Clint Smith: To Protest And To Reckon With Racism In America

Aug 21, 2020
Originally published on August 21, 2020 11:44 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Lessons From The Summer

The killing of George Floyd by a police officer sparked massive protests nationwide. Writer, teacher, and scholar Clint Smith reflects on that moment through conversation, letters, and poetry. A version of this segment was originally heard in the June episode, Clint Smith.

About Clint Smith

Clint Smith is a writer, poet, teacher, and Emerson Fellow at New America. He is the author of the poetry collection, Counting Descent, which was published in 2016. He is a staff writer at The Atlantic, and his writing has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, the Harvard Educational Review, among others. His forthcoming non-fiction book, How The Word Is Passed, explores how different sites across the country reckon with, or fail to reckon with, their relationship to the history of slavery. It will be published next year.

Smith's two TED Talks, "The Danger of Silence" and "How to Raise a Black Son in America," have collectively garnered more than seven million views. The latter was featured on the TED Radio Hour episode, The Consequences of Racism.

Previously, Smith taught high school English in Prince George's County, Maryland. He currently teaches writing and literature in the D.C. Central Detention Facility.

He received his B.A. from Davidson College and his Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he studied the sociology of education.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show - lessons and wisdom from this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

: (Chanting) Black lives matter. Black lives matter.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) Say his name.

: (Chanting) George Floyd.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) Say his name.

: (Chanting) George Floyd.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) No justice.

: (Chanting) No peace.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #3: (Chanting) Hands up.

: (Chanting) Don't shoot.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #3: (Chanting) Hands up.

: (Chanting) Don't shoot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

ZOMORODI: In Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta, Los Angeles and hundreds of cities across the country, people took to the streets and protested, expressing their pain, their anger and their frustration with racism in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

STACEY: I want my sons and my daughter to live in peace in America. They are Americans. We demand change in the system itself.

RASHON HOWARD: The real issue is the institutional racism and the injustice that's been going on in America against black people and minority people forever.

GINA NEAL: Why should we ever, ever stop fighting? We can't stop fighting.

AVERY: We don't need a fire. We need protection. We need peace. If you won't stand for this, then don't stand for it.

MARY HOOKS: The role of organizers like myself is to continue to beat the drum when we think no one's listening 'cause that's always planting seeds for hope for another world and for people to become a part of it.

ZOMORODI: Before the chanting and marching and demands for change, before police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse even the most peaceful crowds, Ahmaud Arbery was killed by two white men while jogging in Brunswick, Ga. Breonna Taylor was killed by police in her own home in Louisville, Ky. And in Minneapolis, Minn., on May 25, George Floyd was killed by an officer who put a knee to his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

CLINT SMITH: I don't remember exactly where I was, but I do remember it was the first video in years that I decided I couldn't watch.

ZOMORODI: This is Clint Smith. He writes about race and injustice in the U.S.

SMITH: My name is Clint Smith, and I'm a writer, poet and teacher.

ZOMORODI: Back in June, I talked to Clint for a full hour of the show and we are so grateful to him for sharing what he was processing in that moment as a scholar, as a father, as a Black man in America.

SMITH: I think I've watched, like, so many people over the past several years - endless loops of videos of black people being assaulted, being beaten, being killed at the hands of police, at the hands of vigilante. And I had not ever - I know many people had come to moments long before this in which they felt like they didn't want to consume black death in that way. And that is 100% an acceptable decision because as I talk often about, there's a tension where the very thing that creates a certain level of awareness of phenomena for people who are not proximate to the black community already is the very thing that can sort of retraumatize black people as we're forced to inundate this content that is - seems to feel unique to our community.

So I do remember that this was the first one that I felt like I couldn't watch, and I think that that's 'cause a confluence of factors. I think it's - you know, I've been quarantined in my home with my family, and I think the fatigue of this moment made it incredibly difficult to add anything else to the plate. And I think I just - I didn't need to see something - I just didn't need to see another one of us dying.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. And you know, it's interesting - that word confluence that you used. There's so much going on in the world right now, and I guess I wonder if there was something different about the death of George Floyd in light of the coronavirus, which has laid so bare the inequality between white and black Americans in terms of who gets the virus and who doesn't and whether this was kind of the final straw, so to speak.

SMITH: Oh, absolutely. It has been revealed through the data that black people are being disproportionately killed by coronavirus in the United States. And what often takes place in these moments in which black people are disproportionately impacted by something harmful in this country is that we have to go about convincing people that it is not our fault 'cause what can happen is that you can have the surgeon general, who himself is a black man, come out and say that black people have to make better decisions; black people need to be responsible about what they're eating or drinking or consuming - without saying anything about the sort of larger systemic and structural realities that underlie the disparities in health outcomes in our community, right?

What does it mean to talk about the disparities in health without also talking about the history of segregation that makes it so that black people are living in confined communities saturated by poverty and violence, as is the case for any community that experience hyper-segregation anywhere in the world? What does it mean that black people are - have a lack of access to health care - or are disproportionately represented in the essential jobs that force people to leave their homes and get on public transportation?

And so any conversation around coronavirus that is not taking into account the larger systemic and structural realities that make it so that black people are more exposed and more vulnerable to this virus make it sound as if black people are somehow doing something themselves that are contributing to the disparities. And I think that that is a battle that black Americans have had to fight for a long time and - you know, convincing this country that their conditions that we live in are not simply because of our own doing but are instead because of much larger historical forces.

And so I - when I think you add - when you add what has happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many others recently, something is added on top of what is already a sense of profound exhaustion of having to convince this country that this is not our fault, even though this country consistently tells us either implicitly or explicitly that it is. And it's hard. And it's exhausting. And I think I and so many others feel a different level of fatigue that I don't think I've experienced in my lifetime.

ZOMORODI: You mention the surgeon general and how much is being left unsaid. And a lot of your research and writing is about how the U.S. has failed to address and talk about and reckon with its past, whether it's slavery or Jim Crow, systemic discrimination, as you just described. There has been no national conversation here like in Germany about Nazism in World War II - I used to live there - or how South Africa addressed its history of apartheid with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Why? Why has there been no conversation?

SMITH: Yeah. It's something that is - that feels specifically unique to this country in this way. And so my - the book I actually have coming out next year, entitled "How The Word Is Passed," is thinking about this question, is thinking about how different places across the country - different historical sites, museums, monuments, memorials, different cities - how they reckoned with or failed to reckon with their relationship to the history of slavery. So, for example, you brought up Germany. If we were to go to Germany and there was a prison on top of a former concentration camp in which the majority of the people in prison there were disproportionately Jewish, it would very clearly be an affront to our moral sensibilities. It would be unacceptable. People would be protesting outside of that place every day. And yet, in the United States, the largest maximum security prison in the country - Angola Prison in southern Louisiana - is on top of a former plantation, in which 80-some-odd-percent of the people there are black, are black men. And what does it say about the way - part of what I'm interested in exploring is the ways white supremacy both enacts violence against black people but also numbs this country to sorts of violence that should otherwise be outrageous. Like, there should be no reason that a prison is on top of a former plantation, especially a prison in which the vast majority of the people there are black.

And so what is it that allows for this to happen? What is it that allows for so many Confederate statues to exist across this country? What is it that allows for, you know, plantations to be sites of weddings, for them - for there to be sites of parties and celebrations, when they are the site of so much historical trauma and pain for so many others? And how can - what does it mean for a site to be a place of celebration for someone and to be a site of violence for another? And how can those two people experience the same place in such different ways?

And part of what I'm asking when I go to all of these places to what extent are people who are responsible for these places, to what extent are they reckoning with what has happened on this land and to what extent are they not? And I think that the question of how places reckon with slavery is reflective and is, in many ways, a microcosm of how willing America is to reckon with its myriad of manifestations of systemic racism. And I think that we're seeing that now.

ZOMORODI: In terms of what's been going on right now, you've been processing all of this as a black man in America - multiple roles - black man in America, scholar, my understanding is you're also the grandson of a man who was born in Monticello, Miss., in 1930, when there were lynchings of black people going on and that the Klan would ride by. And now you have your own children. And you recently wrote that having children has raised the stakes of this fight while also shifting the calculus of how we move within it. What did you mean by that?

SMITH: Yeah. You know, like so many parents, having children, it changes so much. And it's almost a cliche, you know, the way that people say, like, oh, so much changes in your life after you have kids. And you're like, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, my mom used to always say, it's like watching your heart walk around outside of your body.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) I like that.

SMITH: And when I was a kid, I was like, oh, Mom, you're so cheesy. Like, you know, that was my mom's attempt at being a poet. But, you know, I have my own kids now - a 3-year-old boy, a 1-year-old girl. And it's so true, you know. You don't know your capacity for love, you don't fully understand your capacity for love until - at least for me, until I had kids.

ZOMORODI: It's interesting to me, though, because you were even thinking about this before you became a father, right? In 2015, you published a letter that you'd written to your future son, describing your own childhood and - well, why don't you tell us? What did you tell him? Do you mind reading a bit of it for us?

SMITH: Yeah, I'd be happy to.

"My Hopes, Dreams, Fears For My Future Black Son," (Reading) Son, I want to tell you how difficult it is to tell someone they're both beautiful and endangered, so worthy of life, yet so despised for living. I do not intend to scare you. My father, your grandfather, taught me how to follow a certain set of rules before I even knew their purpose. He told me that these rules would not apply to everyone, that they would not even apply to all my own friends. But they were rules to abide by nonetheless. Too many black boys are killed for doing what others give no second thought, playing our music too loud, wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up, playing with a toy in the park. My father knew these things. He knew that there was no room for error. He knew it was not fair. But he loved me too much not to teach me, not to protect me.

I've told you this story before, but it is worth revisiting. Many a Saturday morning, my friends and I would ride bikes through the neighborhood together. The wind chiseled our faces into euphoric naivete. The scent of breakfast being prepared seeped out from beneath the cracked windows of the shotgun homes that lined our streets. All that we deemed worthy of our attention were the endless possibilities that lay atop our handlebars, which is to say we were children. We were a motley crew, an interracial assemblage of young boys who would have made the Disney Channel proud. We dreamed of building tree houses with secret passwords, of fighting dragons effortlessly sidestepping the perilous fiery breath, of hitting the game-winning shot in stadiums of thousands of people chanting our names. Our ambitions were as far-reaching as the galaxy we had been born into. We were small planets simply attempting to find our orbit.

On one afternoon, we went to the field where we so often played football - tackle, of course - as we were set on replicating the brawn and bravado that we watched each Sunday on our televisions. This time, however, the field was closed, the fence bolted by a lock that could not be snapped. One friend, whose long blond hair dangled gently over his ears, tossed the football to me and immediately began to climb the fence. I watched him, the ease with which he lifted one foot over the other, the indifference of his disposition to the fact that this was an area we were quite clearly not supposed to enter. I remember hearing the soft distant echo of a police siren, perhaps a few blocks away, perhaps headed in a different direction. I couldn't be sure, but I knew better than to ignore it. He reached the other side and looked back, beckoning the rest of us to join him. I held the football in my hand, looking at him through the chain-link fence between us. It was at this moment I realized how different he and I were, before I had the words to explain them to either him or myself, how he could break a rule without a second thought whereas, for me, any mistake might have the most dire of consequences.

I hope to teach you so much of what my father taught me, but I pray that you live in a radically different world than the one he and I have inherited. I do not envy his task, one that might become my own. I tell you these things because I know how strong and resilient you will be, how you will take the fear and make a fort of this skin and turn it into a bastion of love against unwarranted inhumanity.

I want you to realize that sometimes it will not be the things the world tells you but the things it does not tell you. It will be the omissions rather than the direct affronts that often do the most damage. Your textbooks will likely not tell you how Thomas Jefferson thought blacks were, quote, "inferior to the whites in endowments of both body and mind," how Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal left a hole just wide enough for black families to fall through while lifting the rest of the country into the middle class. It will not tell you how the federal government actively prevented black families from purchasing homes in cities across the country. It will not tell you how police departments across this nation are incentivized to see you as a problem, something to be taken care of. They will not tell you these things. And because of that, they will expect you to believe that the contemporary reality of our community is of our own doing, that we simply did not work hard enough, that things would be different if we simply changed our attitudes or the way we speak, the way we dress.

With that said, do not for a moment think you cannot change what exists. This world is a social construction. It can be reconstructed. This world was built. It can be rebuilt. Use everything that you accrue to reimagine the world. You are not a mistake. You are not a deficit. You are not something to be eradicated or rendered obsolete. You exist beyond pathology. You come from a lineage of those who built this country. You come from my grandfathers, one who toiled tobacco fields amid the ever-expanding pastures of Mississippi throughout his adolescence, the other who fought a war for a country that would spit at his feet as soon as he put down his gun. You come from grandmothers who dedicated their lives to teaching in communities where the quality of one's education is subject to the whims of the state. You come from my parents, who both protected me from violence and made me feel whole. You are the manifestation of their unyielding commitment to overcome. I hope the world you inherit is one in which you may love whomever you choose. I hope you read and write and laugh and sing and dance and build and cry and do all of the things a child should do. I pray that you never have to stand on the other side of a fence and know that it is a world you cannot enter simply because of your skin.

ZOMORODI: That's writer, poet, scholar and TED speaker Clint Smith. To learn more about Clint and hear our full conversation, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Thank you so much for being here and reflecting with me on some of the important and painful lessons that we have learned from the summer of 2020. May we all be wiser as we face more challenges in the months to come.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Khala and Matthew Cloutier with help from Daniel Shukin. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.