A 2014 National Poetry Slam champion, Mr. Smith (pictured) has focused on the sociology of race and the history of inequality in the United States in his published works, the most recent being the poetry collection Counting Descent. His two TED Talks, “The Danger of Silence” and “How to Raise a Black Son in America,” have collectively been viewed more than 5 million times — and this past Wednesday he shared several of his poems, and the meaning behind them, with nearly 400 Upper School students and faculty on Ranney’s Tinton Falls campus.
Smith’s readings, including “Letter to Five of the Eight Presidents Who Owned Slaves While in Office,” “My Jumpshot,” and “What the Cicada Said to the Brown Boy,” addressed the pedagogy of black parenting, bullying, and navigating what he called the “ever-present tension” of reckoning with dueling political truths. The poet provided examples to students of how America struggles with exceptionalism and un-exceptionalism, the latter of which he pointed out is often withheld from history books.
As an example, he noted that the Civil Rights Movement — which lasted more than a decade — is often boiled down to the actions of Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the passing of The Voting Rights Act, and how the New Deal programs of the 1930s, praised for reshaping the American economy, did not extend full benefits to African Americans.
“Oppression doesn’t disappear because we weren’t taught that chapter of history,” he said in discussing the “existential crisis” that ties directly to the current evolution taking place across the country — a country that, he noted, is quite young in comparison to the rest of the world. “We are the pre-teens of the world, and are we are still working out what a noble democracy is.”
After the presentation, Smith took time to sign copies of his new book, and to have lunch with a smaller group of students. He answered questions about his work on racial and social justice in the context of today’s sociopolitical climate, as well as about his writing methodology and the musicality of language. “The best way to become a strong writer is to be an avid reader,” and to be “empathetic,” he told students, encouraging them to read not just authors they may align with ideologically, but also those that take them outside of their comfort zones.
Ranney’s Distinguished Speaker Series is aimed at providing Upper School students with an opportunity to think forward and to grasp hold of traditional as well as new subjects through unique, personal, and international perspectives. Previous speakers have included world-record mountaineer Colin O’Brady, New Yorker Cartoonist Matt Diffee, and Teen Motivational Speaker Josh Shipp.
The school will host actor/writer/educator Steven Tejada on March 10, and Alix Generous — a professional speaker, neuroscientist, author, tech consultant, and observational comedian with Asperger syndrome — on April 7. In addition, Lois Marie Harrod will spend two weeks on campus this February and March as the school’s Spring Poet in Residence, conducting poetry workshops with Middle and Upper School English classes, as well as lunchtime workshops for creative writing and poetry groups.