“Writing,” Clint Smith announced to a packed auditorium in Barus and Holley on Tuesday, Oct. 26, “is a means of wrestling with questions I don’t have answers to.” Smith – a writer, teacher, TED Talks speaker, Harvard University Ph.D. candidate, and 2014 National Poetry Slam champion – was presenting “Art and Critical Pedagogy: Using Poetry to Challenge Dominant Narratives” at the Education Department’s third Fall 2016 Speaker Series event.
Homer, Smith told the crowd, had an epic poem that was passed down from mouth to mouth. Writing only for the page is a false notion; poetry’s roots are as an oral art form. He then launched into a dynamic, thoughtful, and oftentimes hilarious presentation that had the rapt attention of more than 200 audience members, instructing his listeners on etiquette with a quick “snap during, clap after” request. During the rest of this talk, fingers snapped around the room at various times when his poems and statements resonated with audience members, quiet in sound but thunderous in reaction to and appreciation of his words.
Smith, who was born and raised in New Orleans, gave some background information on his relationships with his parents (urging audience members, when he spoke of his father’s experience obtaining an organ transplant, to sign up to be organ donors to help offset the transplant waiting lists that tend to be longer for people of color and people in poverty). Smith learned from his father at an early age – too early to fully understand at the time – that the implications of his decisions might result in different outcomes than for Smith’s non-black friends. Smith referred to Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old shot dead by police two years ago for holding a toy gun. Smith’s father’s fears had been real. When he recited one of his poems following that introduction, two lines in particular drove home what Clint had just spoken of: “Someone’s idea of implicit bias might be the reason you might not wake up in the morning,” and “I want to live in a world where my son isn’t presumed guilty from the moment he is born.”
Smith thanked Christina Villarreal, Brown’s director of secondary history education, for helping to reconceptualize the notion of history. History, Smith noted, doesn’t always address what isn’t convenient to the narrative. Thomas Jefferson is celebrated as a president and historical figure, but many stories ignore the fact that he was a racist and a slaveholder. Jefferson didn’t try to hide this but in fact spoke his thoughts openly and published them. In his mind, black people didn’t have the capacity to create art; if they did put words on a page, it couldn’t be called poetry. Blacks, Jefferson believed, didn’t have the capacity to love. The dominant American narrative, Smith explained, was a state-sanctioned policy to marginalize and dehumanize a race. When we think of the civil rights movement, we think of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a celebrated figure – but at the time, ⅔ of Americans disapproved of King, just as many Americans today mischaracterize or judge the Black People Matter movement. In our collective American social memory, we don’t talk about these things. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal is celebrated in history books, but the New Deal was written to deny black citizens access to the very benefits it promised Americans – Social Security, GI bill, mortgages, minimum wage, and more. The New Deal may have created the middle class, but it skipped a huge section of the country, and politicians legally enacted law barring blacks from social benefits – yet people today point fingers at black citizens, asking why blacks are more likely to live in poverty than others.
Look at our history, Smith implored. The first blacks were brought to America as slaves in 1619. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t pass until 1863. Voting and civil rights weren’t passed until 1964 and 1965 – only 50 years ago – and there are still issues of inequality today. America, Smith stressed, enjoyed 350 years of history in which it was legal to dehumanize blacks. We need to talk about this in our classrooms, and most of us don’t. In response to that propagation of myth, Clint read from his poem, “Letter to Five of the Eight Presidents Who Owned Slaves While in Office.” When talking about getting both sides of the story, the poem stated, “At some point, you have to question who the writer is.”
We live in a world, Smith said, where blacks can be stopped, can be frisked, can have assumptions made about their personalities at first sight. There is duality in our history; Jefferson was a good president, AND he was a racist and a slave holder. Both sides exist; both sides should be acknowledged. Smith then read five poems, each one on what an inanimate object – an ocean, a cicada, a fire hydrant, a window, and a cathedral – would say to black boys. The audience was spellbound at these unusual but powerful narrative views.
Only moments later, versatile speaker Smith had the audience laughing at his descriptions of his failures as a basketball player. Smith had always been chosen among the first for teams – resulting in disaster, as described in one line from the next poem: “My jump shot be all elbow and no wrist.” Counting Descent, Smith acknowledged, was about speaking the truth – the whole truth.
Mike Brown was killed the same week that Smith started grad school, and Smith has been writing the book these past two years in a post-Ferguson context. Smith wanted to humanize death of and violence toward blacks; the feelings he is grappling with are real and visceral. We’re not defined, Smith stated, by the things that kill us or seek to render us obsolete. There is a U.S. history of violence against blacks, but it is also amazing how fundamental black culture is to U.S. history. Blacks helped build this country, and they are woven into its fabric.
My life has not been entirely defined by violence and fear, Smith continued. He has attempted to capture black resilience and joy amid the greater, sadder black American landscape. Both sides are important to understanding the black experience. He told of the sweetness (and, to his young self, embarrassment) of his parents dancing together in the kitchen to “Before I Let You Go” by Frankie Beverly and Maze, which later inspired him to capture that moment in a poem he read to the audience.
The writer/poet label, Smith restated, doesn’t necessitate answers; it’s a means of wrestling with questions. If we ask questions we already have the answers to, we negate that process. We need to rethink concepts and re-imagine who police are and what they do. Look at us now, Smith, who works with prisoners, asked the audience. We are a society that puts people into cages for life. Remember how the French used to cut off heads with a guillotine? For us that’s barbaric; for them it was a normal way of life. Someday we’ll look back at life imprisonment with similar eyes to looking at guillotines. We have 200,000 people in the United States serving life sentences in jails, and we haven’t pushed ourselves towards different solutions to our problems. Don’t just tinker, Smith appealed; tackle.
Smith’s last poem was about the trauma caused by Hurricane Katrina, and the audience reacted with enthusiastic snaps at the haunting line, “Can you claim something as your own if you don’t remember how you found it?”
In response to Smith’s invitation for questions, someone asked about the influence of his father. Smith cautioned teachers to be careful about filling a parent role for students. Many of the prisoners he’d worked with hadn’t had biological fathers, and Smith recognized that and was careful not to position himself as anything but a peer; anything else would be disingenuous. Look at the Moynihan report, Smith said; black family structure is being blamed for problems in black society. Racism is the reason for those problems, not female heads of households or non-nuclear families. Neither he nor anyone else should seek to fill in a family gap; instead, Smith engages with prisoners and learns from them. The classroom isn’t one-way, Smith told the audience full of future teacher leaders. Students bring ideas and knowledge into classrooms, too; it can and should be a shared collective experience. Don’t set out to teach; set out to engage.
Another question addressed the balance between criticism and exposure of history. Smith acknowledged that it’s a difficult balance; we want to show students that the world sees blacks as less than human but let them know they’re not responsible. Students need to be shown both sides: the world is set up for them to fail, but they have the agency to change things. Different decisions can be made. They can wield their power; they can build a different world.
What’s the difference for you, another student asked, between writing for the page versus the stage? Also, regarding Smith’s Ph.D. research at Harvard, how does Smith use poetry with prisoners?
Writing is a process and a practice, Smith responded. Several times, he has made himself do a “30 for 30,” writing a poem every single day for a month. Just as with sports, you have to practice to write; in his case, he had to write 25 bad poems in order to write 5 good ones. You have to do the work to create the work, he advised the audience.
As for the written page, Smith cautioned against positioning the page as more valuable than the stage. They are different genres that feed in different ways, and appearing in a reputable publication isn’t necessarily a bigger indication of success than winning a poetry slam. Smith did acknowledge that he wrote for the page in the case of Counting Descent to break out of a competitive context. He’d been writing poems to fit the 2.5-minute frame for slams, and he wanted to experiment with other lengths, which led to other material and expressions.
In Smith’s Ph.D. program at Harvard, there is a relationship between the social scientist and the artist. Both are part of him. What he internalizes academically often surfaces artistically, and writing is a form of expressing both personal and political values. His next book, Smith revealed, will focus on the relationship between education and incarceration.
In response to a question about using pedagogy to become a better person and the relationship between art and ethics, Smith said he entered grad school committed to avoiding inaccessibility; he’d been seeking the intellectual toolkit to name and understand things. He has the language to argue against misconceptions and misnomers and to challenge ideas like that of “black-on-black crime.” Smith enjoys his work in the prisons because he had wanted to be in a space that reminds him of why he came to this field of study. He doesn’t want to just read books; he wants to ground the knowledge he’s seeking and stay in touch with the reasons why he’s there.
In response to the final question – about whether he writes to challenge and assert himself – Smith stated that people write about poverty to legitimize themselves and their social institutions. Those people use narratives to benefit themselves without helping the people to whom the stories belong. It’s important to illuminate those people. It’s important to think about and account for the fact that this is people’s lives and not just a vehicle for people to gain tenure or publications or a name for themselves.
Smith thanked the crowd for coming and for asking great questions, and he offered to sign copies of Counting Descent. Thrilled by Smith’s performance, autograph seekers filled the hallway.