Poet, author and professor Clint Smith said the American education system has failed to fully represent the nation’s history in his presentation on institutionalized racism. Smith addressed the Kansas State community Tuesday during KSUnite.
In the Zoom webinar, Smith drew from his experience growing up in New Orleans. He shared four slam poems on the topic of racism to address the ways the American education system fails to share the whole history of the United States.
At one point in Smith’s presentation, the comment section received an influx of spam from alt-right accounts. Some of the comments were directed toward Smith and other KSUnite speakers. Some were not direct attacks, but took up space in the chatrooms meant for constructive discussion of the topics.
Chief Diversity and Inclusion officer Bryan Samuel joined the Zoom call to apologize for the negative comments in the chat and their distraction from Smith’s work.
Growing up in a mixed-race, mixed socioeconomic community, Smith described the diversity he encountered in his childhood as one Disney Channel could have cast, but he quickly realized he had vastly different experiences than many of his friends.
As a Black child, Smith said his parents discussed proper behaviors with him to keep himself from safe from police, but their fears didn’t make sense to Smith at first.
“It wasn’t until Tamir Rice was killed … in which the most fatalistic manifestation of my parents’ fear for me became concrete,” Smith said.
Smith shared a slam poem describing the feeling of his father dragging him inside from playing with water guns in the dark one night.
“… My father came outside, grabbed me by my forearm. … He derided me for being so naive, looked me in the eye, fear consuming his face, and told me, ‘I’m sorry, son, but you can’t act the same as your white friends.’ … I know now how scared he must have been … these are the sort of messages I was raised with my whole life.”
Smith’s poem touched on the normalization of this fear in the Black community and what it’s like to grow up in it. The poem concluded with the question, “What does it do to a child to grow up knowing that you cannot simply be a child?”
Like the fear many Black families live with in America, Smith said the normalization of the nation’s racist history is extremely harmful. He said though, in the grand scheme of things, slavery wasn’t abolished that long ago. American history lessons would have students believe that its repercussions couldn’t possibly be felt today.
In reality, Smith said, it’s only been in the last 50 years that Black people have had a “semblance” of rights and equality. When you look at it like that, he said, it seems ridiculous to expect that Black Americans today would be on the same playing field as their white counterparts.
“It’s important to ground ourselves in that history. … Every facet of America’s political, economic … and social infrastructure has been in some way animated by that history,” Smith said.
While he acknowledges and celebrates the many opportunities available in the U.S., Smith said it is vital to examine the flip side of the coin.
“So many people were able to rise up [in America], and so many people were able to rise up because others were pushed down,” he said. “The fact that we don’t explore both of those truths is a failure of the education system.”
Smith cited Thomas Jefferson as an example of an American who was both revolutionary for the time and deeply racist.
“We have a responsibility to carry all of that,” Smith said.
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In a second poem shared during his presentation, Smith addressed the five presidents who owned slaves while in office and the details not taught about them in schools.
“I’ve been taught about how great this country was, but nobody told me about the pages that had been torn out of my textbook,” he said.
Smith said as a nation, Americans tend to see the systemic oppression of Black Americans not as oppression, but as a failure on the part of the individuals impacted. The reason many disadvantaged communities look the way they do, he said, is not because of those who live there but because of what’s been done to those communities generation after generation.
“We attribute what these communities look like to personal failure,” Smith said.
The phrase, “If they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” is a very American phrase he said he’s heard many times. It pushes blame back onto the oppressed for their circumstances. The reality though, Smith said, is that America is built on a foundation that is not supportive of its Black citizens.
“If we don’t account for all that has been done to black people in this country … we attribute it to people rather than to systems,” he said. “The thing about racism in America is that if you don’t call it racism, people think that it isn’t there.”
A prime example of normalized racism in America is the prevalence of statues glorifying Confederate soldiers, Smith said.
As a child, every day he walked to school, Smith passed a statue of P.G.T. Beauregard, one of the leaders of the Confederacy who started the American Civil War. At the time, Smith had no idea who this man was or what he stood for, but now he said he understands that the Confederacy was traitorous and wanted to maintain the legality of slavery.
“Every day, Black children walk into buildings named after people who didn’t want them to exist,” he said. “It’s abhorrent. I think that they should be taken down. I don’t believe in the idea of sort of recontextualizing them.”
When asked what steps universities can take to begin filling the gaps he sees in the education system, Smith said mandating an American ethnic studies course would be a good place to start.
“There’s so much you’ll realize you don’t know about what this country has done to so many people,” he said.
White Americans must be at the forefront of the fight for racial equality, Smith said, and it starts in everyday conversations.
“If things are being said that you know wouldn’t be said if [a person of color] was there, think about that,” Smith said. “What would you want me to feel about your response to that … if someone said something that was deeply offensive, and you stood there and said nothing?”
Smith also said the process of working out the racism present in daily American life is ongoing.
“It’s not a line you cross, and now you’re good,” Smith said. “It’s the process of learning and unlearning every single day that you have to go through.”
In June 2021, Smith will release a new book, “How Word is Passed,” in which he examines how different parts of the U.S. reckon with their history of slavery. To receive updates on the book and know when you can preorder the book, Smith encouraged his audience to subscribe to his newsletter.
A full recording of Smith’s presentation and the rest of today’s KSUnite events can be found on the KSUnite website.