About The Episode
The killing of George Floyd by a police officer has sparked massive protests nationwide. This hour, writer and scholar Clint Smith reflects on this moment, through conversation, letters, and poetry.
About Clint Smith
He is the author of the poetry collection, Counting Descent, which was published in 2016. His writing has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, the Harvard Educational Review, among others. His most recent piece, "Becoming a Parent in the Age of Black Lives Matter," was published in The Atlantic earlier this week. 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 been viewed more than seven million times. The latter was featured on the TED Radio Hour episode, "The Consequences of Racism."
Previously, Clint 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Chanting) Black lives matter.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black lives matter. Black lives matter.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black lives matter.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) Say his name.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) George Floyd.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) Say his name.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) George Floyd.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) No justice.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No peace.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #3: (Chanting) Hands up.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Don't shoot.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #3: (Chanting) Hands up.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Don't shoot.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).
ZOMORODI: In Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta, Los Angeles and hundreds of cities across the country, people are taking to the streets and protesting, expressing their pain, anger and frustration.
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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: Clint's been on the show before, and we are so grateful that he has come back to spend this entire hour with us so we can listen to how he is processing this moment.
SMITH: I think I've watched, like, so many people over the past several years - I've watched 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.
You know, if we think about the - how often we see videos of white people being killed or beaten at the hands of police, it's far less. And I think we have to interrogate why the country accepts that we can watch videos of black people being killed or beaten at the hands of police in ways that are not reflected when we think about other demographics.
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 and all of these things that - 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 the 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 have been part of the Black Lives Matter protests before, but how would you describe your role in the Movement for Black Lives right now, this spring?
SMITH: Yeah. You know, I've never really thought of myself as an activist. I think of myself largely as - I'm a writer. And I'm a teacher. I just received my Ph.D. thinking about the history of inequality. And I've been teaching in prisons the past six years. And so, you know, my work is as an educator, is as a writer and writing and thinking and teaching about the sort of historical context that shapes the current landscape of inequality, and hopefully attempting to give people a sort of historical, political and social context that better shapes the way they're able to understand what's happening in this particular moment. And the reason, you know, one part of Minneapolis looks another - one way and another part of Minneapolis looks another way is not the result of the people in those communities but is instead a result of things that have been done to those communities generation after generation after generation.
And, you know, I say Minneapolis obviously because of George Floyd, but you can look at any city in the country and see how the history of housing segregation, the history of mass incarceration, the history of immigration policy, the history of food insecurity, the history of redlining and all of these different phenomenon have shaped what these communities look like. And so part of what I see my role as is writing into those spaces and educating in those spaces to help provide some semblance of a political education that makes people better understand how we arrived here.
ZOMORODI: And part of doing that is giving TED Talks. You've actually been on the show before. You write poetry. You write beautiful pieces in The Atlantic. But are you also on the streets? Are you out there as well or do you feel like that's not where your place is right now, where you can have the most impact?
SMITH: Yeah. That's interesting. And that's something I've been wrestling with a lot. And so part of what I wrote about in this piece recently for The Atlantic is how different this moment feels, both in a sort of macro historical sense than 2014 and '15, when the Movement for Black Lives was in its early stages, and how different this moment feels now for me personally because now I have a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. And so I have two small children, whereas in 2014 and '15 I didn't have any children.
And so as I write in the piece, I was kind of governed by nothing but my own anger. I was governed by this rage that I felt, this - that was this - as it was for many people, it was an incredibly politicizing moment because it felt like I gained a lot of clarity around how this country saw me. And I gained a lot of clarity around the way that certain institutions are built and the sort of way that we always talked about them as broken being kind of a misnomer because they're not actually broken. They're operating in ways that are fundamentally tied to their origins. And they're operating in ways that they were largely designed to.
And so I think it was a moment in which I, you know, I would be out at these protests. And at the time, I was living in Boston and didn't think about anything that might happen to me. You know, I wasn't really considering - certainly I have my parents and my siblings and - but now I have a wife. I have children who depend on me. And I think - and, you know, to say nothing of the fact that we're in the midst of a global pandemic and - have, you know, both of my kids have asthma. And so I'm thinking a lot - that shapes how I understand the movement both - and also how I sort of navigate within it. And it forces me to make a different set of decisions about my sort of physical proximity to protests that's different than decisions I might have made a few years ago.
But it's also, you know, I want to emphasize that that's a very personal decision. I think everybody makes a decision that is best suited for them and their family and their circumstances. And the decision I make and the way that I engage in the work now is not, you know, to say that that should be how everybody thinks about it. I think it is a very personal and intimate choice that people make.
ZOMORODI: Yeah, I can imagine that is a tough decision. OK. Well, let's take a minute now to listen to your TED Talk which delves into some of these issues, and then we can discuss some more.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
SMITH: I've been thinking a lot about this lately, this idea of humanity and specifically who in this world is afforded the privilege of being perceived as fully human. The world has watched as unarmed black men and women have had their lives taken at the hands of police and vigilantes. These events and all that has transpired after them have brought me back to my own childhood and the decisions that my parents made about raising a black boy in America, that growing up, I didn't always understand in the way that I do now.
These are the sorts of messages I've been inundated with my entire life. Always keep your hands where they can see them. Don't move too quickly. Take off your hood when the sun goes down. My parents raised me and my siblings in an armor of advice, an ocean of alarm bells, so someone wouldn't steal the breath from our lungs, so that they wouldn't make a memory of this skin, so that we could be kids, not casket or concrete. And it's not because they thought it would make us better than anyone else. It's simply because they wanted to keep us alive. So when we say that black lives matter, it's not because others don't. It's simply because we must affirm that we are worthy of existing without fear when so many things tell us we are not.
I want to live in a world where my son will not be presumed guilty the moment he is born, where a toy in his hand isn't mistaken for anything other than a toy. And I refuse to accept that we can't build this world into something new, some place where a child's name doesn't have to be written on a T-shirt or a tombstone, where the value of someone's life isn't determined by anything other than the fact that they had lungs, a place where every single one of us can breathe.
ZOMORODI: We'll hear more from writer and scholar Clint Smith after the break. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Stay with us.
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ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And we were just hearing how writer and researcher Clint Smith is thinking through this moment when black voices are asking to be heard.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
SMITH: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in a 1968 speech where he reflects upon the civil rights movement, states - in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.
ZOMORODI: It's work that he's been doing for years as a poet and an educator. Here's Clint on the TED stage.
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SMITH: As a teacher, I've internalized this message. Every day, all around us, we see the consequences of silence manifest themselves in the form of discrimination, violence, genocide and war. In the classroom, I challenge my students to explore the silences in their own lives through poetry. We work together to fill those spaces, to recognize them, to name them, to understand that they don't have to be sources of shame.
In an effort to create a culture within my classroom where students feel safe sharing the intimacies of their own silences, I have four core principles posted on the board that sits in the front of my class, which every student signs the beginning of the year. Read critically. Write consciously. Speak clearly. Tell your truth. I find myself thinking a lot about that last point. Tell your truth. And I realized that if I was going to ask my students to speak up, I was going to have to tell my truth and be honest with them about the times when I failed to do so. So I'd tell them that growing up as a kid in a Catholic family in New Orleans, during Lent, I was always taught that the most meaningful thing one could do was to give something up, sacrifice something you typically indulge in to prove to God you understand his sanctity. I've given up soda, McDonald's, French fries, French kisses and everything in between.
But one year, I gave up speaking, figured the most valuable thing I could sacrifice was my own voice. But it was like I hadn't realized that I had given that up a long time ago. I spent so much of my life telling people the things they wanted to hear instead of the things they needed to, told myself I wasn't meant to be anyone's conscience because I still had to figure out being my own. So sometimes, I just wouldn't say anything, appeasing ignorance with my silence, unaware that validation doesn't need words to endorse its existence. When Christian (ph) was beat up for being gay, I put my hands in my pocket and walked with my head down as if I didn't even notice; couldn't use my locker for weeks because the bolt on the lock reminded me of the one I had put on my lips when the homeless man on the corner looked at me with eyes up, merely searching for an affirmation that he was worth seeing. I was more concerned with touching the screen of my Apple than actually feeding him one. When the woman at the fundraising gala said, I'm so proud of you, it must be so hard teaching those poor, unintelligent kids, I bit my lip because apparently we needed her money. Well, then my students needed their dignity.
We spend so much time listening to the things people are saying that we rarely pay attention to the things they don't. Silence is the residue of fear. It is feeling your flaws, gut-wrench guillotine your tongue. It is the air retreating from your chest because it doesn't feel safe in your lungs. Silence is Rwandan genocide. Silence is Katrina. It is what you hear when there aren't enough body bags left. It is the sound after the noose is already tied. It is charring. It is chains. It is privilege. It is pain. There is no time to pick your battles when your battles have already picked you. I will not let silence wrap itself around my indecision.
So this year, instead of giving something up, I will live every day as if there were a microphone tucked under my tongue, a stage on the underside of my inhibition because who has to have a soapbox when all you've ever needed is your voice? Thank you.
ZOMORODI: You mention 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 part of what I'm doing in the book is exploring like, well, 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, whether it be Angola, whether it be the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana or Monticello in Virginia or the Blandford Cemetery, where - one of the largest Confederate cemeteries in the country, is I'm asking, like, 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: So I'm wondering if there's a way to draw a line, to adequately draw a line, in this country between our past and our future? And if there - you know, if there is a possibility that that could happen now? Just looking at your Twitter feed, you just wrote, it's easy to look back at the past and say what you should have done or would have done, but it's harder to look at the present and say what you are going to do. What should we do in the short term?
SMITH: Yeah. I think part of what's interesting about this moment is that a lot of the insidiousness of racism in this country is being more clearly revealed to a larger group of people, both in the United States and globally. And this is something that has been revealed on numerous occasions over the course of years and decades and centuries. But I also recognize that, for some people, it might feel new. Side note - my children are...
SMITH: If you can hear my kids in the background, just...
ZOMORODI: I can (laughter).
SMITH: OK. Give me one second.
ZOMORODI: No worries. You know, Clint, don't worry about it. It's kind of lovely. I kind of love that we were talking about how we can move towards a better future, and we heard...
ZOMORODI: ...Beautiful little kids in the backyard, it's kind of poetic.
SMITH: Oh, man. It's getting close to naptime. That's where we're at.
ZOMORODI: OK. We'll get through this (laughter).
SMITH: All right.
ZOMORODI: You were saying?
SMITH: So I think that, oftentimes, in moments like these, people look for easy things to assuage their guilt, to make them feel as if they are contributing or at least are not complicit in so much of the violence that we see going on. And I don't think that impulse is incorrect, but I think what's important is to - and what I try to push people to think about is the ways in which someone's commitment to racial justice and ending a history of white supremacy can be at odds with the policies that they actually engage with or think about or advocate for or against in their daily lives.
And so, for example, part of the thing that I talk about is, you know, I always think - I study slavery. I think about slavery, and everyone thinks that they would have been, you know, members of the Underground Railroad, or they would have been giving money to Frederick Douglass, or they would have been celebrating Harriet Tubman. And what I always tell people is that, like, who you are now is who you would have been then. Like, you can't at once think that you would have been a member of the Underground Railroad and then show up at a school board meeting and protest the integration of black and brown children to your children's schools.
You can't say that you would have been supporting Frederick Douglass and then show up and say that, oh, ending cash bail isn't a good idea. You can't say that you would have been someone lifting up the heroism of Harriet Tubman and then also say that you want to maintain exclusionary zoning policies in your neighborhood so that only single-family homes can be built or say that only certain people are allowed to move in to the neighborhood without actually saying only certain people can move into the neighborhood because, obviously, we know of the relationship between wealth and race.
And I think - and I want to be clear that it is not an easy thing, right? These things are not - they're not easy. I don't expect to say those things and then to have people say, oh, yeah, like, I'm just going to flip the - flip of a switch, and I'm going to - it's going to be an easy thing. But, like, part of what we have to do is unlearn so much of what we've been taught every single day. And it's an active thing. You know, like, a couple of years ago, like, woke became the new sort of nomenclature, you know.
SMITH: It's almost a caricature of itself now. But I used to tell people, like, woke isn't actually a helpful framework because it suggests that you sort of crossed some threshold and, like, oh, now you're good, now you get it, rather than, like, a constant process of waking up, right? Like - and it's something that all of us have to do, and it's a proactive process of both learning and unlearning so much of what we've been taught about the world and how we move within it.
And so I think that, you know, it's - I encourage people to donate to bail funds. I encourage people to donate to racial justice organizations. Obviously, vote for thoughtful people around these issues. But it's also, what are the small things happening in your world, in your community, in your family, in your schools, in your workplaces, that don't maybe at the moment feel like they are pushing against racial justice but are, in fact, contributing to a system, whether in a macro sense or micro sense, that allows the decades-long manifestations of white supremacy to continue to flourish.
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. We just got to hear their delightful little voices in the background.
ZOMORODI: 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. And they are everything to me. You know, they are both respite from so much of what is happening.
You know, the nature of quarantine means that my wife and I are the child care providers now full time. And we split things into half-days. And, you know, during my half, we - my kids and I, we go to this local park, and we run around, and we play tag, and we blow dandelions, and we pretend to be wizards and, like, point sticks at each other...
SMITH: ...And turn each other into cows and pigs and other farm animals. And when I'm doing that, I'm not actively thinking about the trauma that exists in the world. I'm not actively thinking about what happened to George Floyd. I'm not actively thinking about what happened to Breonna Taylor. I'm not actively thinking about the way that police are escalating what's happening in the street to a degree that is so egregious.
But at the same time, their presence in my life is also this constant reminder of how the stakes feel higher than they ever have before and that, you know, I was committed and have been committed to this work and the work of building a better world, of building a more just world, a more equitable world, for a long time.
But it feels so much more important because I look around and I'm just like, I don't want my children to grow up in a world like this. I don't want my kids to grow up in a world in which the police can consistently kill and brutalize black people with seemingly no consequence. I don't want to live in a world where black communities continue to experience so much poverty as the result of our history. I don't want to live in a world where, you know, I have to fear for my kids' life when they leave the house and all of the things that black parents have felt for generations.
And I think about the conversation that my father had with me and the conversation his father had with him and the conversation that I'll have to one day have with my son and my daughter about what it means to navigate a world that is taught to fear you. And how do you tread the line of convincing a young person or making clear to a black child the realities of the world while also not making it seem as if they have somehow done something to deserve it, without making it seem as if it's their fault?
And I think that that is the balance that parents of black children are constantly trying to figure out because we live in a world where they are constantly - black children are constantly inundated with these messages, both subtle and explicit, about who they are, about how dangerous they are, about how they're perceived by the wider world. And how do you guard them against that while also making them clear about what that represents and what it means for their lives?
So it's a delicate balancing act. And I'm not - I don't have all the answers, and my parents didn't have all the answers. But I think every black parent is trying to figure it out the best way they know.
ZOMORODI: It's interesting to me, though, because you were even thinking about this before you became a father, right? In 2015, you wrote - 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.
(Reading) I hope to teach you so much of what my father taught me. But I pray that you live in a radically different world from the one that he and I have inherited. I do not envy his task, one that might soon become my own. I tell you these things because I know how strong and resilient you will be, how you will take this fear and make a fort of this skin and turn it into a bastion of love against unwarranted inhumanity. 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 was 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 whoever 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.
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ZOMORODI: After the break, more from writer Clint Smith reflecting on this moment and how to explain the world to his children as a black father. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Stay with us.
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And let's get back to poet and author Clint Smith reading us his "Letter For My Future Black Son" (ph) which he wrote in 2015.
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SMITH: "My Hopes, Dreams, Fears For My Future Black Son," published in 2015. (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.
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ZOMORODI: Your kids are really little now. But when do you think you'll share that letter with your son and your daughter And talk about the protests and the police brutality that you've seen?
SMITH: The conversation around race is unique in the sense that people feel as if they cannot begin having those conversations with their children, whether they're white or black or Latinx or whatever the case may be, until they're much older. But I think that if we think about it in the way we think about the environment - right? - or environmentalism, you know, you scaffold the conversation and you make it age appropriate. So you don't just show up to a 6-year-old and say, oh, well, global warming is an existential threat to the existence of various countries on this planet and Bangladesh is going to be underwater and the polar bears are going to disappear and the polar ice caps are going to melt. What are we going to do? Like, that would be inappropriate for a 7-year-old.
What you say is it's important to recycle. It's important to turn the light off when you leave your room. It's important to turn the water off while you're brushing your teeth. And you make it - and you build their capacity to understand what protecting the environment means. And I think it's the same thing with the conversation around race, right? You don't show up to a 6-year-old and say, white supremacy has been an ever present fixture in the United States for the past 400 years, and systemic racism floods every part of American public policy. Like, that's inappropriate for a 6-year-old. What you say is you say, you know, it's important to celebrate different people and their different cultures and where they come from. And you don't have to pretend to be colorblind. You can say I recognize that we're all different, and I celebrate that and I embrace that, and I want that to be a part of my life. And you use language that is appropriate for the child at their age.
So, you know, I - will I say to my son, you know, today as a 3-year-old what I've written as I have written it in this letter I wrote five years ago? Probably not. But I think that there will come a point in which we have to have explicit conversations about what it means that he - if a teacher says, oh, well, you know, your child is aggressive or your child doesn't pay attention or your child is just - you know, thinking about language that people begin to use about black boys and about black girls and black children from an early age that is coded with something that is implicit and sometimes something much more sinister, to make my son clear that there's nothing wrong with him, to make my daughter clear that there is nothing wrong with her even when there are people who are telling them that and don't even realize that they're there doing so.
ZOMORODI: It's interesting to hear you say that. My - I was trying to explain to my daughter what the protests were about and why people were so upset. And her reaction was that makes me so sad. I feel scared. And I said, that's OK to feel those things. And then my almost 13-year-old came to me and was like, so what are you doing about the protests? I was like, oh, OK. Like, tables turned, you know?
ZOMORODI: And I also - you know, I don't know with my kids how realistic or optimistic to be. I'm thinking about the other thing that you say in that letter to your future son, which is this world is a social construction. It can be reconstructed. This world was built. It can be rebuilt. Are you still that hopeful?
SMITH: Absolutely. I definitely think that the world as it exists today is not static. It is not an inevitability. It is the result of decisions that have been made by people in power. And we can build a world in which different decisions are made, in which different kinds of people are in power, in which different sets of opportunities are distributed in a much more equitable way. But what I'm clear on is that that is long and difficult work, right? Like, I think some people - the nature of living in our, you know, social media age and in our moment is that people often want something to change and want it to change very quickly. And there's - it's not to say that some things can't or shouldn't change very quickly. Like, there are things that should absolutely change, you know, following this protest.
You know, I think about the protests - a lot of people have talked about the comparisons and contrasts between this moment and the protests that erupted after Dr. King was killed in 1968. And, you know, out of the protests in 1968 came the Fair Housing Act, which, you know, was the last great piece of legislation in the civil rights movement. And so it's not to say that these protests themselves cannot or should not lead to some immediate tangible, substantive policy changes and differences. But it is to say that the sort of larger work, the paradigm of change is long and hard and difficult.
So, for example, like, I work in prisons. I think about prison, think about incarceration all the time. I want to live in a world in which mass incarceration does not exist. I also accept that I might not live to see that world. But that doesn't mean I don't continue to fight for it, right? I think we all are sort of chipping away at this wall for as long as we can the best we can. And we don't really know how thick the wall is. We don't know when we'll reach the other side of it. But what is true is that when we move on, somebody else is going to come behind us, and they'll be closer to the end of that wall or the other side of that wall because of the chipping away that we have done. And so this is an intergenerational job. It's an intergenerational work. It always has been and always will be.
ZOMORODI: It can feel so incremental sometimes, but the way that you've just phrased it is that we end a chapter and then there's always another chapter that starts again. And it builds upon the story.
ZOMORODI: You wrote a poem, I think, which you brought to read for us as well. Do you mind telling us about it and then reading it for us?
SMITH: So this is a poem that I wrote a year ago, but it has kind of been recirculating as the protests have happened, as coronavirus has happened. Unfortunately, there is always something happening. And so I fear that it will always be relevant in some way. But I'm interested in the phrase, you know, we have made it through worse before or we'll make it to the other side or we'll be OK in the end or we'll make it through this. And I'm interested in it because I'm interested in interrogating who that we is. And who is the we that makes it to the other side? Who is the we that has seen worse before? Who is the we that will be OK in the end? Because it feels incredibly imprecise. Like, it is meant to be this sort of collective mobilizing thing that encourages us and inspires us to push through.
But I worry that in using language like that, we can fail to account for or completely erase the lives and experiences of the people who won't make it to the other side or who didn't make it to the other side. And so - and I am interrogating my own use of the language - of that language for a long time as well. And as is the case with so many of my poems, this one is a means of thinking through ways to hold myself accountable, to be more precise and to be more thoughtful about what type of language we use in this moment and in so many others. So this poem is called "When People Say, "We Have Made It Through Worse Before."
(Reading) When people say we have made it through worse before, all I hear is the winds slapping against the gravestones of those who did not make it, those who did not survive to see the confetti fall from the sky, those who did not live to watch the parade roll down the street. I've grown accustomed to a lifetime of aphorisms meant to assuage my fears, pithy sayings meant to convey that everything ends up fine in the end. But there is no solace in rearranging language to make a different word tell the same lie. Sometimes the moral arc of the universe does not bend in a direction that will comfort us. Sometimes it bends in ways we don't expect. And there are people who fall off in the process. Please, dear reader, do not say that I am hopeless. I believe there is a better future to fight for. I simply accept the possibility that I may not live to see it. I've grown weary of telling myself lies that I might one day begin to believe. We are not all left standing after the war has ended. Some of us have become ghosts by the time the dust has settled.
ZOMORODI: Clint Smith, thank you so, so much.
SMITH: Thank you.
ZOMORODI: That was lovely. Thank you. I'm so grateful. As I said, it's reminding me of the phrase we're all in this together, which has just become so flat and flabby and hollow.
SMITH: Indeed. Indeed.
ZOMORODI: Thanks again. I hope we get to meet someday.
SMITH: I appreciate it, likewise.
ZOMORODI: That's writer, poet, scholar and TED speaker Clint Smith. Thank you so much for being here with me and Clint this hour. And to learn more about Clint Smith, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Next week on the show, we're continuing this conversation with TED current affairs curator Whitney Pennington Rodgers.
WHITNEY PENNINGTON RODGERS: I do think that this is a moment where we do have to step back and sort of think about how decisions even before the pandemic started have brought us here. You know, that is a time for us to look at how systems that we've had that we've become accustomed to, that we in some ways really cling to just do not serve all of us well moving forward.
ZOMORODI: Whitney has put together a selection of talks for us from the TED archive that will add more context to the protests to the racial injustice and the crisis in America.
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.