By Risa Dixon
Clint Smith is a refreshing young soul who wants to share his experiences growing up as a Black man in America, and educate others on the fact that being Black is multi-dimensional. His writing has been published in the The New Yorker, The Guardian, The American Poetry Review and Boston Review. His debut release, Counting Descent takes the reader on a journey through the many highs and extreme lows of the Black experience. Smith is a teacher, Harvard Ph.D. candidate in Education with a concentration in Culture, Institutions, and Society and an award winning poet, but after this interview it is clear that he is also very real. Real passionate about Black people. Real passionate about using poetry to show the many complexities of the Black experience. Real committed about using his talent to express that #Blackjoy is more than just a catchy hashtag, but is a very big aspect of growing up Black. When Smith broke down that one of the poems in his book signified that there is nothing wrong with being someone who enjoys Plato’s Republic as much as Drake or Ja Rule – and that he rejects the idea that one must choose between the two – it was clear that his work was as authentic as it comes.
Risa: Take me on a journey to becoming Clint Smith. What lead you to be who you are now and so passionate about Black life and poetry?
Clint: I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. Hurricane Katrina was my senior year of high school. I think having my home destroyed, having to live in Houston with my uncle, and weeks after Katrina happened seeing Black people begging for people to save them in a way that I could never imagine would happen in America was really difficult to stomach. When I was old enough, I realized that if those were White people on top of those roofs that the response would have happened much more quickly.
Smith also discovered that if the people living in New Orleans were exposed to the same schools and opportunities that he was afforded in Houston, their paths in life may have been very different. His passion stems from the understanding that due to the history of Black people in this country that there is a gap in the access that Black people have to certain resources that other races are easily granted. This is when he decided to dedicate his life to educating others about the many disparities faced by Black people in the United States.
Risa: You’re a teacher, but I know that you have learned a lot from your students. How has that impacted your poetry, specifically your book?
Clint: My students have reminded me of the plurality of Black life. There is no definitive example of what it means to be a young Black person in this country. My book is largely about the marathon of cognitive distance that is to grow up as young Black person in this country. And maybe how one reconciles what it means to be in a home where your grandmother is kissing you, your dad is hugging you, and your mom is loving you. Then, going out into a world where you’re stopped and frisked. You are constantly told from people in society at large that you are less than deserving. How does one balance that? How does one come to understand who they are while experiencing both those things largely simultaneously? The book is exploring all of the facts about that the Black experience. I’m not singularly writing about the violence that Black people experience, but instead I’m writing about all of the things that we do in spite of a living in a country where we are constantly inundated with violence.
Risa: What does Black joy mean to you, and how do you think that we can create more of it?
Clint: I think that Black joy is essential. I grew up in a home that had a lot of joy, laughter, and a lot of people who nurtured me. I always felt safe. I don’t take that for granted. It’s important to express laughter in world that surrounds us in so much pain. Sometimes people can mistake joy for apathy. They assume that if you are laughing or happy, especially at a time when we are constantly bombarded with images of Black people getting killed that you don’t care. It doesn’t meant that they don’t care, but that they recognize that one of the best ways to fight violence is by celebrating life.
Risa: Taking into consideration what people of color are dealing with right, why do you feel that your book is either needed, or right on time?
Clint: The unfortunate reality is that my book could have come out a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago, or a year from now and we probably would be just as relevant as it is today. The reality of White supremacy in this country is that it’s always been with us. It will likely be with us for a long time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress. That doesn’t mean we don’t continue the struggle, to work, and to attempt to live in a world in which we are not constantly killed, or rendered obsolete by the state.
Risa: Would you describe poetry as an escape, a vehicle to release, or both?
Clint: Certainly both. Poetry both provides a means to process everything that’s going on around me, and also serves as a means to escape the onslaught of images and videos that can make it difficult to even get out of bed in the morning. I get a lot of satisfaction from using the page to try and make sense of how I feel about everything going on. I think what poetry does – has done is force me to sit with my own ideas, and try to make sense of them.
Risa: What does it mean to you to be unapologetically Black, and how does your book express this sentiment?
Clint: My book is thinking a lot about lineage, genealogy both in the micro and macro level context. Family, I think, is broadly at the center of the Black experience. What makes it unapologetically Black is that we have redefined the boundaries of what does or does not constitute as family because our experience is so unique.
Risa: I want to jump into your book. I picked out a couple of pieces that I really love. There were so many so I just chose about six. When I say their names tell me what your thought process was when writing them. Is that cool?
Clint: Sounds good.
Risa: “Something You Should Know”
Clint: It is the opening of the poem. It brings you into my life, who I am. It’s a reminder to myself that it’s okay to be vulnerable over the course of the next 80 pages. For a long time I think I had a difficult time opening up to people, and opening up in my work. I would write about things that didn’t necessarily have to do with my life directly. What I wanted for this book was to be personal. “Something You Should Know” is a reminder to myself to allow the reader to step into my life and my head.
Clint: I think some of the most important poems, and stories that I read personified inanimate objects. “Soles” is confronting the author’s own fears, and insecurities about who they are, and why they have done some of the things that they have done.
Risa: “Ode To The Drizzy Drake Hands”
Clint: I was an English major in college. I read folks like Yeats, Keats, and Sexton. It was really difficult for me to resonate with their work. It wasn’t because it wasn’t good, but it didn’t necessarily speak to my experience. It was when I stepped into the spoken word community that I realized that I could write in my authentic voice. I could write about things that felt meaningful to me. I didn’t have to feel like some of the things that I loved were trivial, or not important enough to be written about in a poem. It’s been incredibly rewarding to finally come to a point where I feel like I can write in my most authentic voice. I don’t have to choose between Plato’s Republic, and Drake. My experience very much holds both of them. I care about political philosophy and love listening to the new Travis Scott album, or reminiscing about old Ja Rule. I reject the idea that I have to choose one of them.
Risa: “My Jump Shot”
Clint: “My Jump Shot” is a self-deprecating piece with a turn at the end. I played soccer growing up, so I was always the outsider amongst my friends in that respect. I was never really good at [basketball]. But this poem, with some levity, is again thinking about the plurality of blackness. Being a Black boy doesn’t mean that every young Black boy is going to grow up playing basketball. There are lots of different types of experiences that make and define what Black looks like. For a long time, I struggled with pushing back on a dimensional view of what it meant to be a young Black male in this country. In this poem, I celebrate the diversity of all of our experiences. I want young Black boys to grow up thinking they can play soccer, football, basketball, hockey, be in theatre, or be in a musical. They can be a rapper or a poet. You don’t have to be confined, and compartmentalized to what you think of a young Black boy is supposed to do and say. You can be who you think you’re most authentic self is because you’re a human being. You should be able to have all the choices that any other human being has.
Risa: “When Mom Braids My Sister’s Hair”
Clint: I wanted to ensure that I was including poems that were much gentler, and that captured the part of the unseen aspect of Black life in this country. It’s a lot easier for someone to see an image of a Black person being killed by police. The media can make blackness and criminality almost synonymous. What people don’t often see are the gentle moments that exist in every Black household. I just think it’s important to illuminate those gentle moments that people might not often see because they’re not portrayed on the media.
Risa: I want you to break down for me how you would want each person I describe to feel after reading your book. Cool?
Risa: A Black man or woman.
Clint: I want them to feel seen.
Risa: A little Black boy or girl.
Clint: I want them to be inspired by the idea that they are able to write their own story the way they think it deserves to be written, and that no one else has to speak for them because they can speak for themselves.
Risa: A White man or a White woman.
Clint: I hope that it is illuminating, but I hope that they recognize that it is not representative. I hope they will seek out work by many different Black writers that represent many different Black experiences and commit themselves to recognizing that we might exist in the same world, but as a result of different facets of our racial identity experience a very different thing.
Risa: A little White boy or girl.
Clint: I hope that they reject the idea that they should be color blind, and that race doesn’t matter. Instead, I want them to recognize that race does matter and that equality doesn’t necessitate color blindness. You can be friends with a little black boy or a little Black girl and recognize that your best friend is Black. You don’t have to erase their Blackness in order to say that you are equal. You can say, “Yes, my best friend is a Black girl, or is a Black boy. It is important for me to know the history and the life that shapes how they experience the world. If I try to erase their color, even if it’s well-meaning, then I’m erasing the reality of their experience in a very real way.”
Risa: A hip-hop head.
Clint: I hope they see a little bit of themselves in it because hip-hop is really a type of poetry. Some of my favorite MCs are some of my favorite poets. I hear a little bit of poetry in so many of my favorite hip-hop artists. I hope that they see themselves as writers and poets in the same way that I see them as such.
Risa: A Black teenage boy or girl who feels like they don’t fit in with their other Black peers.
Clint: Your blackness is as important and authentic as anyone else’s. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.
Risa: Who are three people that you look up to?
Clint: Dead or alive?
Risa: Either one.
Clint: First is Bryan Stevenson. He’s a civil rights lawyer based out of Alabama. He started the Equal Justice Initiative, and he is the most remarkable example of selflessness and commitment to justice that I’ve ever seen. Second are my parents. They kept me safe as a child. They ensured that I always felt like I mattered, that I belonged and that I always felt seen and heard. They filled my life with books and with the idea that I, too, could one day be someone who creates a book. I am deeply thankful for so much of what they done for me. Third is James Baldwin because I think he rejected the idea that art cannot and should not address social or political issues. His work maintained a certain level of artistic integrity and poignancy but he didn’t let that compromise his truth. He was also deeply committed to an honest and forthright type of truth.
For more on Clint Smith and his #CountingDescentTour visit www.clintsmithiii.com Social media engagement @ClintSmithiii