History is Still Present

The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”

Malcolm X, 1962

Can you have an elephant in a Zoom room? 

On Sept. 23, students in BKT Assistant Professor of History Sabrina Thomas’ class, “Malcolm, Martin, and Mandela,” were in a virtual class discussion with Clint Smith, critically-acclaimed poet and writer for The Atlantic.

It’s 12:15 p.m. 

Introductions are made, and the conversation begins. But Smith and many of the students were anxiously waiting for 1:15 p.m.

“In one hour, we’re going to find out what the grand jury decided in regards to Breonna Taylor,” Smith said. “But none of what’s happening right now is new.”

It’s 12:20 p.m.

Smith explains that the narrative surrounding the relationship between the police and Black Americans—between the entire criminal legal system and Black Americans—is something both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X spoke about in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Among the most horrific things said to Black Americans back then, Smith said, were statements like:

This is your fault.

If you were just this kind of person…

If you just behaved this way…

“For Martin and Malcolm, even though they had fundamentally different dispositions, different approaches, and very different journeys, they both understood the danger of egregious claims like that.”

It’s 12:50 p.m.

Smith mentions that slavery was abolished in 1865—less than 200 years ago. The math is right, but it seems impossible. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it hadn’t even been 100 years since African Americans’ ancestors were enslaved—not even two generations. 

Apartheid in South Africa began in 1948, and negotiations to end the discriminatory system didn’t begin until the late 1990s. Nelson Mandela became president in 1994—only 26 years ago. 

“So many of the stories we tell ourselves happened a long time ago, weren’t that long ago,” Smith said.

One of the internal conflicts students share that they’re facing is figuring out where they fit—are they more like Malcolm, Martin or Mandela? 

Smith said he felt that same conflict when he was beginning to read their work and understand their philosophies. Then he realized he didn’t have to choose.

“It ends up being an overly-simplistic, binary conception of who these men were. I think you can say, ‘I appreciate this about what Martin was saying, this about what Malcolm was saying, and this about what Mandela was saying.’

“What I appreciate about all three of them is their immense and remarkable capacity for growth and evolution. More than anything, those are the lessons I carry from them. None of us should be static in our understanding of the world or how we engage with the world.”

It’s 1:05 p.m.

Smith shares that he was in his first week of graduate school at Harvard University when Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. That incident, he said, changed his entire postgraduate experience.

“I started teaching and working in prisons,” Smith said. “All of the classes I took were to give me more language to better understand what I was seeing. I mean, much like what you guys are doing now. These classes, these books, these thinkers you are learning from are giving you a language to help you make sense of everything happening around you.”

It’s 1:10 p.m.

The conversation with Smith is over, but the class will reconvene in 10 minutes to debrief.

It’s 1:15 p.m.

A Jefferson County Circuit Judge reads the decision from the grand jury. One officer is indicted on three counts of wanton endangerment, but no officers faced charges related to Taylor’s death. 

Among the social media posts of heartbreak and outrage are comments that seem far too familiar.

What did you expect?

This is what happens when…

If only she hadn’t…

It’s 1:25 p.m.

Nothing specific about Breonna Taylor is spoken, but they know. The questions come quickly: How do we get people to understand? How do we talk about racism with people who may not agree with what we’re saying?

“History is still present,” one student said. “Maybe I should describe how certain things from the past still have influence today. Maybe that will make the past not seem so distant.”

“Knowledge is power,” another said. “He (Smith) made me think about small things I could be doing. Am I encouraging my friends back home to vote? And when conversations do happen, I really want to stop and ask myself if I understand what they’re saying. If I do, then I want to respond with facts. I want to be able to respond without seeming like I’m jumping on them. A lot of people don’t want to feel horrible about themselves, and I just want to educate them and share the knowledge that I have.” 

It’s 3 p.m.

Smith writes on Twitter: “For people who knew Breonna personally, it must feel like a double helix of grief. Mourning the small moments of love that have been stripped away from you and a recognition that what happened to Breonna is part of a much broader structural problem in our social and political systems. This is the grief that so many Black Americans experience in moments like these. The mourning of a person that we’ve lost … and the mourning over a system that allows these deaths to keep happening.”

Poetry as an Entry Point

Richard Paige — Words seem to come easy to Clint Smith, especially when he finds his rhythm and words simply flow. That cadence produces an easy connection between speaker and listener, one that serves both well as the poet, historian, and journalist gives voice to a story that screams to be heard.

Smith made a virtual visit to campus Wednesday night as part of the President’s Distinguished Speaker Series, delivering a compelling hour-long talk – “Why Black Lives Matter” – and Q&A session for those assembled on Zoom.

Poet, historian, and journalist Clint Smith.

He mentioned early on that poems are an entry point to conversation, and used four of his poems to establish a message and open a dialogue. The key point, perhaps, echoed in the words from his poem, “How to Raise a Black Son in America.”

“When we say that Black lives matter, it’s not because others don’t. It’s simply because we must affirm that our lives are worthy of existing without fear when so many things tell us that we are not.”

Much of the conversation was rooted in American history – all 400 years of it –and driven home by this thought. “We are the annoying pre-teen of the world,” he said.

The imagery of his poetry, thoughtful and clear, force us to lean into the messiness, as he suggested, of the contradictions of the American experience. Whether it be a poem addressed to five of the U.S. presidents who owned slaves, musings on the New Deal, or thoughts on reconciling slavery served as an affirmation that Black lives, indeed, matter.

His thoughts of access and how his poetry can serve as an equalizer were intriguing. He claimed that his idea of fun was reading a 700-page book with a bag of hot Cheetos at his side. Others might not have that luxury, so he explained, “I’m always thinking ‘can I turn this into a poem?’ to capture the essence” of the book for someone who might not have the means to tackle it.

He admitted to being a disillusioned English major as a freshman, where the works of poets like Keats, and Yeats, Frost and Whitman didn’t resonate.

On an internship in New York City, he had an epiphany, discovering the Nuyorican Poets Café, a small and legendary spot on the lower east side of Manhattan that completely changed his understanding of what poetry could be. To hear him describe the people behind the mic that night – young, black, brown, disabled, and queer – offered a world different than what was presented to him on campus in North Carolina.

“I put all of the pressure of what literature was or all of the pressure of what poetry had to be on to these texts,” he started. “I left that night thinking, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I want to do it.’”

He returned from NYC and wrote “many bad poems for many years.” But he threw himself into those words through poetry slams, open mics, and readings, and soon discovered an ability to return to Keats and Yeats and Frost and Whitman with a different appreciation. There wasn’t pressure. Smith could respect the work for what it is.

“Poetry gave me a different entry point into literature that I hadn’t had before,” he says. “Poetry isn’t a bunch of dead white guys, it’s a robust, dynamic space that young people of color are very much a part.”

He implored students to read as much as possible. “Your job is to read books and discuss them and to think about them,” he says. “Read as much as you can. Find people, build community.”

Smith’s story is a liberal arts story, one that isn’t dissimilar to those found at Wabash.