Racial Healing in a World of Multiple Realities

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

“Joy and despair can exist simultaneously,” said Clint Smith taking a question about his formula for racial healing. In a virtual conversation, Smith responded to questions from students engaged in Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation work at Mount Holyoke, Spelman, Sewanee, the Joseph and Evelyn Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights, and the Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership of Atlanta. Smith’s remarks traveled from plantation weddings, to YouTube, to renaming Confederate monuments, to giving the unpopular answer to uncomfortable questions.

A Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in Education, staff writer for The Atlantic, and author of the bestselling “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America,” Smith acknowledged as a black child observing the difference in communities, he formed “racist ideas about [his] own community.” Books and art helped him understand history and the why of that difference. But Smith stressed, “focusing on education alone is myopic … education alone won’t singularly change the trajectory of a life.” Smith cited housing, parents’ employment, and income as among the many influences on a child. Equally important, today various “mediums for receiving info” existed alongside books. Smith pointed to TicTok, Instagram, and YouTube as tools for helping students “understand the world.”

Smith’s 50-episode YouTube series “Crash Course Black American History” mines the truth about black history from 1619 to the present. For Smith, one of the challenges in recounting history lay in “not sacrificing intellectual rigor at the expense of the legibility and accessibility” crucial to reaching those who lack “cultural capital.” Another challenge lay in not falling into “the trap of defining black people by indignity and trauma.”

“Lives don’t exist in demarcation, all good or all bad,” Smith insisted. “The world has multiple realities.” Having children has made Smith startingly aware of “the unfathomable circumstance” of children elsewhere. But, likewise, his children have made him realize, “In a world of so much beauty and ugliness, I don’t want to lose my sense of gratitude.” A theme in his work is “holding multiple things as true at once … to take seriously the indignities inflicted on blacks … but not define them by pain.”

Delana Turner, Sewanee American Studies major and politics minor, posed a question about a victim of the Bloody Sunday massacre who objected to renaming Edmund Pettus bridge, afraid what the bridge symbolized would be lost to memory. Smith saw the circumstance as “an opportunity to have a conversation about what the name means.” What was more important? The bridge’s symbolic significance in the struggle for racial equality or the fact that Pettus was a Grand Marshall of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan and former Confederate brigadier general. Smith personally found it unthinkable to celebrate a wedding on a plantation that was the “site of exploitation,” yet he knew blacks who regarded a planation wedding as “reclaiming the space” for their own.

Noting another challenge, Smith cited the importance of being “empirically precise” when making analogies between circumstances. He gave the example of comparing chattel slavery to the notoriously horrific Angola Prison where 70 percent of the inmates were black men. Failure to be precise resulted in failing to understand “the actual realities.” Being born into slavery was one reality and the school-to-prison pipeline another.

Emma Quirks from Holyoke asked how “nonblacks” could do the work of racial healing. Smith answered with a question: “What is the conversation when a black person is not in the room to say, ‘thank you’?” He pointed out, for women, it was easier to object to a sexist comment when there were other women present. “I ask myself am I living out my values when I won’t be rewarded,” Smith said. His answer: “not always. Being justice oriented is not a finish line, but an everyday practice … to move through the world with curiosity and humility.”

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