Upper School students had the opportunity to hear from writer, teacher, and Harvard doctoral candidate Clint Smith today as part of its ongoing Distinguished Speaker Series. A 2014 National Poetry Slam champion, Mr. Smith’s works—most recently published as a collection of poetry in Counting Descent—focus on the sociology of race and the history of inequality in the United States.* His two TED Talks, “The Danger of Silence” and “How to Raise a Black Son in America” have collectively been viewed more than 5 million times. On Jan. 25, 2017, Mr. Smith shared several of his poems, and the meaning behind them, with nearly 400 Upper School students and faculty in Ranney School’s Panther Hall.
His readings (video clip
), “Letter to Five of the Eight Presidents Who Owned Slaves While in Office,” “My Jumpshot,” and “What the Cicada Said to the Brown Boy,” among others, addressed the pedagogy of black parenting, bullying, and navigating what he called the “ever-present tension” of reckoning with dueling political truths. Mr. Smith provided examples to students of how America struggles with exceptionalism
, the latter of which he pointed out is often withheld from history books. For instance, he noted that the Civil Rights Movement—which lasted more than a decade—is often boiled down to the actions of Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the passing of The Voting Rights Act, and how the New Deal programs of the 1930s, praised for reshaping the American economy, did not extend full benefits to African Americans. “Oppression doesn’t disappear because we weren’t taught that chapter of history,” he said.
Mr. Smith explained his writings as “challenging what one may hold to be true historically, which in turn, challenges how people understand themselves.” This “existential crisis” ties directly to the current evolution taking place across the country—a country that is quite young in comparison to the rest of the world, he noted. “We are the pre-teens of the world, and are we are still working out what a noble democracy is.”
After the presentation, Mr. Smith took time to sign copies of his new book and to have lunch with a smaller group of students. He answered questions about his work on racial and social justice in the context of today’s sociopolitical climate, as well as about his writing methodology and the musicality of language. “The best way to become a strong writer is to be an avid reader,” and to be “empathetic,” he told students, encouraging them to read not only authors they may align with ideologically, but also those that take them outside of their comfort zones.
Ranney’s Distinguished Speaker Series is aimed at providing Upper School students with an opportunity to think forward and to grasp hold of traditional as well as new subjects through unique, personal, and international perspectives. Previous speakers have included world-record mountaineer Colin O' Brady, New Yorker Cartoonist Matt Diffee, and Teen Motivational Speaker Josh Shipp.
The school looks forward to hosting future speakers as part of this series—including actor/writer/educator Steven Tejada
on March 10, and Alix Generous
, a professional speaker, neuroscientist, author, tech consultant, and observational comedian with Asperger syndrome, on April 4—in addition to its spring Poet in Residence, Lois Marie Harrod
. Ms. Harrod will spend two weeks on campus this February and March conducting poetry workshops with Middle and Upper School English classes, as well as lunchtime workshops for creative writing and poetry groups. View a video clip with Clint Smith
*Clint Smith is also an Individual World Poetry Slam Finalist, a Cave Canem Fellow, a Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop Fellow, and has served as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. Department of State. His writing has been published in
The New Yorker, The Guardian, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Educational Review and elsewhere. He is the recipient of the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship and was named the Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher of the Year by the Maryland Humanities Council. His first full-length collection of poetry, Counting Descent (Write Bloody Publishing, September 2016) is a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. Read his full bio.