Before performing a series of poems from his new book “Counting Descent,” Clint Smith gave the Andover community an introduction to spoken word poetry etiquette: the audience should to snap, hum affirmatively, or shout ‘Cheesus!’ if they heard something they really liked. From then on, nearly every other line of Smith’s poetry garnered a chorus of snaps and other appreciative noises.
Smith, a writer, teacher, and 2014 National Poetry Slam Champion, was selected as this year’s Youth from Every Quarter All School Meeting speaker. Throughout his presentation, Smith addressed the audience directly and performed poems about what race, citizenship, and his experiences as a black man in America.
“Writing has always been the means by which I process who I am in relation to the world and who I am in relation to those around me,” he said.
LaShawn Springer, Director of Andover’s Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) Office, hopes that Smith’s poems opened students’ eyes to the systemic oppression and privilege that exist within America.
“What I appreciate about Clint is that he’s an educator and is always thinking about the messages that young people are receiving, especially in schools,” she wrote. “Using his own personal stories, he’s shining a light on narratives that are oftentimes left out of the larger American narrative and he is clear that you can’t disentangle the two,” she wrote in an email to The Phillipian.
In one of his poems, Smith read, “The only thing that we should give up is the idea that we aren’t worthy of this world. So when we say that black lives matter, it’s not because others don’t. It’s because we must affirm that we are worthy of existing without fear.”
Smith also touched upon the exceptionalist portrayal of American history and highlighted the need to acknowledge the darker pasts of the nation.
“I’ve been taught how perfect this country is, but no one ever told me about the pages torn out of my textbooks… Oppression doesn’t disappear just because you decide not to teach us that chapter. You only hear one side of the story, and at some point you have to question who the writer is,” he said.
Smith specifically pointed out the racist and segregationist aspects of five United States Presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson.
“We are taught that Thomas Jefferson is the founding father of the United States. He is responsible for the conception of the Declaration of Independence, he is the paradox of our ideals. All of which is true. What’s also true is that he says [in the Notes on the State of Virginia,] ‘Black people are inherently inferior to white people. The slave is incapable of love. The slave is incapable of possessing or sustaining complex emotions,’ ” he said.
“And I think about how that is a version of Jefferson that I was never taught. Jefferson is, in many ways, some sort of micro causeway for a much larger phenomenon in America’s history where we are so focused on American exceptionalism that we inevitably suppress anything that makes us less exceptional,” Smith said.
Cecelia Vieira ’18, Natalie Ahn ’20, and Anna Lopez ’19 each read original poems about their personal encounters with citizenship to introduce Smith.
Lopez said in an interview with The Phillipian, “If we are privileged we don’t really think about how other people might feel because we feel included… [and Clint] put a lot of my thoughts into articulate words.”
Attendee Mekedas Belayneh ’18 said, “I think that being a citizen is much more than the document of your immigration or being born here. It’s feeling that this country is something that you want to work for and the goals of this country align with your own in some ways and that you want to see the best for the place that you live in and that you’re acted to better that place.”