Clint Smith (writer)

poet, teacher

Clint Smith (born August 25, 1988) is a writer, poet and scholar living in the USA. He is the author of Counting Descent and How the Word is Passed.

Clint Smith


  • When I think of emancipation, I think of all of the people who fought for freedom but who never got a chance to experience it. The end of slavery did not happen overnight, it came from intergenerational work by those who fought for a better world they knew they might never see
    • 6/19/2020 on Twitter
  • Just so we're clear, there is no way to have an honest conversation about immigration from Central America without talking both about the impact of climate change and about a history of US intervention that politically and economically destabilized many of these countries.
    • Oct 23, 2020 On Twitter
  • Rewatching the Freedom Riders documentary, seeing the face of a young John Lewis, and I'm reminded of how so many of the ppl who spit on, cursed at, & assaulted these riders are ppl who are still alive today. Still alive, still voting, still here. None of this was that long ago.
    • Jul 18, 2020 On Twitter
  • The Voting Rights Act was only signed 55 years ago. Tonight I'm thinking about all the Black folks in Georgia who have lived on both sides of it. Who voted in this election and who remember a time when they wouldn't have been able to. It wasn't that long ago. Not at all.
    • Jan 5, 2021 On Twitter
  • Worth repeating that all of the police violence you see happening right now has been happening for a long time before there were any camera phones to record it. It's a daily phenomenon in communities across the country. It's structurally embedded into how these forces operate.
    • May 31, 2020 on Twitter
  • I've said this before, but for all the people who believe you definitely would have been abolitionists in the era of slavery, who you are today is who you would have been then. You don't need to imagine scenarios of living in the 19th century, there's work to do here and now.
    • June 2 2020 on Twitter
  • Saying "I worked very hard for it" to justify your position as a billionaire is one of the most absurd things I can imagine when there are people working multiple jobs who still don't make enough to feed their children and pay their rent.
    • Feb 20, 2020 On Twitter
  • I've said this before, but if you're doing an MLK day service project consider bringing King-level analysis to it. Don't just serve lunch at a soup kitchen, interrogate why millions of ppl live in poverty in the first place. King's legacy isn't about charity, it's about justice.
    • Jan 20, 2020 On Twitter
  • I simply cannot imagine having access to that much wealth (a billion dollars is one thousand stacks of a million dollars!) and thinking that using a minuscule percentage of that money to make sure other people have access to food, homes, and education was a bad thing.
    • Nov 6, 2019 on Twitter
  • Spent this week in Senegal & have been thinking about how activists there are pushing to have the street signs named after French colonists removed in ways paralleling the fight to take down Confederate statues. It was a reminder how global the fight against white supremacy is.
    • Nov 15, 2019 On Twitter
  • I'll keep saying it, keeping millions of ppl in poverty is a choice this country makes every day. There is enough money for ppl not to be evicted from their homes, there is enough for ppl not to go hungry, there is enough for ppl to avoid jail bc of a parking ticket. It's absurd.
    • Aug 13, 2019 On Twitter

Interview with Democracy Now (2022)

  • I went to Galveston, Texas, in part, because I wanted to spend time with people who were the actual descendants of those who had been freed by General Gordon Granger’s General Order No. 3. And it was a really remarkable moment, because I was in this place, on this island, on this land, with people for whom Juneteenth was not an abstraction. It was not a performance. It was not merely a symbol. It was part of their tradition. It was part of their lineage. It was an heirloom that had been passed down, that had made their lives possible. And so, I think I gained a more intimate sense of what that holiday meant.
  • when I think of Juneteenth, part of what I think about is the both-handedness of it, that it is this moment in which we mourn the fact that freedom was kept from hundreds of thousands of enslaved people for years and for months after it had been attained by them, and then, at the same time, celebrating the end of one of the most egregious things that this country has ever done.
  • I think what we’re experiencing right now is a sort of marathon of cognitive dissonance, in the way that is reflective of the Black experience as a whole, because we are in a moment where we have the first new federal holiday in over 40 years and a moment that is important to celebrate, the Juneteenth, and to celebrate the end of slavery and to have it recognized as a national holiday, and at the same time that that is happening, we have a state-sanctioned effort across state legislatures across the country that is attempting to prevent teachers from teaching the very thing that helps young people understand the context from which Juneteenth emerges.
  • we recognize that, as a symbol, Juneteenth is not — that it matters, that it is important, but it is clearly not enough. And I think the fact that Juneteenth has happened is reflective of a shift in our public consciousness, but also of the work that Black Texans and Black people across this country have done for decades to make this moment possible.
  • the Emancipation Proclamation is often a widely misunderstood document. So, it did not, sort of wholesale, free the enslaved people throughout the Union. It did not free enslaved people in the Union. In fact, there were several border states that were part of the Union that continued to keep their enslaved laborers, states like Kentucky, states like Delaware, states like Missouri. And what it did was it was a military edict that was attempting to free enslaved people in Confederate territory. But the only way that that edict would be enforced is if Union soldiers went and took that territory.
  • Over the course of decades, she has made it her mission to see that this day came. It was almost a singular mission. She has walked for miles and miles, literally and figuratively, to bring attention to Juneteenth, to make this day possible...when I think about someone like Miss Opal Lee, part of what I think about is our proximity to this period of history, right? Slavery existed for 250 years in this country, and it’s only not existed for 150. And, you know, the way that I was taught about slavery, growing up, in elementary school, we were made to feel as if it was something that happened in the Jurassic age, that it was the flint stone, the dinosaurs and slavery, almost as if they all happened at the same time. But the woman who opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture alongside the Obama family in 2016 was the daughter of an enslaved person — not the granddaughter or the great-granddaughter or the great-great-granddaughter. The daughter of an enslaved person is who opened this museum of the Smithsonian in 2016. And so, clearly, for so many people, there are people who are alive today who were raised by, who knew, who were in community with, who loved people who were born into intergenerational chattel bondage. And so, this history that we tell ourselves was a long time ago wasn’t, in fact, that long ago at all.
  • if we don’t fully understand and account for this history, that actually wasn’t that long ago, that in the scope of human history was only just yesterday, then we won’t fully understand our contemporary landscape of inequality today. We won’t understand how slavery shaped the political, economic and social infrastructure of this country. And when you have a more acute understanding of how slavery shaped the infrastructure of this country, then you’re able to more effectively look around you and see how the reason one community looks one way and another community looks another way is not because of the people in those communities, but is because of what has been done to those communities, generation after generation after generation. And I think that that is central to the sort of public pedagogy that so many of these activists and organizers who have been attempting to make Juneteenth a holiday and bring attention to it as an entry point to think more wholly and honestly about the legacy of slavery have been doing.
  • we should be clear that the thing that people are calling critical race theory is just — that is the language that they are using to talk about the idea of teaching any sort of history that rejects the idea that America is a singularly exceptional place, and that we should not account for the history of harm that has been enacted to create opportunities and intergenerational wealth for millions of people, that has come at the direct expense of millions and millions of other people across generations.
  • And so, part of what is happening in these state legislatures across the country with regard to the effort to push back against teaching of history — 1619 Project, critical race theory and the like — is a recognition that we have developed in this country a more sophisticated understanding, a more sophisticated framework, a more sophisticated public lexicon, with which to understand how slavery — how racism was not just an interpersonal phenomenon, it was a historic one, it was a structural one, it was a systemic one. And I’m very much sympathetic — I know there’s some sentiment out there, that people are saying, “Well, we didn’t ask for Juneteenth to become a holiday. We want voting rights. We want police reform. We want abolition. We want” — and I 100% understand that. I also think that we should not undervalue what it means for Juneteenth to become a holiday, in part because then we are not valuing the work that Black activists have done over the course of decades to get there, and because while symbols are not necessarily material change, they are not irrelevant.
  • I think all the time about having grown up in New Orleans, and to get to school, I had to go down Robert E. Lee Boulevard; to get to the grocery store, I had to go down Jefferson Davis Highway; that my middle school was named after a leader of the Confederacy; that the street my parents live on today is named after somebody who owned 115 enslaved people.
  • And the thing is that names and symbols and holidays, like, aren’t just names and symbols and symbolism. What they are are reflective of the stories that people tell. And those stories shape the narratives that societies carry. And those narratives shape public policy. And public policy, that shapes the material conditions of people’s lives. Which is not to say that taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee or making Juneteenth a holiday is going to erase the racial wealth gap. Of course not. But what it is is part of an ecosystem of narratives and stories and ideas that can help us recalibrate our understanding of why certain communities look the way that they do and what needs to be done and invested in those communities to create a new set of opportunities. So, we should recognize and celebrate that Juneteenth is a holiday, and we should also recognize that that is not enough — it is not nearly enough — and that it is one part of a much longer struggle and a much larger struggle to make sure that we are creating a more equitable and just world.
  • What a lot of people don’t know is that New York City, for an extended period of time, was the second-largest slave port in the country, after Charleston, South Carolina; that in 1860, on the brink of the Civil War, when South Carolina was about to secede from the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln, that New York City’s mayor, Fernando Wood, proposed that New York City should also secede from the Union alongside the Southern states, because New York’s financial and political infrastructure were so deeply entangled and tied to the slavocracy of the South; also that the Statue of Liberty was originally conceived by Édouard de Laboulaye, a French abolitionist, who conceived of the idea of the Statue of Liberty and giving it to the United States as a gift, that it was originally conceived as an idea to celebrate the end of the Civil War and to celebrate abolition. The original conception of the statue actually had Lady Liberty breaking shackles, like a pair of broken shackles on her wrists, to symbolize the end of slavery. And over time, it became very clear that that would not have the sort of wide stream — or, wide mainstream support of people across the country, obviously this having been just not too long after the end of the Civil War, so there were still a lot of fresh wounds. And so they shifted the meaning of the statue to be more about sort of inclusivity, more about the American experience, the American project, the American promise, the promise of democracy, and sort of obfuscated the original meaning, to the point where even the design changed. And so they replaced the shackles with a tablet and the torch, and then put the shackles very subtly sort of underneath her robe. And you can — but the only way you can see them, these broken chains, these broken links, are from a helicopter or from an airplane. And in many ways, I think that that is a microcosm for how we hide the story of slavery across this country, that these chain links are hidden, out of sight, out of view of most people, under the robe of Lady Liberty, and how the story of slavery across this country is very — as we see now, very intentionally trying to be hidden and kept from so many people, so that we have a fundamentally inconsistent understanding of the way that slavery shaped our contemporary society today.
  • it is very clear not only that New York City had enslaved people itself for an extended period of time, as did places in New England, Connecticut, Rhode Island, but that it is the financial and economic infrastructure of New York City and the people who created mass amounts of wealth in that city that allowed slavery to continue to evolve and prosper.
  • I think we tend to have this sort of bifurcated view and overly simplistic view of, like, “Oh, the people in the North were the good guys, and people in the South were the bad guys.” But there were a lot of people in the North, and, as I talked about, in New York City, who were deeply committed to the perpetuation and existence of slavery in the South, because it was beneficial for them economically, it was beneficial for them politically, it was beneficial for them socially. And it was in line with how they understood the role of enslaved people and Black people in this country. They might not have wanted to have owned enslaved people themselves, but they most certainly did not believe in abolition, or they most certainly did not think that they wanted something to prevent the massive influx of capital that they were receiving from continuing to flow into their hands.

How the Word is Passed (2021)

  • It’s not a feeling of guilt. It’s a feeling of ‘discovered ignorance'
  • At some point it is no longer a question of whether we can learn this history but whether we have the collective will to reckon with it.
  • When I read Jefferson's disparagement of Wheatley, it felt like he had been disparaging the entire lineage of Black poets who would follow her, myself included, and I saw a man who had not had a clear understanding of what love is. When Robert Hayden gave us the ballads to remember how captured Africans survived the Middle Passage and arrived on these shores, it was an act of love. When Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about the children on the South Side of Chicago playing with one another in neighborhoods left neglected by the city, it was an act of love. When Audre Lorde fractured this language and then built us a new one, giving us a fresh way to make sense of who we are in the world, it was an act of love. When Sonia Sanchez makes lightning of her tongue, moving from Southern colloquialisms to stanzas shaped by Swahili, traversing an ocean in one breath, it is an act of love. Jefferson's conceptions of love seem to have been so distorted by his own prejudices that he was unable to recognize the endless examples of love that pervaded plantations across the country: mothers who huddled over their children and took the lash so their little ones wouldn't have to; surrogate mothers, fathers, and grandparents who took in children and raised them as their own when their biological parents were disappeared in the middle of the night; the people who loved and married and committed to one another despite the omnipresent threat that they might be separated at any moment. What is love if not this?
  • While a life like Frederick Douglass's is remarkable, we must remember that not every person who lived through slavery was like Douglass. Most did not learn to read or write. Most did not engage in hand-to-hand combat with white slave breakers. Most did not live close enough to free states in the North to have any hope of escape. No one, enslaved or otherwise, was like Douglass. There were other brilliant, exceptional people who lived under slavery, and many resisted the institution in innumerable ways, but our country's teachings about slavery, painfully limited, often focus singularly on heroic slave narratives at the expense of the millions of men and women whose stories might be less sensational but are no less worthy of being told.
  • I thought of my primary and secondary education. I remembered feeling crippling guilt as I silently wondered why every enslaved person couldn't simply escape like Douglass, Tubman, and Jacobs had. I found myself angered by the stories of those who did not escape. Had they not tried hard enough? Didn't they care enough to do something? Did they choose to remain enslaved? This, I now realize, is part of the insidiousness of white supremacy; it illuminates the exceptional in order to implicitly blame those who cannot, in the most brutal circumstances, attain superhuman heights. It does this instead of blaming the system, the people who built it, the people who maintained it. In overly mythologizing our ancestors, we forget an all-too-important reality: the vast majority were ordinary people, which is to say they were people just like everyone else. This ordinariness is only shameful when used to legitimate oppression. This is its own quiet violence.
  • The Statue of Liberty is an extension of a tradition that seems to embody the contradictions in America's promise, and a reminder that its promises have not always been extended to us. As the narrator in James Baldwin's 1960 short story "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon" puts it, "I would never know what this statue meant to others, she had always been an ugly joke for me."
  • Black-and-white photographs and film footage can convince us that these episodes transpired in a distant past, untouched by our contemporary world. Segregation shaped every aspect of my grandmother's education.

Counting Descent (2017)

  • do you know what it means for your existence to be defined by someone else’s intentions?
  • To deny the full humanity of others is to deny it within ourselves.

Quotes about Clint Smith

  • (The book that…should be on every college syllabus:) How The Word is Passed by Clint Smith. This book is fundamental to understanding how, why, and when commemorations around slavery have happened in the United States and the ramifications of honoring but not acknowledging the sins of slaveholders.
  • Clint Smith, one of our most thoughtful writers and thinkers, skillfully documents how echoes of enslavement remain everywhere...How the Word Is Passed is a vital, desperately needed contribution to that reckoning."
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