Ask any parent, and they’ll tell you that having children changes everything. And I don’t just mean the amount of sleep you get every night. It forces you to look at the world, from the wonderful to the worrisome, in a whole new way – especially for parents of Black children.
In his new book of poetry, “Above Ground,” Clint Smith captures it all – what is awe-inspiring about seeing the world through a child’s eyes and what is terrifying about raising Black children in a world that is not always welcoming.
The Root caught up with bestselling author, husband, and father Clint Smith to talk about his new collection of poetry that beautifully depicts Black fatherhood.
The inspiration for “Above Ground” came from Smith’s work on “How the Word is Passed,” his 2021 bestselling book that takes readers to plantations, monuments, and other landmarks to explore how historic sites have reckoned with their relationship with slavery.
His now five-year-old son was born in the middle of the writing process, something the father of two says altered his perspective of the impact of slavery on Black people and families. “Early in my experience of understanding slavery, I thought about the horror largely through the lens of physical brutality,” he said. “I didn’t think as much about family separation and the terror that hangs over people for their entire lives until I had my own kids.”
And as he reflected on the sacrifices of the ancestors, Smith said it left him with a desire to write a book that leaned into all of the aspects of parenting made possible by generations of Black people before him – those who courageously fought for freedom even though they were never able to experience it for themselves.
“These moments with my kids, whether it’s a Janet Jackson dance party in the kitchen or making french toast on a Sunday morning, are possible because of the experiences I documented in my previous book,” he said.
Poetry for Perspective
When you’re in the thick of parenting, it’s easy to get lost in an endless pursuit of the next milestone – obsessing over when your child will crawl or speak their first word. But as you read “Above Ground,” you see Smith as a father who truly appreciates every moment, including some of the earliest, as he writes about in the tender poem, “Waiting on a Heartbeat,”
Smith says writing poems about his children has forced him to be more present and appreciate every hug and every hiccup, especially when so many other things about the world are uncertain. “I’ve written hundreds of poems over the last several years about my kids because they serve as time capsules that capture these moments I desperately want to hold on to,” he said. “There’s always something going on that can take you away from the kids right in front of you. But I think writing a poem reminds me not to miss it the next time. I realize just how fleeting it all is.”
A Focus on Black Fatherhood
As someone who’s read plenty of books about parenting, Smith’s book stands out. Not just because it’s damn good, but because stories that celebrate Black fatherhood are far less common, something that isn’t lost on Smith, who writes about some of the excessive attention he receives for doing his dad duties in the hilarious poem “Gold Stars,”
“It’s wild how frequently it happens. I was just walking from the park with my kid and someone driving by rolled down their window and yelled out how proud of me they were,” he laughs.
And although he managed to find humor in getting props for something as ordinary as taking his kid to the playground, Smith understands that the celebration has a lot to do with the fact that the image of Black fatherhood has been so distorted over time.
“We get so few depictions of Black men expressing tenderness for children, particularly young children, which we know isn’t the case,” he said.
He’s also keenly aware that no one is rolling down their window to cheer on his wife in the same way. “Women deserve to be celebrated for parenting. I’m not saying we should stop complimenting fathers for doing basic things. But you should also compliment mothers for doing those same basic things. I think it’s a “both-and” not “either-or,” he said. “The poem is almost in a way holding me accountable.”
Smith says that accountability allows him to remain optimistic as he does his part to equip his children to navigate a world that is constantly changing.
“I have hope for my kids because I am the beneficiary of generations of people who had hope for me. We’re chipping away at a wall and we don’t know how far we have to go. But we know the more we chip away at the wall, the fewer people who come behind us have to chip,” he said.
That optimism comes through in this portion of Smith’s poem “Ode to Bedtime,” which perfectly captures every parent’s feels at the end of a long day of parenting.
“Above Ground” is available now.