Clint Smith is a third year doctoral candidate and poet at Harvard University; his research focuses on the history of racial inequality in the United States. He believes that history — especially black history — is too often simplified, and says that he tries to “complicate history” in his writings.
In a recitation of his poem A letter to five of the presidents who owned slaves while they were in office for the PBS NewsHour, Smith addresses the cruel irony of America’s founding fathers, men who we hold up as the ultimate freedom fighters, being slave owners.
And in doing so, touches on little discussed parts of black history, like the black soldiers who fought in the American Revolution. Smith asks George Washington about these unsung heroes’ ultimate fate, “how many of your soldiers did you send from the battlefield to the cotton field?”
He also muses on the moral dilemmas the founding fathers put their slaves in. To Thomas Jefferson he asks, “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?” He goes on to wonder, “does raping your slave when you disguise it as bribery make it less of a crime?”
On writing the poem, and his doctoral research, Smith told the NewsHour, “the presidents and the founding fathers and all the sort of people we kind of raise up as false idols … we don’t wrestle with the fact that many of these were brilliant men, but they were also men with deep prejudices against people of color, against indigenous people, against women.”
As we celebrate Black History Month, and look out at the America we currently occupy, Smith’s thoughts on the importance of a true, nuanced history seem incredibly timely. He says, “only after we understand where we’ve come from can we understand how we need to move forward.”
For more of Smith’s thoughts on race, inequality, and history, you can turn to his first book of poems, Counting Descent.