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Clint Smith's 'Above Ground' explores both the joys and tribulations of parenthood through poetry

Clint Smith. (Courtesy of Carletta Girma)
Clint Smith. (Courtesy of Carletta Girma)

In “Above Ground,” Clint Smith writes about the everyday joy, anxiety and exhaustion of parenthood with young children. He also writes about the legacy of slavery and racism and how that history shaped the lives of his ancestors and continues into the lives of his children.

Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the nonfiction book “How the Word Is Passed: Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.” He joins Here & Now‘s Scott Tong.

The cover of “Above Ground” by Clint Smith. (Courtesy)

Book excerpt: ‘Above Ground’

By Clint Smith

Your National Anthem

Today, a Black man who was once a Black boy

like you got down on one of his knees and laid

his helmet on the grass as this country sang

its ode to the promise it never kept

and the woman in the grocery store line in front

of us is on the phone and she is telling someone

on the other line that this Black man who was once

a Black boy like you should be grateful we live

in a country where people aren’t killed for things like this

you know, she says, in some places they would hang you

for such a blatant act of disrespect, maybe he should

go live there instead of here so he can appreciate what he has

then she turns around

and sees you sitting in the grocery cart surrounded

by lettuce and yogurt and frozen chicken thighs

and you smile at her with your toothless-gum-smile

and she says that you are the cutest baby she has

ever seen and tells me how I must feel so lucky

to have such a beautiful baby boy and I thank her

for her kind words even though I know I should not

thank her, because I know that you will not always

be a Black boy but one day you may be a Black man

and you may decide your country hasn’t kept

its promise to you either and this woman, or another

like her, will forget you were ever this boy and they

will make you into something else and tell you

to be grateful for what you’ve been given.

Above Ground

For weeks, we can’t go outside without the cicadas’

song wrapping itself around the three of us like a quilt.

The tree in our front yard has become their sanctuary,

a place where they all seem to congregate

and sing their first and final songs.

We get closer, and see the way their exoskeletons

ornament the bark like golden ghosts,

shadows abandoned by their bodies

searching for new life.

One of you is four years old. One of you is two.

The next time the cicadas rise out of the earth

you will be twenty-one and nineteen.

I think of how much might change between these cycles.

How much of our planet will still be intact?

What sort of societies will the cicadas return to

when they next make their way up from the earth?

When they first arrive, you are both frightened

of this new noise that hangs in the air,

of these small orange- and- black-winged bodies

that fall from the sky like new rain.

They don’t bite, I say.

But neither of you believes me.

So I reach out to one of the branches

and allow one of the orange-eyed creatures to climb

onto my finger. You both watch it roam around my hand

as it becomes familiar with the flesh of my palm,

your eyes widening at the revelation that this infrequent

visitor has no interest in piercing my skin.

And maybe that is enough, because now

you both try to pick up cicadas from the ground

and collect them in buckets as if they are treasure.

And maybe they are.

Maybe treasure is in what dies almost

as quickly as it rises from the earth.

Maybe treasure is anything that reminds you

what a miracle it is to be alive.

All at Once

The redwoods are on fire in California. A flood submerges a neighborhood

that sat quiet on the coast for three centuries. A child takes their first steps

and tumbles into a father’s arms. Two people in New Orleans fall in love

under an oak tree whose branches bend like sorrow. A forest of seeds are

planted in new soil. A glacier melts into the ocean and the sea climbs closer

to the land. A man comes home from war and holds his son for the first

time. A man is killed by a drone that thinks his jug of water is a bomb. Your

best friend relapses and isn’t picking up the phone. Your son’s teacher calls

to say he stood up for another boy in class. A country below the equator

ends a twenty-year civil war. A soldier across the Atlantic fires the shot that

begins another. The scientists find a vaccine that will save millions of peo-

ple’s lives. Your mother’s cancer has returned and doctors say there is noth-

ing else they can do. There is a funeral procession in the morning and a

wedding in the afternoon. The river that gives us water to drink is the same

one that might wash us away.

Copyright © 2023 by Clint Smith

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