically– tied to political efficacy. And that part of what’s
happening on the left is this conversation
about identity politics or not identity
politics, da-da-dah. And some people– people who
are advocating to move away from identity politics, and like,
let’s all find the common ground between the white
coal worker in West Virginia and the undocumented
da-da-da-da-dah. I think there’s a lot
to be unpacked there, but part of that rationale is
like, that is what is most– has the most
political efficiency as compared– and instead
of people saying like, Black Lives Matter, or Dreamers
marching through the street, or whatever that
is, people doing things that are based
on their identity feels more divisive to folks. And I don’t necessarily
subscribe to that, but there might be
people who do, right? And again, this is like thinking
about complicated truths. It might be true that
three years of Black Lives Matter protests
propelled a lot of white people who were feeling very
scared and fed up by that to go to the polls and
vote for Trump in a way that they may not have, had
there not been Black Lives Matter protesters
blocking highways. That doesn’t mean that
Black Lives Matter shouldn’t have been doing that. That doesn’t mean that they
were doing something wrong, but the complicated truth
is that any time a group has advocated for their most
basic human and civil rights, there has been political
pushback and blowback. So yeah, I do think
that there needs to be a sort of
accountability around people who do egregious things
in terms of race. I mean, imagine if
people were getting– the way that men have
been fired and let go, rightfully so, for sexual
harassment and assault. Can you imagine if
people were getting fired for racial
harassment in the same way? And that’s a question, like,
why doesn’t that happen? And I think part of
why that doesn’t happen is because as unsophisticated
as our dialogue and conversation and discourse is around
sexism and patriarchy in this country, which it
is very unsophisticated, I think there is
a different level of a lack of sophistication
around the conversation around racism,
because to some people it feels even more charged. And like there’s more
at stake in some ways. So like in a roundabout way
of answering your question, but I hope that helps. Thank you all so much. I appreciate you. [APPLAUSE]

5 thoughts on “Clint Smith: “Black Poems” | Talks at Google

  1. To allow a real discussion you have to let go of your bias allowing any knowledge but confirmation bias. You seem charismatic but it seems Marxist values blind you seeing the whole picture try for your children's future one view is not always correct take the time worthy of true understanding understand others not just yourself

  2. Google is a racist leftist deep state company that is censoring thought. Can you just imagine if they hosted a "White Poems" Talk at Google? The sheer outrage and commotion would be cataclysmic!

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