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Clint Smith: The danger of silence

July 8, 2014

"We spend so much time listening to the things people are saying that we rarely pay attention to the things they don't," says poet and teacher Clint Smith. A short, powerful piece from the heart, about finding the courage to speak up against ignorance and injustice.

Clint Smith - Poet, educator
Clint Smith's work blends art and activism. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
00:13
in a 1968 speech where he reflects
upon the Civil Rights Movement,
00:14
states, "In the end,
00:18
we will remember not the words of our enemies
00:21
but the silence of our friends."
00:24
As a teacher, I've internalized this message.
00:27
Every day, all around us,
00:30
we see the consequences of silence
00:31
manifest themselves in the form of discrimination,
00:33
violence, genocide and war.
00:36
In the classroom, I challenge my students
00:39
to explore the silences in their own lives
00:42
through poetry.
00:44
We work together to fill those spaces,
00:46
to recognize them, to name them,
00:48
to understand that they don't
have to be sources of shame.
00:51
In an effort to create a culture within my classroom
00:54
where students feel safe sharing the intimacies
00:57
of their own silences,
00:59
I have four core principles posted on the board
01:01
that sits in the front of my class,
01:03
which every student signs
at the beginning of the year:
01:05
read critically, write consciously,
01:08
speak clearly, tell your truth.
01:10
And I find myself thinking a lot about that last point,
01:14
tell your truth.
01:17
And I realized that
01:19
if I was going to ask my students to speak up,
01:20
I was going to have to tell my truth
01:23
and be honest with them about the times
01:25
where I failed to do so.
01:27
So I tell them that growing up,
01:29
as a kid in a Catholic family in New Orleans,
01:31
during Lent I was always taught
01:33
that the most meaningful thing one could do
01:36
was to give something up,
01:38
sacrifice something you typically indulge in
01:39
to prove to God you understand his sanctity.
01:42
I've given up soda, McDonald's, French fries,
01:44
French kisses, and everything in between.
01:47
But one year, I gave up speaking.
01:50
I figured the most valuable thing I could sacrifice
01:54
was my own voice, but it was like I hadn't realized
01:56
that I had given that up a long time ago.
02:00
I spent so much of my life
02:03
telling people the things they wanted to hear
02:05
instead of the things they needed to,
02:07
told myself I wasn't meant to be anyone's conscience
02:08
because I still had to figure out being my own,
02:11
so sometimes I just wouldn't say anything,
02:13
appeasing ignorance with my silence,
02:16
unaware that validation doesn't need words
02:19
to endorse its existence.
02:21
When Christian was beat up for being gay,
02:23
I put my hands in my pocket
02:25
and walked with my head
down as if I didn't even notice.
02:26
I couldn't use my locker for weeks
because the bolt on the lock
02:29
reminded me of the one I had put on my lips
02:31
when the homeless man on the corner
02:33
looked at me with eyes up merely searching
02:35
for an affirmation that he was worth seeing.
02:37
I was more concerned with
touching the screen on my Apple
02:39
than actually feeding him one.
02:41
When the woman at the fundraising gala
02:43
said "I'm so proud of you.
02:45
It must be so hard teaching
those poor, unintelligent kids,"
02:46
I bit my lip, because apparently
we needed her money
02:49
more than my students needed their dignity.
02:51
We spend so much time
02:53
listening to the things people are saying
02:55
that we rarely pay attention to the things they don't.
02:59
Silence is the residue of fear.
03:03
It is feeling your flaws
03:06
gut-wrench guillotine your tongue.
03:07
It is the air retreating from your chest
03:09
because it doesn't feel safe in your lungs.
03:11
Silence is Rwandan genocide. Silence is Katrina.
03:13
It is what you hear when there
aren't enough body bags left.
03:16
It is the sound after the noose is already tied.
03:19
It is charring. It is chains. It is privilege. It is pain.
03:22
There is no time to pick your battles
03:25
when your battles have already picked you.
03:27
I will not let silence wrap itself around my indecision.
03:29
I will tell Christian that he is a lion,
03:32
a sanctuary of bravery and brilliance.
03:34
I will ask that homeless man what his name is
03:36
and how his day was, because sometimes
03:38
all people want to be is human.
03:40
I will tell that woman that my students can talk about
03:42
transcendentalism like their last name was Thoreau,
03:45
and just because you watched
one episode of "The Wire"
03:47
doesn't mean you know anything about my kids.
03:49
So this year,
03:51
instead of giving something up,
03:53
I will live every day as if there were a microphone
03:55
tucked under my tongue,
03:58
a stage on the underside of my inhibition.
04:00
Because who has to have a soapbox
04:04
when all you've ever needed is your voice?
04:06
Thank you.
04:10
(Applause)
04:12

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Clint Smith - Poet, educator
Clint Smith's work blends art and activism.

Why you should listen

Clint Smith is a writer, teacher and doctoral candidate at Harvard University studying education, incarceration and inequality. Previously, he taught high school English in Prince George’s County, Maryland where, in 2013, he was named the Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher of the Year by the Maryland Humanities Council.

Clint is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion, an Individual World Poetry Slam Finalist, and author of the poetry collection Counting Descent. He has received fellowships from the National Science Foundation, Cave Canem and the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Educational Review and elsewhere. He was born and raised in New Orleans, LA.

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