Clint Smith is a writer, teacher and Ph.D. Candidate at Harvard University. He is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and was named the 2013 Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher of the Year by the Maryland Humanities Council. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion, a Cave Canem Fellow, and his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, The Guardian, and Boston Review. His first full-length collection of poems, Counting Descent, was published in September 2016 by Write Bloody Publishing and is available for purchase at Barnes & Noble, Powell's Books, and Amazon.
Blavity: Across the diaspora, black people have used art as a form of healing and liberation. You touch on this through Ellison’s quote “I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.” The use of language and reclaiming language through poetry is what I really love about the art form. Tell us about what brought you to poetry and how it has contributed to your personal sense of liberation.
Clint Smith: I’ve been writing for a long time, but began to take it seriously around 2008. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college and I had an internship in New York City. While there one Friday evening, I visited the Nuyorican Poets Café which is one of the world’s most famous poetry venues on the lower east side of Manhattan. Once there, I was immediately blown away by what I heard. I was struck by the urgency and relevance of the work. I was struck by how so many artists got on stage and rejected the false premise that their politics should be absent from their art. It was an important moment for me, because at the time I was a disillusioned English major reading work that didn’t feel meaningful to me. Being at the Nuyorican jolted and rejuvenated my sense of what was possible in literature. To put it differently, It gave me an access point back into the literary landscape that had previously been missing. There was room, I realized, to tell the stories of those around me, to capture their voices and give them the opportunity to live on paper and breathe out in the world. For me, that’s what liberation looks like – stepping into your most authentic voice and refusing to acquiesce to dominant notions of what you’ve been told legitimacy looks like.
B: So much of Counting Descent, to me, reads as an ode to black boys and men who feel and face so much. In The protest novel responds to James Baldwin, you say, “This is protest against isolation, against loneliness, against thinking you’re the only one that experiencing the trauma that leaves a man full of cracks.” Tell us more about why validation through books is vital?
CS: We’re constantly inundated with messages and images depicting black men as both the perpetrators of violence and victims of violence, but there is, as we know, so much more that exists in between those – so much that rarely gets celebrated, lifted up. The book is thinking about how we hold both of those things at once. How do we both recognize the violence that black people experience while not becoming subsumed by that violence to the point where we don’t recognize all of the beauty that’s right in front of us.
B: Similarly, The Art of Unlearning is one of my favorite poems of yours -- so much of what education has taught me I’ve had to unlearn, which is why educators like you matter. Tell us about how transformative black visibility in curriculums can be for black youth.
CS: It can be everything. It’s impossible to quantify how essential it is for young black children to see the plurality of possibilities available for their lives. The more we can work to expose them to the diversity of ideas and experiences of those who share our diasporic lineage, the more they are able to open up their imaginations and understand the true scope of what’s possible for their lives.
B: In How to Fight you say “teachers trained me to wield language as a tool and fist and weapon and warning to those who would rather make an outline of me.” Acknowledging that education (or lack thereof) has been used (and is still used) to disempower black people, what are your thoughts on the inextricable connection between literacy and empowerment?
CS: I always come back to the famous Baldwin passage where he says: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” I just think that’s so true and captures the essence and purpose of literature so acutely. Reading has both empowers and disabuses; it affirms and it rejects; it illuminates and it reminds. It is one of the most important means by which we come to understand who we are in the world, and why the world exists the way that it does.
B: My heart has been heavy since November 9th. This election means so much for us, symbolically, politically and economically. What are your thoughts on the implications this election has on the education system, especially for black youth?
CS: This election has illuminated all that has been quietly festering beneath the surface for a long time. The mistake, however, is that people misunderstood that it wasn’t something that existed deep beneath the surface, in fact it was right under the top soil. In America, we have an astonishingly limited social memory, which means we don’t grapple with the full scope of our history and its implications. My hope is that we recommit ourselves to understanding the untold parts of our history so that we can better understand the moment we find ourselves in now.
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