Clint Smith presents poetry on facing historical racism

By Leighah Beausoleil

Asst. News Editor

To kick off the Olivia A. Davidson Voices of Color Lecture Series, FSU welcomed Clint Smith, writer, scholar, educator, and poet, to speak on racism in America in DPAC Feb. 19. 

The series is an annual event held during Black History Month in which prominent people present on topics relating to racism. 

Patty Birch, director of inclusive excellence initiatives, opened the event by discussing the life of Olivia A. Davidson, the wife of Booker T. Washington and a Framingham State alum.

Birch explained Davidson was born to free parents in 1858 and began her life of teaching at the age of 16.

Malik Martin, the first Black first-year class president, introduced Smith to the stage.

Smith said he was born and raised in New Orleans and currently lives in Washington D.C. He is a father of two and a graduate student at Harvard.

Smith read poems from his first collection of poetry, “Counting Descent,” published in 2016 by Write Bloody Publishing.

He opened by discussing Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland, Ohio, who was fatally shot by a police officer while playing with a toy gun at a park.

Smith explained how this event made concrete what had been a “youthful abstraction.”

“I would have to think about the world in a fundamentally different way than my non-Black friends did,” he said.

He described the struggle Black parents face explaining to their children as they grow up they will no longer be regarded as “adorable” but as a “threat.” Smith also stressed the importance to communicate to them it is not their fault – rather, it is upheld by a system of institutionalized racism.

The basis of his presentation pertains to hiding the history of oppression which allows for this “youthful abstraction.”

Smith spoke of the racist incidents that have happened at FSU.

“There’s a moment when people feel like, ‘OK, we need to have a conversation about diversity, about inclusion, about healing, about what it means for different people to bring different sets of experiences to a place,’” he said.

“What doesn’t always happen is a conversation about the history that made those phenomena possible,” Smith added. 

He said, “The history that we tell ourselves was a long time ago wasn’t actually that long ago at all.

“It’s only been about 50 years in which Black people living in this country even had a semblance of legal and legislative freedom,” Smith said. “For 350 years prior to that, it was fundamentally legal to discriminate against, dehumanize, delegitimize, and disenfranchise Black people.”

Smith explained the hypocrisy of people asking why those who had been “kicked around” for so long are not able to reach some of the same academic and economic standards that the “kickers” hold for them.

“It is so important to understand because we can misunderstand and misdiagnose why the world looks the way it does if you don’t understand the history that created it,” he said.

After reading Thomas Jefferson’s memoir, Smith learned Black people were inferior and slaves were incapable of love and emotion.

“That was a version of Jefferson I was never taught,” he said.

“We are so committed to the idea of ‘American exceptionalism’ that we inevitably suppress anything that makes us look unexceptional,” Smith said.

“Part of what it means to be an American, part of what it means to live in this country, part of what it means to understand this country is to be able to hold a set of complicated truths at once – that Jefferson was a brilliant man …  and that he also enslaved over 600 people over the course of his life,” he said.

“Twelve of our first 18 presidents owned slaves. Eight of them owned slaves while they were in office,” Smith added.

Smith read his poem that was addressed as a letter to five of those presidents.

The poem ended with the lines, “I have been taught how perfect this country is, but no one ever told me about the pages torn out of my textbooks. How Black and Brown bodies were bludgeoned for three centuries and found no place in the curriculum. 

“Oppression doesn’t just disappear because you decided not to teach us that chapter. If you only hear one side of the story, at some point you have to question who the writer is.”

Smith said educators are shamed for talking about certain aspects of history because it means they are getting “too political.”

Having grown up in New Orleans, Smith discussed the impact of living in a place full of monuments for the people who fought for so long to keep Black people enslaved. 

“What are we saying to Black people in this country? That we would lift up and maintain these marble images of people who fought a war to keep you and your ancestors enslaved,” he said.

Smith recited lines from his poem, “What do you call it when the road you walk on is named for those who imagine you under a noose? What do you call it when the roof over your head is named for people who would’ve wanted the bricks to crush you?”

Smith emphasized the importance of knowing the history of oppression and acknowledging America’s attempt at hiding it.

Another line from his poetry read, “… You see the country is only able to whisper the words, ‘American exceptionalism’ because we are so good at covering our ears while someone else is screaming.”

Smith explained knowing this history is important to help educate others, so they don’t have to go through the same “paralysis and confusion” he did growing up. 

Not only to educate others, but knowing it for yourself and knowing “you are not singularly defined by that history.”

Smith said, “There is something so profoundly liberating and emancipatory in knowing that this country can’t lie to you anymore.”


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