A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of listening to Clint Smith, writer & teacher & poet, perform several of his poems in a crowded lecture hall in Barus and Holley. He read mostly from his new book, Counting Descent, a collection of poetry about complicating and interrogating conceptions of lineage and tradition. Counting Descent universalizes the personal, recounting both personal (When Maze & Frankie Beverly Come on in My House) and political (For Charles, a poem dedicated to Charles Deslondes, a mixed-race slave driver who led the largest slave revolt in United States history) histories. In his performance, which consisted of poetry readings interspersed with short lectures, Smith urged his audience to examine the social construction of lived experience, simultaneously imploring us to question both everything that we have learned up until this point and everything that we hereafter seek to unlearn. Furthermore, in discussing the process of unlearning, Smith focused on the various intersections of education, the production of history, and civil empowerment. Specifically, he spoke about the paradoxical danger and importance of silence, in terms of history, education, and community organizing. His both& approach to silence fascinated me.
I first listened to Smith perform in a TED Talk entitled “The Danger of Silence,” in which he describes silence as the residue of fear. He explains the danger of this privileged silence through personal anecdotes of moments when he ignored injustices being perpetrated, failing to speak up and out. He insists on the importance of finding the courage to push back against ignorance and injustice. Much like Audre Lorde’s, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” “The Danger of Silence” encourages folks (generally folks who are not white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied men) to recognize the validity of their words and speak their individual truths.
However, the ability to speak an individual truth hinges on the recognition of historical silences, and the ability to fill in those narratives. Clint Smith has very much committed his career as an educator to doing just this. In his lecture at Brown, he stressed the importance of counter-narratives in the struggle against the white-washed, hetero-patriarchal process of creating historiography. In one particularly memorable piece, “History Reconsidered,” Smith critically reexamined the mainstream narrative of the Founding Fathers, exposing their individual roles in the oppression of black folks (individual roles which in turn created and contributed to a system of oppression in the United States). The last lines go like this:
“When the first independence day fireworks set the sky aflame, don’t forget where we were watching from. So when you remember Jefferson’s genius, don’t forget the slaves that built the bookshelves in his library. When you remember Jackson’s victories in war, don’t forget what he was fighting to preserve. When you sing that this country was founded on freedom, don’t forget the duet of shackles dragging against the ground. My entire life I had been taught how perfect this country was, but no one ever told me about the pages torn out of my textbooks. How black and brown bodies have been bludgeoned for three centuries and find no place in the curriculum. Oppression doesn’t disappear just because you decided not to teach us that chapter.”
Here is a link to a full performance of this piece (though this was not the performance at Brown): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0QCKP7__7k
I think this is how history should be taught, beginning at an elementary level. Because how can we understand the present and work to end modern, structural inequality if we have an incomplete picture of the past? In the United States, we specifically need counter-narratives to fill in the gaps of the incomplete story of United States imperialism that we pass off as an acceptable high school understanding of the history of this country. So we must always interrogate silence and its nuances, I think. And keep thinking and reimagining the possibilities and limits of silence.