Clint Smith believes we all share a story, the human story. It’s in the telling, he believes, that we emerge as individuals and celebrate what we have in common. His two TED Talks, The Danger of Silence and How to Raise a Black Son in America have been viewed more than 4 million times. Using his experience as an award-winning teacher and poet to share personal stories of justice, community, and education, his customizable art-form illuminates how we can all find the courage to create change, overcome challenges, and unite ourselves through the power of the collective voice. In this column for The New Yorker below, Clint writes about the complicity of bigotry as it relates to the current American election:
Growing up in New Orleans, I was always the only black kid, or one of two, on the school soccer team. While I was always conscious of this status, what took precedent was my unfettered love of the game. I loved the way that my feet sunk into the thick soil of our high-school field; how the low-cut grass, with its endless cascade of small, emerald blades, was a place where I felt more like myself than anywhere else; how celebrating with your team after a goal was an unparalleled sort of ecstasy.
I don’t get a chance to play as often as I’d like anymore. What was once dancing gracefully around defenders has become tripping over a pair of feet that fail to follow directions as they once did. But I will always remember the moments when the game made me feel most at ease, just as I will always remember the moments in which it was clear that the soccer field could not shield me from what existed beyond it.
In 1991, when I was three years old and still a few years from officially setting foot on a field, David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, rose to national prominence during an infamous runoff to become the governor of my home state. Duke was known for his open hatred of many groups, including African-Americans. He was quoted as having said, “White people don’t need a law against rape, but if you fill this room up with your normal black bucks, you would, because niggers are basically primitive animals.” Duke lost the election, but won fifty-five per cent of the white vote.
Last week, David Duke came out in support of Donald Trump’s candidacy, stating, “Voting against Donald Trump, at this point, is really treason to your heritage.” On Sunday, when asked if he would condemn Duke and the Klan, Trump failed to give an unequivocal “yes,” instead suggesting that he did not know who Duke was and that he had to do research on the organization. The next day, Trump said that he had misheard the question and had already “disavowed” Duke, but his response on Sunday spoke for itself. It was the sort of silence I had known throughout my life.
When I was a sophomore at Benjamin Franklin, a magnet high school on the campus of the University of New Orleans, we had an early-stage play-off game against Dutchtown High School, of Geismar, Louisiana. Geismar is a predominantly white town in southeast Louisiana, with about seven thousand people and a large petrochemical plant. The town is about twenty miles south of Louisiana State University, where, in 1970, a young David Duke formed a student group called the White Youth Alliance, a campus affiliate of the National Socialist White People’s Party.
It was standard for me to be not just the only black person on my team but the only one on the field. Such was the case as we lined up to begin that game. We stood in our burnt-orange jerseys, theirs a deep purple, our uniforms matching the color of the early-evening horizon, as kick-off began.
We won the game comfortably, moving on to a season that eventually culminated in winning the state championship. It was one of my better performances, the kind of game where you feel yourself to be indomitable. I had the sense that I could score every time I touched the ball.
After the game, my teammates and I sauntered over to the sidelines, where our parents and classmates were waiting. Some of them looked deeply unsettled. We didn’t spend much time celebrating the victory; instead, we were rushed back to the parking lot and told that we should leave quickly. No one wanted to stay there longer than was absolutely necessary.
Apparently, after I made a run that beat several defenders before crossing the ball to a teammate for an assist on a goal, someone in Dutchtown’s section of the stands shouted, “Take that nigger out.”
I did not hear it from the field, but the slur came from directly behind my parents, who, along with many others, quickly turned to see who had made the remark. There was a commotion, and my father began moving in the direction the comment came from, wanting to demonstrate that he had heard what had been said and was unwilling to let it go unacknowledged. This was not new to him. He had told me stories about being a student at the University of Florida and, on more than one occasion, being called “nigger” by drunken frat boys as he and his friends walked across the quad. “They only talked like that when they could hide behind a crowd,” he said.
After the game, no one from Dutchtown came and said anything to us. No one apologized to my parents. No one apologized to me. I’m not sure that I expected them to. Perhaps they felt it wasn’t their responsibility to say anything about something that they didn’t say themselves. Perhaps they thought that, since it did not come directly from their mouths, they did not need to disavow the remarks.
After being harangued for his failure to quickly and explicitly disavow David Duke, Trump blamed his response on “a very bad earpiece.” The idea was that he had not fully heard Duke’s name.
Trump, of course, has said that he wants “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He has said, of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.”
When I hear Trump make these remarks, I find myself less concerned with him than with the crowds that explode in jubilance at his events—and with the poll numbers that rise with each offensive comment. How many of those in the crowd would ever say these things themselves? How many of those people, lost in the sea of faces, do not believe themselves to be full participants in bigotry? I wonder how many of those responding to these polls are people I have worked with, gone to school with, or played soccer with.
When I ask my mother about that game, years later, she remembers, more than anything, how quickly we left, fearing that the person who wanted me to be taken out could still be somewhere in the stands or in the parking lot. Being black in Louisiana meant that you weren’t going to wait to find out.
When I think back on that game, I do not remember the person who said, “Take that nigger out.” I remember all of the people who might have let it happen and then said it wasn’t their fault.