On today’s episode we chat with Clint Smith a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of the narrative nonfiction book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, and the poetry collection Counting Descent.
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About our guest
Clint has received fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, New America, the Emerson Collective, the Art For Justice Fund, Cave Canem, and the National Science Foundation. His essays, poems, and scholarly writing have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, The Harvard Educational Review, and elsewhere. He is a former National Poetry Slam champion and a recipient of the Jerome J. Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review. He can be found on Instagram and Twitter at @clintsmithiii.
The audiobooks we discussed
Craig Silva: 00:00:05 Hi, I’m Craig. And welcome to episode four of the Libro FM podcast.
Karen Farmer: 00:00:10 And I’m Karen, we’re really excited about today’s episode because today we’re talking to Dr. Clint Smith, who is the author of the recent New York Times best seller, How the Word is Passed.
Craig Silva: 00:00:20 The hour we spent with Clint went by so fast. We covered a wide range of topics like how he created his audiobook and the journey he took to publish his book. We wrapped up by getting his personal recommendations for other books and even got a sneak peek into what he has coming out next year.
Karen Farmer: 00:00:33 So without further ado, let’s start the interview.
Craig Silva: 00:00:40 Welcome to the podcast, Clint. We’re super excited to get the opportunity to speak with you today. And we figured, you know, for listeners who may not know who you are yet, if you wanted to give us a little bit of an intro about yourself and your work, that would be awesome.
Clint Smith: 00:00:53 Yeah. I’m, I’m really excited to be here with you all. I’m uh, I’m Libro’s nber one, fan you, uh, just, just finished a book on Libro right before I got on with you all. So, I am Clint Smith. I’m a staff writer at The Atlantic magazine. , I’m the author of How the Word is Passed, which is a book of narrative nonfiction, uh, and Counting Descent, which is a poetry collection that came out a few years before that. And then I’m, uh, I’m a dad of two, two young Rascals , uh, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Craig Silva: 00:01:29 Nice. , so speaking of your book, actually, and, and audiobooks in general, Karen and I both listened to your audiobook really recently, , to kind of, you know, prepare for chatting with you. And also just cuz we also like listening to audiobooks as well. , and on the podcast previously, we’ve spoken about, you know, how some authors read their own audiobooks and others hire, you know, someone else to read them. And we were curious, , for listeners who haven’t listened to it yet you do read your own and we were curious, how did you kind of come to that decision to read your own book versus, you know, hire just some narrator?
Clint Smith: 00:02:07 Yeah, I mean, I always sort of figured that I would, , we didn’t really start having the conversation about it until we got finished with the manuscript. , we being myself and my publisher and editor. , but I kind of came into writing through like an oral and auditory tradition. Like I came up as a writer in the slam poetry scene in, in DC and New Orleans. , and so like, you know, for me, it’s, it’s hard for me to disentangle my understanding and experience of what literature is and how it exists in the world, apart from the way that one experiences it in an, you know, auditory and oral way. And, you know, I’m all like I always read, , read out loud, you know, whatever poem or essay or chapter I’m working on to understand the sort of musicality of the language to understand how it sounds when it’s, you know, coming off of my tongue when it’s in my breath for me, that that just has always been a part of my process, you know, for, for so many years, especially as someone who performed poetry, you know, in like, you know, dive bars and, uh, cafes and open mics.
Clint Smith: 00:03:25 And, uh, it it’s just, something has always been made to be cognizant of. And, and it also made me feel a certain level of, , control if that makes sense. Like I like, I, when I read my work, I am the one who I think has the most acute understanding of how I intend for, , certain the vole of what, you know, the sentence should sound like or the speed at which it should be read or the sort of intonation that fit different points. , what sort of cadence is, is required in, in, at different moments. And so it just kind of felt natural to me. , with that said it was not a, uh, an easy process by any means it was, it was, it was tricky.
Craig Silva: 00:04:16 You’re reading my mind with our, with our next follow up question, which was for, for listeners who may not understand what the audiobook process is like, we’d love if you could, including me, honestly, I’d love to hear a little bit about, you know, what does that pro the, the process that you mentioned, you know, what does that look like? And like, how did you go about it.
Clint Smith: 00:04:33 Man, it was brutal for me so I said like, you know, I said all that about like how, you know, it feels important for me to have control over like what the cadence is or what, but, but one of the interesting things about especially a non-fiction book is that like, I don’t, I sat down, you know, we sat down in the studio and I was like, oh, I’m, you know, I’m, I’ve been performing and reading poems and literature for, you know, a dozen years like this will, I’ll knock this out in like two days. , and it just is interesting when you sit down, like, you don’t know, at least for me, and I think different authors have different experiences, but like, I almost didn’t know how each sentence was supposed to sound until I read it. So for example, if I say, uh, John went to the grocery store, if I say like, John went to the grocery store or I’m like, John went to the grocery store or like John went to the grocery store, right.
Craig Silva: 00:05:36 Of those, that last one, what’s he doing? What’s he doing?
Clint Smith: 00:05:39 What is he, what is he doing? Like, it turns in, you know, one is like, oh, this is exciting. And one is like, is he about to be murdered? Like what’s going on , and so it like part of what it was a learning experience, because part of what I realized is that like the different ways you read a line or paragraph create very different meanings for the listener. , and so I sort of was kind of figuring it out as I went in many ways. , and it, you know, I think because this is a, you know, it was like 120,000 words, , that I had to read. It was, it just was, it was kind of like, it felt to me like every sentence reading, every sentence was like, what I just did, where it was like, I read it one time and I’m like, no, no, no, it should be this way. And I’m like, no, no, no, it should be that way. And like shout out to my producer and editors cuz they were very patient. , and I, I mean, it took me over a week, uh, and they, I mean they made it sound incredible.
Craig Silva: 00:06:39 It really, it really does. You know, I’m not just tooting the horn here. It, it’s absolutely noticeable that a lot of care went into it and it’s one of those books, , that I, that I actually would suggest to people do the audio instead of the paper book, I feel like hearing it in your voice and the way it’s read, especially it does have a certain level of almost like poetry to it. And I think it comes across that way in the audio in a way that if I were to read it in, in my voice, in my head, wouldn’t, wouldn’t be the same. , I think it came out great.
Clint Smith: 00:07:12 Yeah. I’m glad to hear. I appreciate it. It’s uh, I mean the Hachette audio team was great to work with. , so yeah, it’s I, you know, with that said like, I think there are also times when having a professional narrator is really important, right? Like, so it’s very rare. I don’t think I’ve, I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a novel, maybe one or two that had the author read the novel. Like maybe if it was a sort of like autobiographical, like a sort of auto fiction, , like memoir or novel kind of genre blend. , but most novels I’ve read, especially because they have so many different characters and like different voices and different, you know, so most of those are read by professional, , narrators, which from my understanding tend to be actors.
Clint Smith: 00:08:06 And they are, I mean, when you get like a talented audiobook narrator, it is incredible. I mean, an audiobook really can sort of live or die by who the narrator is. And if you get a good one who like can inhabit the voices and the personalities of these different characters, like it is, I just listened to, uh, The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois by Honorée Jeffers and like I can’t remember the person who did the primary. I think there were three different people, but there was one woman who did most of the, , voices and, and it was, it was just amazing. I, you forget that it’s one person who is like inhabiting all these different ideas and voices and, and people and perspectives, , men and women. And I mean, it is, it was, it was incredible. And so there are some really talent. I, if, you know, if I went into fiction, I probably would not, , read my own book. Oh, well, who knows? I don’t know, but I, I think that it’s, I just gained such a huge sense of respect for the people who do that professionally. It’s amazing.
Craig Silva: 00:09:19 It really is. Like, it reminds me of like old time, like radio productions, you know, , it, it is so theatrical and it is hit or miss, like you said, like if they’re really good, it’s amazing. If it, it doesn’t actually happen often where I find, I find ones that I really don’t think hit the mark, but when they do it’s rough, you know, , it is a skill that I certainly do not have.
Clint Smith: 00:09:41 I think if you listen to books from like that were recorded maybe a while ago, , they’re more, they, I think that is when I find folks who aren’t maybe like up to snuff, , so to speak in the same, in the same way, but it seems, you know, like publishers have really invested in, , making sure that they get high quality narrators. I mean, cuz so many people experience books through audio now. And, and always have in some ways, you know, books on CD and stuff, but, but I think it is, , I, you all will know the nbers better than me, but, but my sense is that there’s so many people who that is there that has become their like primary means of engaging with literature
Karen Farmer: 00:10:24 And Clint. You know, one of the things that’s come up, , a couple of times so far is your poetry and I am a huge fan of your poetry. , and I, I just really admire your ability to write so powerfully and multiple genres, , and something that struck Craig and me was that your non-fiction writing has such a beautiful cadence to it, this musical ear that comes through. And, and even the way you describe people in places I think goes so much deeper in a way that is very unique to a poet’s lens. , and I would love if you could talk a little bit more about, , how your poetry and your nonfiction writing, inform each other, or speak to each other and maybe, you know, a little bit about when you gravitate towards one of those genres over the other, based on what you’re working on.
Clint Smith: 00:11:12 Yeah. You know, what’s interesting is that, you know, so my first book was a book of poetry, uh, and then How the Word Is Passed came after. But when I first began imagining the project, I imagined it as, as a book of poetry and as my sort of second collection, because it, it kind of started with me wrestling with, , Confederate iconography and especially the sort of prevalence of Confederate iconography, , throughout New Orleans, you know, in 2017, I watched several Confederate statues come down and in New Orleans and, you know, statues of P. G. T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee. And as I was watching these statues come down, I was thinking about what it meant that I grew up in a majority Black city in which there were more homages to enslavers than there were to enslaved people. And one of the implications of that was it means that to get to school, I had to go down Robert Lee Boulevard to get to the grocery store.
Clint Smith: 00:12:01 I had to go down Jefferson Davis Parkway that my middle school was named after a leader of the Confederacy that my parents still live on a street today named after someone who owned hundreds of enslaved people. Cuz the thing is we know that symbols and names and iconography, aren’t just symbols. They’re reflective of the stories that people tell and those stories shape the narratives that communities carry and those narratives shape public policy and public policy shapes the material conditions of people’s lives, which isn’t to say that, you know, all you have to do is take down a statue of Robert Lee and suddenly erase the racial wealth gap. But it does help us recognize the ecosystem of ideas and narratives and stories that give us the context to understand American history. And then also give us the context to understand the ways that certain communities have been specifically and intentionally harmed throughout American history.
Clint Smith: 00:12:45 And so, so the book began with me thinking about the role that monents and iconography and symbolism play. And so what I thought was gonna happen, I was like, oh, well I’ll read it. My second collection will be, you know, the idea, uh, will be like each poem is about a different monent in New Orleans and my relationship to it. , and I start, so I started writing a bunch of poems, like thinking about these different monents and street names and school names and buildings. And I kind of in the process of doing that, sometimes the work kind of tells me that it needs to be something else. , and so I started writing these poems, but it felt like it needed more space. And so I started writing these shorter essays and then I started writing, uh, these essays that were in conversation with the places and spaces that I was writing about.
Clint Smith: 00:13:38 And then I started to incorporate other people’s voices and some of the larger, , historiography that is giving us a sense of like what these places mean. And so it, it kind of was, it happened in a step by step way. What people see in the book is not the way it was initially envisioned, you know, five years ago when I started this project. , and so, so sometimes that happens, you know, where I, I start writing in one genre and then realize that, , something, it might be better served in, in another. And then in terms of the interplay between the two, you know, I think poetry more than anything teaches me to pay attention, right? Like I, I think there’s a lot of parallels. My brother-in-law’s a photographer and we talk about the sort of parallels between poetry and photography in the sense that like what a, what a great photograph does is, has it, has you sort of hone in on a moment, uh, an image, a place that might be, it might be a picture of a tree that you pass every single day, but a good photograph will make you see that tree and the details of that tree and a certain specificity, , of the different parts of that tree in a new way.
Clint Smith: 00:15:01 And I think poetry is the same thing, right? Like when I, if I describe this tree that I otherwise pass up every day, one, what poetry does is it forces me to stop and look at the tree. And it makes me like what’s happening on what are the different types of green that exist on a single leaf? What are the, like, how would I describe the bark on this tree? What does it feel like? What does it smell? Like, what is, you know, what are the roots doing? Like how do they move in and out of the earth? I think for me, what I appreciate about it is that it, it just makes me more present in the world. , and I think that I tried to bring that sensibility to How the Word Is Passed because you know, it’s such a place based book.
Clint Smith: 00:15:44 And what I wanted for the reader was to really feel as if they were in these places alongside me, cuz it’s not only an intellectual journey of like going to these different places and learning, , about, you know, how each of them have a specific relationship to the history of slavery. It’s also, I wanted them to feel like they were actually on this physical journey, like what were the sensory details? What did a place look like, smell like? What did the air taste like? What did it feel like when the wind ran across your cheek? What did it feel like when the, what did it look like when the sun sort of snuck in through one of the cracks in one of the slave cabins, you know, just provide as much almost cinematic detail as possible. And I think that’s what my favorite poets do.
Clint Smith: 00:16:26 That’s what a lot of my favorite novelists do. And I just tried to bring that to this book to make it feel like a really engaging, , piece of nonfiction and you know, just, I’m always thinking about what it orients a lot of my writing. It’s just trying to write the sort of book that I would’ve wanted to read when I was like 16. , and so I’m always thinking about like the 16 year old version of Clint and I’m like, would he, would he read this or would he be like, this is boring. I’m gonna put it down.
Karen Farmer: 00:16:55 I love that. And the words that you used to describe that made me realize the word I was trying to grasp for everything had so much texture. It was so, so texturally vivid for me. And I felt like I walked away with complete renderings in my imagination of what every person looked like, of what the scenes looked like. And I, I found myself Googling images of the places that you had been afterwards and was surprised sometimes when they didn’t look exactly how I had imagined them, because I had such a vivid, exact image from how you described it, which was amazing.
Craig Silva: 00:17:28 Yeah. I think your, your mention of like, you know, with a 16 year old, want to read this or find it boring. And I think that even though it is nonfiction and it’s about history, it’s, it’s written in such a way that it’s, it is it’s cinematic, you know, like, like you were saying, like you explained that the sound of the wood underneath your shoes or the, the color of someone’s buttons on their dress, it it’s, it is so approachable in a way that a lot of, I think, history content isn’t, , for people.
Clint Smith: 00:17:58 I appreciate that.
Craig Silva: 00:17:59 , our next question is about your, so moving away from the book for a minute, our next question is about your work teaching literature, , at the Baystate Correctional Center, , actually here in Massachusetts where I am, there’s another organization in, in Mass called the Prison Book Program that sends books to incarcerated people all across America. And the way it works is that the people send in a letter and it says, you know, Hey, you know, I’m incarcerated at X place. I’m looking for books like this or specific books. And a lot of times they not only list the books that they want, but they also write a little bit, you know, and, and, and talk about like what the books mean to them. And a thing that I’ve seen multiple times is that, you know, books help them like move beyond the walls of the prison, , in a way that they, they can’t get, you know, in another way. And as I was reading about your work there, and I was thinking about that, it just, you know, I wonder if you could just talk about your work there and you know, what, what that work with literature and reading means to the people that you work with.
Clint Smith: 00:18:59 Yeah. I finished my PhD a couple years ago, and I studied the sociology of education. And so for me specifically, I was thinking a lot about the relationship between education and incarceration. And for me, part of what I’ve learned about myself is that in my sort of scholarly or educational intellectual endeavors, for me, it’s very important to make sure that I’m consistently grounding myself in like a intimate and more proximate understanding of the thing that I’m spending time researching or else I can lose a sense of its sort of like human and material implications, which is to say like, you know, when I came in and you sit around, you read a bunch of you know, books about incarceration, you sit around, you read a bunch of theory, you read Foucault you read, you know, and in, and that is, I think it’s really helpful because it gives you the language with which to understand why, these systems look the way they do and operate in the way they do.
Clint Smith: 00:20:14 But for me, I knew that I needed to spend, if I was gonna think about incarceration, I had to be spending time on a regular basis with incarcerated people and in incarcerated settings. I started teaching at a couple different prisons in Massachusetts during grad school and it never, I’d never, I done a lot of like poetry workshops in like juvenile detention centers, but I’d never spent a lot of time, really any time in adult prisons prior to that. And I think for me, what it did was that it, it just quickly disabused me of the idea that I somehow didn’t deserve to be there, if that makes sense or that anyone at all ever deserves to be in prison. And it just made clear to me that, but for the arbitrary nature of birth and circumstance, I very easily could have ended up as someone who was inside of that prison rather than a PhD student who gets to walk in and out of it.
Clint Smith: 00:21:21 And it’s, you know, I thought about the conditions and the, uh, circumstances as so many of the men I was working with men at that point. So many of the men that I was working with, I was thinking about the conditions and circumstances they grew up in. And it just was so easy for me to imagine how my own life might have become entangled in the criminal legal system. If I were growing up in a community saturated with violence and poverty that was created by decades and centuries of state sanctioned public policy. Right. And, and so I think for me more than anything, that was like one of the most important things and it, our country, our society often turns incarcerated people into caricatures of themselves. When you spend time with incarcerated people, you realize they’re just people, right?
Clint Smith: 00:22:12 They’re dads and brothers and moms and sisters and spouses, and they are like funny or they’re annoying or they can make you laugh or they can make you think they can, you know, they’re just, they’re just people. And a lot of times there’re people who, who have done some terrible things or have made some terrible mistakes, right. Like I also think it’s important not to go in and sugarcoat it and say like every single person in there was like sentenced to life in prison for selling weed. Like that’s, that’s not the case, right? Like it’s a more complex thing than that. And I think we have to engage with that, uh, honestly, but, but even with that, I think we have to recognize the context that is shaping how someone even falls into a situation where they engage in an activity that leads them to be in prison for 5, 10, 20, 50 years or life or for the rest of their lives.
Clint Smith: 00:23:10 And so I spent a lot of time working with people, serving life sentences and ultimately wrote my dissertation on exploring the question of like, what does education mean when you are sentenced to life without parole as a child? Uh, cuz the United States is the only country that sentences children to life without the possibility of parole. And, and I just was like, what, what motivates you to, to learn? What motivates you to get a degree? What motivates you to, to engage? What does education mean to you when it is stripped of its traditional sort of like utility, right? Like you get an education so you can buy a house and buy a car and provide for your family. And so when you’re in prison for life, you’re not gonna do those things. So like what is motivating you to do that? So those are some of the things that I was, uh, thinking about and exploring.
Craig Silva: 00:23:57 What were, what were some of the answers you heard? Not, not to go off on a tangent, but I have to ask, you know, cause I agree. Like if I knew I wasn’t gonna get out, I don’t know. I dunno if I could personally have the motivation, you know? So what were some of the answers you heard to that question?
Clint Smith: 00:24:12 Yeah, so it’s interesting ‘cause I think it begins with the sort of refusal to accept the inevitability of their situation or to refuse to accept the idea that their position is static. Right. That they actually are going to, like when you tell a 17 year old you’re gonna spend the rest of your life in prison. I think there’s kind of an initial like you can’t even conceive of that, right? Like you’re 17 years old, you’re 16 years old and somebody’s like, you’re gonna spend the rest of your life. You can’t, it is difficult to even conceptualize what that means. Yeah. And so I think part of what happens is like, I think most of the folks that I interview would talk about how education began like and taking these classes began getting their G E D getting a college degree.
Clint Smith: 00:25:06 Getting a master’s or doctorate, whatever they were working toward. A lot of it began because they did have a very sort of utilitarian framework, which is like, I’m going to get this degree so that I can prove that I should not be in here. Right. Because there’s also this really sophisticated sense of the, that so many incarcerated folks have of how, how the legal and judicial and legislative landscape is fluid and could always be shifting. Right? So like what might be the law of the land now may not be the law of the land in 10 or 20 years when there are different Supreme Court justices or in four years when there’s a different president or in four years when there’s a different governor, you know, specifically for the state prisons. And so, you know, people want to put themselves in a position to even if the chances are minuscule, right.
Clint Smith: 00:26:06 Even if it’s like a .1% chance, there are people who get commuted. There are people who have their sentences pardoned. There are people who like become jailhouse lawyers and spend 20 years appealing their case and ultimately win right. Or ultimately have the case thrown out. There are enough examples of these that it motivates people to put themselves in the most prime position possible. So that, you know, in, in the case of, of a lot of the folks that I was speaking to juvenile life without parole was until a few years ago, until 2016 was mandatory, or really until 2012, a Supreme Court ruling in 2012, it was mandatory life without parole was a thing. And then in 2012, they threw out mandatory life without parole. And in 2016 they made that ruling retroactive.
Clint Smith: 00:27:06 So you had thousands of people who were sentenced to life in prison as children who were sentenced under mandatory minimum sentencing laws, who now had the opportunity to go before a sentencing commission and potentially get out. And these are folks who’ve been in 30, 40, 50 years, but they only let out the people who could, you know, and we, you know, we didn’t even have time to get into this, but like they only let out the people who had “good records,” who could demonstrate that they could go back into society. And, those are the people who were released were often the people who got their degree or got their master’s and had, you know, good behavior or participated in a lot of programs. So there is this sort of like you do this in as one person put it like, he’s like, you never know when they’re gonna open that door and you gotta be ready.
Clint Smith: 00:27:58 So there is that, but at the same time, there’s this sense of what happens in the process of that is that like a love for education and an appreciation for education in and of itself, like as a personal and in many ways, a sort of like a personal personally generative and fulfilling experience develops a long way, but that’s also because like, so many of these folks are getting older as they’re doing it. Right. So is, you know, how I thought of education when I was 17 is different than how I think of education now. And I think the same thing happens for folks in prison. And so what might begin as a, like, I’m only doing this so I can get out becomes I am doing this so that I can get out, but also I find a lot of meaning in what it means to learn and I find a lot of agency in a place that is attempting to consistently strip agency away from me.
Karen Farmer: 00:28:55 Thank you so much for that. And it makes me think of another question that Craig and I had for you related to education. One of the conversations that really struck us in your book was a conversation with a plantation tour guide talking about the questions that they receive from visitors. And I’m very much paraphrasing, but they say something like it’s really hard, but I can’t be mad at them. We all got the same whitewashed American education essentially. And it really made me think about the challenges. I know parents must be facing every day, especially with our current political landscape in terms of how we explain things to children in a way that they’ll understand and embody but without misrepresenting the severity and the importance of these things. So as a parent yourself, and as an educator could you share your thoughts with us on, you know, what a way forward might look like for our education system in America? You know, when it comes to talking about the very long history of racism in this country?
Clint Smith: 00:29:59 Yeah. I think that part of what we just have to do is reject the idea that being honest about our history is somehow an attempt at political indoctrination or that somebody attempting to like lay before young people, the totality of who a person or what a country was or is, is somehow seen as unpatriotic. So I think the, the best example of this, I think about when I went to Monticello and that was Monticello’s first chapter of the book and I went there and one of the reasons I wanted to go to Monticello was because I think Jefferson sort of embodies the cognitive dissonance of the American experience, which is to say that America is a place that is provided unparalleled unimaginable opportunities for millions of people across generations in ways that their own ancestors could have simply never imagined.
Clint Smith: 00:31:08 It has also done so at the direct expense of millions and millions of other people who have been intergenerationally subjugated and oppressed and both of those things are the story of America. It’s not one over here and one over there, or one is true and one is not, they’re both true. And they’re both deeply entangled in one another. And I think Jefferson sort of, as I said, reflects that tension in the sense that he is someone who wrote one of the most important documents in the history of the Western world, and also enslaved over 600 people over the course of his lifetime, including four of his own children that he had by an enslaved woman on his plantation named Sally Hemings. He is someone who wrote in one document that all men are created equal and wrote in another document Notes on the State of Virginia, that he believes that Black people are likely inferior to whites in both endowments of body and mind and believed the slave was capable of love in the same way that their white counterparts were.
Clint Smith: 00:31:58 He said Phyllis Wheatley, the, the sort of fore mother of African American letters, the first Black woman who published a book in history of the United States said that her work was below the dignity of criticism that it wasn’t even worth engaging with ‘cause Black people weren’t able to I said, love is the estro of the poet, which is his way of saying that in order to create art, one has to be able to experience a certain type of emotional texture. They have to be able to, to ascend toward a space where they experience love. And he thought that only white people were capable of experiencing love in that way. He said of Black people that love kindles their senses, but not their imagination, right? Their love is art but does not kindle their imagination. And so he didn’t think that they were capable of creating art.
Clint Smith: 00:32:50 And so I think about that, I think about how that’s a version of Jefferson that I was never taught growing up. And I think about what a disservice that is to have only taught me a certain part of this person’s story and in doing so only teaching me a certain part of this country’s history, right? Cause if we’re not gonna understand the totality of who our founders were and what they stood for, the people who literally wrote the social contract upon which the American project would be built, if we don’t understand the complexity and the nuance and the hypocrisy of a lot of their views, then we won’t understand the complexity and the nuance and hypocrisy of the founding American principles. And so, you know, when we tell a story about Jefferson as both scientists, philosopher, statesman, governor, founder, president, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also tell a story of him as an enslaver.
Clint Smith: 00:33:49 We have to do all of it, right? Like we have to tell that whole story. And I always remember I was on a tour with a tour guy named David, and he was giving this sort of hour long masterclass of the as I said, the sort of cognitive dissonance, the moral inconsistencies of Jefferson and his work and his life. And there were these two women, Donna and Grace who were also on the tour and they were watching David’s presentation and they were clearly unsettled by what they were hearing. Their mouths sort of hung agape. They were, their faces were wilting. I went up to them after and I was like, I’d love to hear some of what you thought about David’s presentation. And I always remember Donna turned to me and she was just like, man, he really took the shine off the guy.
Clint Smith: 00:34:37 She was like, I had no idea Jefferson owned slaves. I had no idea Monticello was the plantation. And mind you, these are folks who bought plane tickets, rented cars, got hotel rooms who came to this site as a sort of pilgrimage to see the home of one of the founding fathers. And yet had no idea that he was an enslaver. And so I think that, you know, there was a disservice that was done to me in my education. There’s a disservice that was done to Donna and Grace in their education. And how different might their sense of this country be if they were told honestly, about what this country was and who the sort of, you know, these primary characters in our country’s history, who they had been. So, you know, I think that for us, you know, we’re in this moment where it feels really uncertain and precarious, but it’s also because over the last 10 years, we’ve had a profound shift in public consciousness where, because of the Black Lives Matter movement, as was the case during the Civil Rights movement, during the fifties and sixties, there are more millions, more people understand racism, not just as an interpersonal phenomenon, but a systemic one, a structural one.
Clint Smith: 00:35:42 A sociological one, a historical one. And because of that, we now are collectively, not everyone, certainly, but like more people are telling a more honest, nuanced, complex story of this country, which is a threat to many people and their sense of self because their sense of self is intrinsically linked to the previous story we told of America that like shining light on the hill, the place where everyone can become successful if they just work hard, no matter where you come from, the place that is the bastion of meritocracy, the place where if you don’t do well, it’s your own fault. And, and if you do well, it was because of nothing but your own hard work. We’ve been disabused of that. And I think that that’s scary for a lot of people.
Clint Smith: 00:36:28 And so because of that, there’s a profound pushback to the shift in public consciousness that’s happened, which is manifesting itself and our education system where you have state legislatures that are attempting to prevent teachers from teaching the very history that explains why our society looks the way that it does today. So I would just, you know, all this to say, I would just encourage teachers to, you know, it’s not about indoctrinating, it’s not an ideological project. It’s an empirical one. It’s an honest one. It’s a matter of just telling young people the truth so that they can more effectively understand why our society looks the way that it does today.
Craig Silva: 00:37:03 You bring up a really good point around states, putting rules in place to try and block this kind of honest conversation and education for children. Like, I mean, you, maybe you don’t have an answer to this obviously, but like, how do we get more education in the right way? If there’s all this pushback against you can’t see me, but I’m making air quotes right now around like critical race theory and in elementary schools and all those, like, you know, headlines you see, like, have you found anything? I mean, other than like, you know, I suggest that teachers teach, but like, if they’re being blocked from doing so, like, is there a world in which we actually get beyond that or not beyond this, I guess, but like where we actually improve upon this.
Clint Smith: 00:37:43 Yeah. I mean, I think it’s happening, right. I think that, you know, as much as there has been like the pushback is to a wave that has been growing. And I think that was amplified and exacerbated by the pandemic and the death of George Floyd and all that came after that. And it’s not to say that there also hasn’t been some level of regression since then, but I think that, like there, you know, many teachers I’ve spoken to have formed these like really tight knit, both in person and online communities where they’re sharing resources, they’re sharing ideas, they’re sharing pedagogy, they’re sharing lesson plans, they’re sharing syllabi, they’re sharing best practices. You can see it on social media. There are organizations like Learning for Justice, Teaching for Change, The In Education Project, Facing History in Ourselves, just to name a few that that are providing the teachers with a lot of the resources needed to teach this history and to do it honestly, and to have the resources and support with which to do it.
Clint Smith: 00:39:00 I think there’s more opportunities for professional development. There are just more teachers who recognize the importance of using their classrooms as spaces to help their students think critically and honestly about the world they’re a part of. That’s not to say, like what’s also true is that these state legislatures are pushing these laws that do create a very real chilling effect. Right? Yeah. And if you are a teacher it’s not, you know, as much as it is a calling and as much as it is something that people will do, because they want to, you know, improve and enhance the lives of young people. It’s also a job and a job that you need to, people wanna keep, so they can keep feeding their families. Right.
Clint Smith: 00:40:00 And so if somebody’s like, we’re gonna fire you if you talk about slavery or if you teach the 1619 Project and now it’s spreading to all kind of stuff, if you talk about LGBTQ issues with kids under, you know, third grade, or if you do, you know, all kind of things that are perceived as a threat to a sort of normative social order. And I would, it is very clear to me why that would make a teacher hesitant to touch some of this subject matter, right? Because you want to, you wanna keep your job. I mean, we see a different iteration of that now with Roe V Wade, you have doctors who, you know, even now just, you know, we’re recording this just a few days after that ruling, but like, there are doctors who are afraid to do life saving surgery on women because they don’t know if they’re gonna be sent to prison for doing it.
Clint Smith: 00:40:50 And so these chilling effects and these laws, whether in the context of abortion or in the context of critical race theory or in the context of LGBTQ issues, they do create a very real chilling effect that we have to take seriously. And I think the, the best thing we can do both, you know, is to support individual teachers so that they have the tools to feel like they regardless of what state they’re in, can teach this history in a way that is not, is both honest, but also not perceived as an ideological intervention, but also, like, I think we all have a responsibility to be engaged on the political front too, right? Like to make sure that the folks we are voting for, or supporting or canvasing for are folks who are not going to perpetuate this sort of fear mongering and perpetuate laws and keep in place the laws that create this sort of chilling effect. So I think, you know, it’s a battle that has to be fought on multiple funds.
Karen Farmer: 00:41:57 One of the things that jumped into my mind was that I know there are books like Stamped and I believe also How to be an Anti-racist where new additions have been released that are specifically geared towards young people. Are there any other tools like that that you’ve come across that you think are really effective in the classroom and follow up question, have you considered creating a piece of work for young folks?
Clint Smith: 00:42:21 So I’ve been asked that by my kids a lot, actually I have a five and a three year old. And you know, daddy’s always going off and doing these book events either in person or in my office. And they’re like, when are you gonna write some books for kids? Like instead of these boring books, there are no pictures. There’s no, like, there’s just so many pages. Like when are you gonna write some kids books? And I think that I love children’s books, you know, like I love when we read books for bedtime, I think I love great middle grade books. I love, I mean, I, you know, it’s interesting ‘cause like publishing makes there’s like middle grade and YA and adult and like, you know, sometimes I read like a YA book and I’m like, I don’t know why this is like, why is this classified as YA versus adult?
Clint Smith: 00:43:05 And like, you know, I think publishing sort of makes distinctions for reasons that are less about the content of the book and more about, you know, how to position the book and sell the book in certain ways. But I just have a lot of admiration for people who write for young people. It’s like a very unique skill set. I take seriously that it’s not something that, you know, anybody can just be like, oh yeah I’ll write a kid’s book or I’ll write a book for young people. It’s a real skill. And I think the people who do it well just are, are brilliant. I do hope to do it. My sort of current intervention in that space is not a book.
Clint Smith: 00:43:59 I’m the host of the Crash Course: Black American History series on YouTube. And some of the folks might be familiar with the Crash Course series hosted by or started by John Green and Hank Green. Two folks who are big vloggers, but also big time authors, you know, I mean, John Green, one of the most, foremost authors of books for young adults in the world and Hank’s written also some great, great novels. And so they started this YouTube series, which I think now has like 13 million subscribers. Which you know, it’s Crash Course. And so there’s, you know, I think they started with Crash Course: World History and Crash Course: Literature and Hank does a lot of science and math stuff and they’ve been around for 10 or 12 years now.
Clint Smith: 00:44:51 And so they asked me a few years ago if I would be interested in hosting Crash Course: Black American History. We’ve been working on it for a few years and we’ve put out 40 episodes at this point. And we have 10 more to go. They’re kind of like these 10 to 12 minute videos about different parts of, you know, in my case, Black American history, starting with the transatlantic slave trade, moving to Black Lives Matter movement. And, you know, I’m so heartened when I hear about teachers who use it in their classrooms or students who use it to help them study for tests. It matters to me that you like meet people where they are. And as much as I’d love, like every single person to pick up a copy of How the Word is Passed.
Clint Smith: 00:45:39 I also know that different people engage with information in different ways, right. And for me, if I can make a 10 minute YouTube video that talks about a subject matter and tries to bring thoughtfulness and nuance and complexity to it then that’s as worth it as anything else. Some of the best history videos that I see now are like one minute TikTok videos where, you know, people are, doing like incredible innovative work using all different types of media. I have done the crash course series that is something that is very useful to both adults but more specifically to young people but I do hope to write more specifically, some books for young folks in my career. So we’ll see.
Craig Silva: 00:46:36 I watched a few of those videos before we jumped on with you, over the past few days. And it made me think of a part of your book where I forget who you were talking to. I apologize, but they said something like, you know, like books are great, but like who has access to those who has time to read a book? I’m trying to, I think it was someone who was like restoring a plantation and I think those videos hit the nail in the head with that they’re, you know, not everyone has 20 hours to sit and read a book or the money to buy an audiobook or the money to buy a book. And, you know, YouTube is free and they’re 10 minute bite sized pieces of history.
Craig Silva: 00:47:11 And I think it just is perfect for that, making this information approachable and inclusive and affordable. So thank you for making those. Speaking of books and things where people can get this type of information. So obviously, you know, I think people should read your books and watch your Crash Course videos and all of that. But is there any recommendations you have for folks either, you know a book you’ve recently read that you think, people should know about or other forms of content, like you mentioned, you know, there’s all sorts of innovative content coming out, so would love any kind of recommendations you have for us and other people?
Clint Smith: 00:47:48 Yeah. I mean, man, there’s been so many good books that have come out this year. The Movement Made Us by David J. Dennis Jr. Really incredible book. He interviews his dad who was really active in the Civil Rights movement and was like best friends with Medgar Evers was really involved in the freedom rides from freedom summer in Mississippi. Spent time with Dr. King. We also went to college together, and not me and his dad, me and him. That book was fantastic. I loved Ed Yong’s An Immense World, which came out recently. A lot of people know Ed; he’s my colleague at The Atlantic and writes a lot about, this is how the pandemic has warped our brains.
Craig Silva: 00:48:36 I was like, we’re all colleagues in the pandemic.
Clint Smith: 00:48:38 All on the collective slack of despair.
Craig Silva: 00:48:47 And now this episode has a name.
Clint Smith: 00:48:49 The slack of despair.
Craig Silva: 00:48:50 Yep.
Clint Smith: 00:48:51 And so, Ed is brilliant and most people know him for his incredible pandemic coverage over the last two years. But he’s written this book about how animals experience the world through their different senses. And it is just so wonderful. Like it’s just such a, it’s like both a palette cleanse, but also you learn so much, it’s like the feeling you get from watching your favorite David Attenborough, like animal documentary. But in book form, and they both have excellent British accents, so it makes a fantastic audiobook. Kathryn Schultz put out a book earlier this year Lost and Found. She’s a writer at The New Yorker and it’s just like so good. Just so, I mean, she’s like a writer’s writer, just like every sentence was so perfect. The Profits that came out last year by Robert Jones Jr. There’s so many, so many great books. Dirty Work by EyaI Press. We’re really lucky to be in a moment where, I mean, there’s just so many incredible writers doing such wonderful work across genre and it feels, you know, I’m sure you all feel this too, but like, there’s just never, there’s never enough time.
Clint Smith: 00:50:13 But with your audiobook from Libro FM, you can do it while you wash the dishes and do your laundry. I mean, for me, I got really into audiobooks during the pandemic. I listened to them before, but like, I think the pandemic made it so that it was, you know, we had no childcare for much of it. And, and so by the time you like put the kids down, you’re so tired. And so like when I sit down with a physical book, like, you know, if I sat down with a physical book any time after 7:00 PM, I would just fall asleep. But if I’m moving and I’m doing things with my hands, then I could pay attention and like absorb what I was listening to. So I got huge on, like, I listen to audiobooks when I mow the lawn. When I do the dishes, when I do the laundry, when I make the kids lunch the next day, I mean, it became like a huge part of my evening routine in ways that I have come to be really appreciative of.
Craig Silva: 00:51:16 Yeah, same here. We actually have an episode. That’s all about like, what do people do when they listen to audiobooks and everything you just said I think, except for mow, the lawn was mentioned.
Clint Smith: 00:51:26 It’s underrated. I like very much look forward to mowing the lawn. I tell my wife, like, can I go mow the lawn? She’s like, why are you so excited to mow the lawn? I was like, I gotta finish.
Craig Silva: 00:51:34 Didn’t you mow the lawn yesterday?
Clint Smith: 00:51:35 Yeah. Didn’t you mow the lawn yesterday? I gotta finish my novel.
Karen Farmer: 00:51:42 Well, Clint, I have one last question for you. This has been amazing. I think my entire team at Libro family would not forgive me if I didn’t ask this. I’m sure people ask you this frequently, but can you share anything about what you’re working on next and what we can look forward to seeing from you?
Clint Smith: 00:51:59 Yeah. I have, uh, a couple things I can’t really talk about yet, but that are, but people should know. I am. I’m working hard at them, but I do have one. I do have a poetry book coming out next year. In April 2023. So that’s mostly done. So Little Brown will publish that. And, uh, yeah, it’s a book about fatherhood and like being a father to young kids and what that journey has been like. It’s very different, like emotional texture, than How the Word is Passed. It’s like ode to the spit up on my chest.
Clint Smith: 00:52:34 Which is a different pace than, than, you know, visiting plantations.
Karen Farmer: 00:52:40 I very much look forward to that and we will keep our eyes out for the other two under wraps projects as well. It’s very exciting.
Craig Silva: 00:52:49 Yeah. I mean, so that’s it for us today. Thank you so much for the time. I know you have a ton going on and, you know, secret projects and things you’re working on. So we really appreciate you making the time to do this with us. So it was great to, you know, learn from you and just have this conversation. So really can’t thank you enough.
Clint Smith: 00:53:07 Yeah. It was a real pleasure. I’m a big fan, again, of what y’all are doing. I try to make sure I’m a Libro FM evangelist out here.
Craig Silva: 00:53:17 We appreciate it. Truly.
Clint Smith: 00:53:19 Letting people know.
Craig Silva: 00:53:20 Great. Thank you so much, Clint.
Karen Farmer: 00:53:22 Thank you, Clint.
Craig Silva: 00:53:23 Yeah. Nice to meet you.
Karen Farmer: 00:53:23 Bye.
Craig Silva: 00:53:30 Thanks for listening to episode four of the Libro podcast. We have more amazing interviews scheduled. We’re so excited to announce them very, very soon. I hope if you’ve been enjoying the podcast, please be sure to subscribe. Also, if you have a second, please rate the podcast. It would mean a lot to us.
Karen Farmer: 00:53:45 And just a reminder, if you haven’t tried Libro FM, yet don’t forget to sign up using promo code LIBROPODCAST and you’ll get an extra free credit when you start your membership.
Craig Silva: 00:53:54 As always. Thanks for listening.