Rev. Bernie Clark, C.S.C., Lecture Series features conversation with Dr. Clint Smith

The Center for Social Concerns held its annual Rev. Bernie Clark, C.S.C., Lecture last Wednesday, November 9, in the Morris Inn’s William and Mary Ann Smith Ballroom. The Department of Africana Studies, Department of American Studies, Department of History, and the Initiative on Race and Resilience partnered with the Center for this event.

This year’s lecture, titled “Race, Memory, and Public History,” featured a conversation with Dr. Clint Smith, author, poet, and staff writer for The Atlantic, mediated by Prof. Mark Sanders, the Africana Studies Department Chair and Inaugural Director of the Notre Dame Initiative on Race and Resilience.

According to the Center’s website, “The annual Rev. Bernie Clark, C.S.C., Lecture was created by the Center for Social Concerns in 2009 in order to highlight justice issues and themes affecting the common good.” Past lecture topics include human dignity, racial justice, and Christian-Muslim dialogue.

J.P. Shorthall, Associate Director of Communications and Advancement at the Center for Social Concerns, commented on the inspiration beyond this year’s conversation in an email to the Rover: “We invited Clint Smith to give this year’s lecture because his career has been dedicated to showing us how our country and our institutions often fail to meet [the demands of justice] demands. His is a deeply thoughtful and eloquent voice on the painful history of racial injustice in the U.S., one that asks us to face that history honestly and join him in imagining—and working toward—a better way forward.”

On behalf of the Notre Dame Initiative on Race and Resilience, Prof. Sanders expressed similar support for the lecture, writing, “Dr. Smith’s essays, poetry, and New York Times bestseller, How the Word is Passed shed critical light on slavery, historical and contemporary structural racism, and their effects on Black communities and the nation as a whole. Given the power of his insights and the impact of his work, this conversation will contribute greatly to Notre Dame’s efforts to pursue social justice.”

The conversation itself covered a wide range of topics, including Dr. Smith’s experiences as a poet, journalist, author, black man, grandson, and father.

Dr. Smith began by reflecting on his first encounters with poetry as an undergraduate at Davidson College, where he majored in English. His interest in poetry and the English language eventually led him to publish his first poetry collection, Counting Descent, in 2017.

While a highly successful poet, Dr. Smith also writes across literary genres, including journalism and non-fiction.

Referencing his recent book, How the Word is Passed, published in June 2021, Dr. Smith talked about how he approaches writing process from various literary perspectives:

How the Word is Passed began as a series of poems. I thought it was going to be my second collection of poetry … And then over the course of many years, it sort of transformed and expanded. And the story I was trying to tell told me that it needed a new form, it needed new contours, it needed new literary boundaries with which to wrestle with these questions. And so, it turned from poems into lyric essays into longer meditations and then into this sort of travel narrative that included the story and the perspectives of people from all over the country and all over the world. I think part of it for me is also giving myself time to allow the form to manifest itself on its own terms.”

As was the case for How the Word is Passed, research has played an important role in Dr. Smith’s writings. This research has informed both his work and self-understanding.

“One of the most important things I’ve ever done, regardless of whether it was going to end up in a book or not, was interview my grandparents. And it was just such a transformative experience. My grandfather was born in 1930, Jim Crow Mississippi, and my grandmother born in 1939, Jim Crow Florida,” Dr. Smith told the attendees of the lecture.

He added, “There are people alive today who knew, who loved, who were raised by people who were born into chattel slavery. The idea that we would suggest that that has nothing to do with the contemporary landscape of inequality, the idea that we would suggest that that had nothing to do with what our social, political, economic, and carceral infrastructure look like today is revealed to be profoundly morally and intellectually disingenuous. And I say all that because it was the time with my grandparents specifically that really grounded me in a clear sense of how proximate temporally we all are to that history.

The conversation continued to address how Americans reckon with, or do not reckon with the history of slavery and racism. “I think that it is both true that we are in a moment where there is a more nuanced, complex, and accurate conversation about what race means and what it doesn’t mean, what racism is, and the myriad ways it can manifest itself. And, we have millions of other people who fundamentally reject that because for them accepting it wouldn’t be just accepting an inconvenient need to reassess American history. They would have to reassess something deeply fundamental about themselves, which is unsettling and why some people so intensely and vehemently push back,” Dr. Smith explained. 

To conclude the conversation, Dr. Smith recited two poems from his forthcoming collection, Above Ground, which will be released on March 28, 2023.

The poetry and presentation of the temporal proximity of slavery in the United States had a profound impact on many students who attended the lecture.

Daniel Brennan, senior history and theology major, told the Rover, “Hearing Dr. Clint Smith was hearing an artist at work. But unlike the paint or clay that some artists use, Dr. Smith’s most breathtaking tools were the words he used to tell interesting stories about his education, early career as a poet, and journeys that inspired How the Word is Passed.”

“Dr. Smith made it very clear that this country’s history is not as distant as we may think,” added Brennan. “Despite the tendency of many to pass the past aside, it is still very much a part of our present, and I believe that Dr. Smith did a great job of explaining this.”

This lecture also afforded students the opportunity to meet an author and poet they had read and recited since high school. 

Isaiah Hall, sophomore studying Africana studies and sociology and the co-host of the BLACK@ND, a podcast that highlights the experiences of Notre Dame’s African American students, told the Rover, “The lecture was a great experience. Clint Smith is one of my favorite authors. I recited his poetry my senior year of high school in speech and debate, and I never thought that I would meet him and actually be able to talk to him. It was very empowering and inspiring.”

Hall expressed his appreciation for the way Dr. Smith confronted the public history of racism: “Being black in the United States is very difficult. And one thing that I really wish people would try to focus a lot more on is understanding history: first, reading history; second, internalizing history; and third, fully understanding history. I loved whenever Clint Smith talked about that.”

Throughout the conversation, Dr. Smith balanced his discussion of the hardship of racial inequality with the triumphs of black culture, declaring, “Blackness is not singularly defined by the violence enacted upon it or the oppression that it carries. It’s far more expansive and far more beautiful and far more remarkable than that.” 

Hall told the Rover that he hopes to adopt a similar balance in his own work as a writer and podcast co-host: “Whenever I write my next essay or record my next podcast, I want to create the same blend that Dr. Smith created, where, yes, we can focus on the hardships, but we also need to balance that out with the triumphs and achievements of black people.”  

William Smith is a junior from St. Charles, Minnesota studying theology and philosophy. There are few things he enjoys more than gorgeous hikes, good conversation, and great literature. When he is neither hiking nor conversing nor reading, you may contact him at