Thursday, February 9, 2017

Clint Smith, Contemporary Poetry, and Black History

Poet Clint Smith addresses American presidents

I've enjoyed listening to poet Clint Smith's historical piece "Letter to five of the presidents who owned slaves while they were in office." Or, how about this?I've enjoyed listening to historian Clint Smith's poem "Letter to five of the presidents who owned slaves while they were in office." Take your pick.

Smith's a poet and historian, two facts that are evident based on his "letter" addressing George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson. You hear Smith referencing specific details from the lives of the presidents, details that one would acquire by closely consulting the historical record.

"George Washington," Smith opens, "when you won the revolution, how many of your soldiers did you send from a battlefield to the cotton field?" Then later, he goes, "Thomas Jefferson, when you told Sally Hemings that you would free her children if she remained your mistress, did you think there was honor in your ultimatum?" And still later, he has queries James Monroe: "when you proposed sending slaves back to Africa, did black bodies feel like rented tools?" He has questions for James Madison and Andrew Jackson as well.

Troubling facts about these typically revered men are delivered to us by way of a poem. A poem that passes for a letter. A letter operating as a history lesson. A history lesson performing black history. Black history clapping back at great (white) men, interrogating them on their questionable actions. In short, the poem draws from multiple domains and takes on multiple forms. Taking note of the poet (or historian) covering those various realms is part of what makes the letter (history lesson or critique) enjoyable.     

Smith is an experienced spoken word artist, an award-winning performer of verse in fact. One of the more notable instances of his verbal artistry occurs as he quickly addresses one president immediately after finishing a question to another one. It's a kind of enjambment; in this case, it's an acceleration to the next line of critique. That acceleration is a clever, innovative addition that we might not consider if we only had access to a printed version of the poem.  

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