Speaker tackles issues of race with poetry

Clint Smith will speak on Thursday Feb. 18 in DSU Auditorium. In a TED talk he gave in July 2014, Smith talks about dangers of not speaking up, “I will not let silence wrap itself around my indecision…sometimes all people want is to be human,” Smith said. (Courtesy of Josclynn Brandon)

When Clint Smith begins a poem, he takes a step back before lifting his head and rising up to the mic. His voice transforms from a conversational speaker to a powerful writer. 

Smith performs with no paper in front of him; the audience experiences his words in a personal way. No one speaks over him, aside from the appreciative snaps and “mhmmm”’s.

Thursday in Downing Student Union auditorium, students were transfixed by Smith’s slam poetry. The subjects ranged from family, religion, race, writing, basketball, history and growing up in New Orleans.

Smith is currently a third-year graduate student at Harvard University. He is a writer whose work has been in The New Yorker, The Guardian, Boston Review, American Poetry Review and Harvard Educational Review.

Smith is also an educator in English and was acknowledged as the recipient of the the 2013 Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher of the Year by the Maryland Humanities Council.

He is currently on tour for his book of poetry, “Counting Descent,” which was published in 2016 by Write Bloody Publishing. The book was included as a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He has also been a speaker for two TED Talks.

During Thursday’s event, Smith shared several of his poems, including some that are in “Counting Descent.” Most had a serious and commanding tone and conveyed an important message with lines like, “Someone’s implicit bias is the reason you don’t wake up.”

The event was brought together by a variety of WKU organizations including the Intercultural Student Engagement Center, WellU and the WKU Campus Activities Board.

In between poems, Smith would discuss the background or inspiration for the piece. In a more conversational way, he shared anecdotes about his childhood like his father’s odd obsession of mimicking Denzel Washington.

He also took this time to explain his position on many race-related issues like the Black Lives Matter movement.

Most of the event was geared towards issues of race, which is why it was included in this month’s events. Smith said he believes education about black history is extremely important.

“Because I think in this country we fundamentally misunderstand the nature of what has happened to black people, and the way that we condition the black community has come to exist as they are because we misunderstand them, because we ignore it,” Smith said.

This idea was reflected in one poem that served as a letter to previous presidents who all had slaves.

Smith concluded the event with a Q&A with the students. He elaborated on his feelings about the Black Lives Matter movement, how to answer questions about racism and what he believes his legacy is.

Junior Alexandria Williams said she took the event as a way to educate herself and others about racial issues.

Junior Alesis Collins said she connected a lot with what Smith had to say about impact. 

“It doesn’t matter what people take away as long as you say what you need to say,” Collins said.

Reporter Rebekah Alvey can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected]