By Cait Kemp
Tuesday, Nov. 10, over a Zoom webinar, award-winning poet and writer, Clint Smith, joined the Springfield College community to give a presentation about racism and slavery. The event was titled “Understanding the Legacy of Slavery in America,” and viewers were welcomed to a Q&A section following Smith’s lecture.
The event was a part of Springfield College’s inaugural SCSM 101 of Core Curriculum. Host of the night, Kate Dugan, Director of Core Curriculum for Springfield College, moderated and introduced the speaker.
Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic and is the author of the poetry collection “Counting Descent,” which won the 2017 Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and other popular publications.
Smith centered his lecture around poems he has written about different racial and inequality matters. One of these topics was America’s past, specifically some of the early presidents. He discussed how in school, students learn about the great things those men did for the country, however it takes until students are in high school or college or outside sources to learn about the slaves they owned and the things they believed about non-white people.
“Oppression doesn’t disappear just 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 read from one of his poems.
The praise of confederate figures was another topic that Smith brought up and questioned why it is such an accepted thing in many southern states. He had another poem discussing this, talking about his childhood growing up in New Orleans surrounded by statues, street names, buildings, all in honor of people who fought to keep slavery.
“I think about the fact that I was raised in a city where there were over a hundred schools, buildings, roads, memorials, monuments, statues, named after confederate soldiers, confederate leaders, people who owned slaves, people who defended slavery,” said Smith. “There were far more homages to people who defended the institution of slavery, who fought for the institution of slavery, than there were of enslaved people themselves.”
This inspired another poem, talking about the end of the Civil War and how the southern states tried to alter how they appeared, where he says, “But see the thing about the ‘lost cause’ is that it’s only lost if you’re not actually looking. The thing about heritage is that it’s a word that also means ‘I’m ignoring what we did to you.’”
Moving forward in history, the New Deal was something that was made to help people after the country had just suffered from the Great Depression. Programs, work projects, financial reforms and other regulations made citizens hopeful to be brought back into a prosperous future for America. Again, however, history classes seem to leave out the important fact that this program was specifically written to leave out people of color.
“So, black people wouldn’t have access to social security, minimum wage protection, housing mortgages, health care, GI Bill, union membership, right, all the things that created the bedrock upon which intergenerational wealth and opportunity would be founded,” said Smith. “And you give it to one group of people, and very intentionally don’t give it to another group of people, and then people want to ask surprised generations later when there are disparate outcomes… but that is how systemic racism works.”
Intentional choices of inequality throughout history like the New Deal have continued systemic racism in the country, and is the reason one can still see disparities all across the United States today.
A line from his poem describing this topic sums it up perfectly. “When a fish dies from having no water, we call that a coincidence. If you block the sun from reaching a tree, you have to ask why it doesn’t grow.”
Smith said to make change, individuals must see it within themselves the problems they may be causing and fix it. It takes oneself to recognize an issue, and this is what will make better people and a better community.
Photo Courtesy of Springfield College