18 pages 36 minutes read

Clint Smith

Counting Descent

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Clint Smith is an African American poet, writer, and journalist. His published books include Counting Descent (Write Bloody Publishing, 2016), How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America (Little, Brown and Company, 2021), and Above Ground (Little, Brown and Company, 2023). Smith has received a number of awards and fellowships from Cave Canem, the National Science Foundation, the Art for Justice Fund, and the National Book Critics Circle, among others. Critics have praised Smith for his incisive curiosity and his ability to move fluidly between the personal and the political. Across genres, his work is concerned with contemporary African American life, from the effects of oppression on daily life to the struggle against these systems. His creative writing brings out the powerful emotional content of these experiences, such as joy, pain, and deep meaning.

“Counting Descent” is the title poem of Smith’s debut collection of poetry. Like many of the poems in the collection, “Counting Descent” is concerned with the speaker’s lineage and legacy. Writer Kiese Laymon called Counting Descent “more than brilliant. More than lyrical. More than bluesy. More than courageous. It is terrifying in its ability to at once not hide and show readers why it wants to hide so badly.” “Counting Descent” was originally published in Kinfolks Quarterly Volume 1, Issue 3, then in the collection with some small formal edits. This study guide references the poem as it appears in Counting Descent.

Poet Biography

Clint Smith III was born August 25, 1988. He grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player. Smith now attributes the intensity he brings to his writing craft to his intense childhood dedication to the sport. Hurricane Katrina hit during Smith’s senior year of high school, causing him and his family to flee New Orleans for Houston, Texas. Smith cites the aftermath of Katrina as a moment when he began to realize how systemic inequality manifests in the United States. At this point in his life, writing became “a tool…to try to make sense of…what it meant to be so jarringly stripped away from the only home that I’d ever known” (“#515: Clint Smith.” Longform Podcast, December 2022).

Smith attended Davidson College on a soccer scholarship. He lived in New York City one summer for an internship and saw a reading at the Nuyorican Poets Café. This inspired him to become a poet, and he started performing slam poetry while still in college. Smith graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 2010.

Smith taught high school English in Prince George’s County, Maryland, for several years. He was a part of the Beltway Poetry Slam team that won the 2014 National Poetry Slam. Around this time, Smith gained some attention on Twitter for his tweet threads on social justice and race, a writing practice he likens to “micro-blogging” (“#515.” Longform Podcast). Nick Thompson, then-Editor of Newyorker.com, reached out to Smith about writing an essay for the website, thus beginning his career in journalism.

Smith began publishing poems in 2015 and published his debut poetry collection, Counting Descent (Write Bloody Publishing), in 2016, which was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He wrote his second book, How the Word is Passed (Little, Brown and Company, 2021), while finishing his doctoral dissertation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It was selected for the New York Times Book Review’s “10 Best Books of 2021” list. Smith’s third book and second poetry collection, Above Ground (Little, Brown and Company) is forthcoming in March 2023.

Smith graduated with a PhD in Education from Harvard University in 2020. He currently works as a staff writer at the Atlantic. He lives in Maryland with his wife and two children.

Poem Text

Smith, Clint. “Counting Descent.” Kinfolks Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 3, 2015, pp. 34-35.

Summary

The speaker in “Counting Descent” tells stories from his family history. He begins two generations prior to his own with his grandparents. His grandfather “is a quarter century / older than his right to vote” (Lines 1-2) and about 20 years younger than “the president / who signed the paper that made it so” (Lines 3-4). When the speaker’s grandmother and grandfather were married, they were a few years younger than the speaker is now; however, they were more certain about their marriage than the speaker is “about most things” (Line 8). The grandparents had a total of six children in nine years—four boys and two girls. The family moved around to three different cities, crossing the Mason-Dixon line in the process. They always lived in smaller homes with “half as many bedrooms as children” (Line 12). Most of the time this didn’t matter very much, because the children were too busy laughing and having fun to care about whether or not they were technically poor.

The speaker’s mother “was the third oldest or the fourth youngest” (Line 17), depending on who’s counting. The speaker’s grandmother had the day off of work for a federal holiday when she gave birth to the speaker’s mother. The grandmother was “thankful” (Line 20) for the time off. She compared her situation to the book of Genesis, saying that if God took one day to rest after creating the whole world, then one day is enough for her. The speaker’s mother and father have been married for 31 years. His mother “says Pops was persistent” (Line 23) when he asked her to go on a coffee date with him. Some things have changed since then—a cup of coffee costs two dollars more, and the speaker’s mother is trying to give coffee up—but the speaker’s parents are still married and still in love.

The speaker’s birth took over 12 hours, and his large head is likely the reason that his mother was in labor for so long. She says he needed a big head so he could “read all the books in the library” (Line 35). The speaker loved reading as a child. He remembers thinking that the number of books in the library must have been “infinity” (Line 36). He recalls being good at math as well as reading until math became a combination of letters and numbers.

The speaker is one of three children born across a six-year time span. His brother, the youngest, is taller and much better at math than him. His younger sister, the middle child, is “twenty-four years of loyal” (Line 47), and they have been best friends for almost a decade. The speaker describes himself as “the oldest // of three but maybe the most naïve” (Lines 48-49). He has hope that the world can be different, and one day, him living past the age of 25 won’t be “cause for celebration” (Line 52). The speaker is grateful for the years he has lived and tries to make them count. He wishes he could share his life and give his “breath to the boys who / had theirs taken” (Lines 55-56). Recently, it seems like there have been too many of those boys. He has stopped trying to count his breaths, because it seems like there isn’t enough “breath to go around” (Line 58).

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