Writer and Poet Clint Smith Weaves Artistry With Activism

On April 8, Clint Smith—writer, poet, scholar, and activist—spoke with students and faculty in virtual Hall about his poetry, his passionate support of the racial justice movement, and his newest project—his non-fiction book debut, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, which will be published this summer.

“I’ve spent the last four years reading and being transformed by history books,” Mr. Smith began, “and I wondered, ‘How can a poet contribute to this historiography?’” Prompted by watching monuments to the Confederate Army come down in 2017 in his home city of New Orleans, Mr. Smith launched into this project, through which he explores how different cities and sites across the country reckon with, or fail to reckon with, their relationship to the history of slavery. For this project, Mr. Smith traveled to—and chronicled what he learned and experienced in—places like Monticello Plantation and Angola Prison, Galveston Island and New York City.

During Hall, Mr. Smith spoke about how important it is that we learn about, discuss, and understand the totality of our country’s history, and the people within it. He talked about how Thomas Jefferson, for instance, was “a brilliant mind, who helped to create the greatest experiment in democracy that the world has ever seen,” but that he also held more than 600 slaves over the course of his life, including four of his own children who he had by his slave Sally Hemings. “How do we hold and understand two truths at the same time?,” he asked. “It’s important that we face these difficult realities and deal with these tensions. And we might not all agree in the end, but these are conversations we need to be having.”

Mr. Smith also read aloud some of his poetry, including a new poem that was “a letter to four presidents who held slaves,” and the title poem of his 2017 collection, Counting Descent. In an extended Q&A session he answered questions about his writing style and process; the topics he addresses in his poems and essays; and about how we grapple with American history, reconciling the admirable with the loathsome.

Mr. Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. His essays, poems, and scholarly writing have been published in The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and other esteemed publications. His first full-length collection of poetry, Counting Descent, won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award.

Mr. Smith is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and a 2017 recipient of the Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review. He has been named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list as well as Ebony Magazine’s Power 100 list. His two TED Talks, The Danger of Silence and How to Raise a Black Son in America, collectively have been viewed more than 7 million times. Mr. Smith has received a number of prestigious, national fellowships; he has taught high school English in Maryland where, in 2013, he was named Teacher of the Year by the Maryland Humanities Council. He currently teaches writing and literature in the D.C. Central Detention Facility. Mr. Smith earned his B.A. in English from Davidson College and his Ph.D. in Education from Harvard University.