How Black Reality and White Reality Differ, from Growing up to Parenting Kids

Writer and Poet Clint Smith on the moment black lives began to officially matter, and the long history of pre-smartphone police brutality and state-sanctioned racism that preceded it.

Clint Smith:  In Thomas Jefferson’s memoir, Notes on the State of Virginia. He wrote that the slave is incapable of love. The slave is incapable of possessing and sustaining complex emotion. And that black people are inferior to whites in both the endowments of body and mind. And so for me that’s interesting because the man who was largely considered the intellectual founding father of this country responsible in large part for the conception of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution didn’t think I was fully human. He didn’t think that I was capable of loving my mother. Didn’t think I was capable of loving my sister, my brother, my partner. Didn’t think I was capable of having passion, of creating art. And so there’s, you know, an entire history from the very inception of this country of black people being dehumanized by the state and people who represent the state.

And so that’s why I think it’s important to have this socio historical context and understanding so that when we see a police killing black men and women in the streets we recognize that this isn’t sort of something happening out of nowhere. That this is actually consistent with the narrative that has been given about to black people throughout this country’s history.

And so it’s part of what’s happened now is that we live in a hyper documented era in which everything is being captured on camera phones and in videos and gone viral and shared on different social medial platforms. And a lot of people are saying where did all this come from. Like how are the police doing this. Like why are they doing this. This just happened out of nowhere. When actually this has been happening for an incredibly long time in black communities. We’ve been experiencing disproportionate incarceration. We’ve been experiencing stop and frisk. We’ve been experiencing police brutality on an ongoing basis for decades and decades and centuries if we’re being honest. And what’s happened now is that now there’s sort of these primary sources, so to speak, these empirical evidence of these events transpiring in America and the world is being forced to like look themselves in the mirror and reckon with how so many of us have been complicit in allowing such a thing to take place for so long and to really be forced to ask ourselves what are we doing or what are we not doing to allow this state sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies to continue.

Black children in this country in part, you know, necessitate a different way of means of parenting it the sense that they – it is important to inform a black child of the realities that exist around them without making that child feel as if it is their fault, right. Like racism isn’t a child’s fault. Systemic oppression isn’t a child’s fault. At the same time you have to teach that child how to navigate a world that is often taught to fear them. My mother and my father had ongoing conversations with me throughout my childhood and my adolescence and my teenage years. And even now as a young adult about understanding the way that I was seen even if I wasn’t able to see that myself. To recognize that when I went out with a group of my white friends or when I – if I’m in a an interracial relationship or if I am engaged in certain activities that those things are perceived differently because I am a black man and that the United States and the world has certain sort of stereotype or caricature of who they believe black men to be. And that there are people judging me before I ever open my mouth. That there are people who have decided who I am before I’ve ever had an opportunity to show them or to engage with them. And that this exists in every sort of realm of class.

And I think that was an important thing for my parents to teach me as well as that, you know, I come from a home with two parents with professional degrees and I attend Harvard University where I’m getting my doctorate. And I think a lot of people can operate under this assumption. They’ll say oh Clint. You made it. You’ve transcended, you know, racism and you moved beyond these like oppressive forces and obstacles that have sought to keep you down. And the reality is that’s not true. The reality is that I still get followed around in stores wearing my Harvard paraphernalia. The reality is that I still can’t catch a cab on Massachusetts Avenue. The reality is that there are people who, you know, white women will cross the street when walking towards me on the sidewalk at night time. And it doesn’t matter where I wear my pants. It doesn’t matter, you know, how well I speak or how smart I am or, you know, what my house looks like. Because I’m a black man and that is the first thing people see. And that it immediately for them it triggers an implicit biases that they have been socialized to believe about who we are and what we do or do not do.

I think oftentimes it’s easy for us to exist in a bubble and not to move beyond our own reality and to step outside of our shoes so to speak and, you know, walk around in someone else’s. And, you know, some people simply don’t interact with people beyond their own demographic whether that’s socioeconomically, racially, culturally. And I think the only way that we can understand what is taking place in other people’s lives is to listen. And I grew up in a family where listening was the foremost important thing we were taught to do. You have to humble yourself in order to recognize that you don’t know as much as you think you know. And whether that’s listening to my grandfather at the dinner table as he went on and on and on. I love him dearly. Or whether that’s listening to a classmate explain what a hijab is when I didn’t understand why someone would wear a scarf over their head, you know, in fourth grade. I think all of these – we have to be concerted in taking all of these opportunities to recognize that our reality is not everyone else’s.

Although Thomas Jefferson is a beloved founding father, there is no doubt that he was a flawed product of his time. He believed in slavery, and in the idea of Caucasian superiority. The arrogant notion that black lives were lesser lives was the key ideal that allowed slavery to happen. When we look at people in history, we don’t often look at the full scope of their character – it’s a buffet of remembrance, and the appetite is usually for glory and good deeds. As Dan O’Brien, humorist and writer for Cracked said in an After Hours episode, "[Thomas Jefferson] was forward thinking and awesome in the 18th century, but he is a racist, cartoon villain by today’s standards."

While America has strived to progress against the laws and ideology of then, it’s proving difficult to transcend. Just recently, the KKK in Atlanta, Georgia, passed out fliers near Piedmont. The next morning, a young black man was found hanging in Piedmont Park. Police ruled it a suicide, but because #PiedmontHanging went viral, the case was handed over to the FBI. In this day and age, black lives are still tragically lost to antiquated and violent biases. Writer and National Poetry Slam champion Clint Smith notes that there is a general attitude of shock towards the Black Lives Matter issues, as if they have sprung up from nowhere, but much like the Piedmont hashtag, it’s the technology that’s finally catching up to the issue, creating a wider audience for wrongdoings the nation has been blissfully unaware of. Visibility is finally exposing violence.

Clint Smith points out that there’s an aspect of parenting that is unique to the black community. He recalls his parents teaching him that no matter how polite, well-articulated, or sharply dressed he was, he would be judged by his skin. People were going to cross the street to get away from him at night, and parents have the hard task of making sure their children understand that it is not their fault. That their inner worth isn’t compromised or turned bitter by ingrained discrimination.

Parents must talk to their children about racist mindsets and brutality, warning them from going to parks, or making sure they know to travel with friends rather than alone. Parents have to teach their children that if they are of color, then statistically, they’re more at risk when dealing with officers of the law than a Caucasian child. Hopefully the technology that has exposed the state-sanctioned violence that has been happening for centuries makes that conversation easier.

Jumping on the momentum of this exposition, Clint recommends a simple step one: listening. Acceptance comes from understanding. It’s important to recognize the issues by stepping out of the comfort zone, so challenge yourself to see things from another person’s eyes.

Clint Smith's book Counting Descent is out 15 September, 2016 and it available for pre-order now.

7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

Physicists push limits of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

New studies stretch the boundaries of physics, achieving quantum entanglement in larger systems.

Credit: Aalto University.
Surprising Science
  • New experiments with vibrating drums push the boundaries of quantum mechanics.
  • Two teams of physicists create quantum entanglement in larger systems.
  • Critics question whether the study gets around the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
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The ‘Lost Forty’: how a mapping error preserved an old-growth forest

A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.

Credit: U.S. Forest Service via Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
Strange Maps
  • In 1882, Josias R. King made a mess of mapping Coddington Lake, making it larger than it actually is.
  • For decades, Minnesota loggers left the local trees alone, thinking they were under water.
  • Today, the area is one of the last remaining patches of old-growth forest in the state.
Keep reading Show less

Mixing human + animal DNA and the future of gene editing

"The question is which are okay, which are not okay."

  • As the material that makes all living things what/who we are, DNA is the key to understanding and changing the world. British geneticist Bryan Sykes and Francis Collins (director of the Human Genome Project) explain how, through gene editing, scientists can better treat illnesses, eradicate diseases, and revolutionize personalized medicine.
  • But existing and developing gene editing technologies are not without controversies. A major point of debate deals with the idea that gene editing is overstepping natural and ethical boundaries. Just because they can, does that mean that scientists should be edit DNA?
  • Harvard professor Glenn Cohen introduces another subcategory of gene experiments: mixing human and animal DNA. "The question is which are okay, which are not okay, why can we generate some principles," Cohen says of human-animal chimeras and arguments concerning improving human life versus morality.