‘Counting Descent’: A Post-Mortem on Black America

Crystal Foretia, age 17

Imagine you were a black fifteen-year-old on Nov. 9, 2016. You woke up, having gone to bed before the election results came out. Your phone was buzzing all night with people reacting to the results on Twitter. You finally saw the headline: “Donald Trump wins 2016 Presidential Election.” Meanwhile, you heard reports documenting numerous incidents of vandalism. The one that hit home is graffiti reading, “Black Lives Don’t Matter And Neither Does Your Votes.” Despair, confusion, and fear creeped in and then crashed down all at once. If there was a book capturing the strife and anxiety that you felt in that moment, it would be “Counting Descent” by Clint Smith.

Smith’s poetry, published that same year, transcends the boundary between personal and universal by imbuing his parables with the realities of Black America through creative poetic form. If you’ve ever felt frustrated trying to uncover the literary purpose of a sestina or sonnet, don’t fret: Each poem’s unique structure directly feeds into its narrative. “Playground Elegy” resembles a slide as the act of having your hands up, which conveys a sense of freedom, shifts to a similar, but more desperate connotation in police confrontations. “For the Boys Who Never Learned How to Swim” extended the spacing between the final two words to symbolize a black man’s final breath prior to being killed, mimicking a fish’s dying gasp. The numbered format and blank space at the end of “How to Make an Empty Cardboard Box Disappear in 10 Steps” highlights the frequency and lack of progress made on police brutality; it warns that inaction will guarantee another Tamir Rice or Philando Castile incident.

The influences of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin reflect heavily in Smith’s work. “Counting Descent” echoes “Invisible Man” through its ideas on identity and power, as each poem strains against unfair expectations, violence and self-doubt that plague Black youth, despite the progress made since the 20th century. The epigraph from Ellison also introduces the relationship between protest and artistic expression. Smith explores this dichotomy in two poems alluding to Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” ultimately concluding that we cannot separate literature from political advocacy. This theme brilliantly unifies the collection, as Smith critiques the lionization of slave-owning presidents, microaggressions middle-class black students receive and the criminalization of black bodies.

Bottom line: If you loved “The Hate U Give,” “The New Jim Crow” or any work detailing modern-day struggles African-Americans face, then read this. “Counting Descent” lambasts the notion of “post-racial society,” which washed over the American populace after Obama’s triumph in 2008. The collection serves as a cathartic read for those who lost their innocence to systemic discrimination. “Counting Descent” is a poignant addition to the Black literary canon.