Booked: Learning How to Be a Black Man in America, with Mychal Denzel Smith

Booked: Learning How to Be a Black Man in America, with Mychal Denzel Smith

An interview with Mychal Denzel Smith about his book, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, and why the language of universalism is not going to solve all of our problems.

(Courtesy of Nation Books)

Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this special podcast edition, Tim spoke with Mychal Denzel Smith about his new book, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching (Nation Books, 2016). Use the player to listen to a recording of their conversation, or read an edited version below.

Timothy Shenk: This is a story of your education and how you learned to be a black man in America. You say that a crucial part of that education began with Boondocks. Why?

Mychal Denzel Smith: Boondocks is a comic strip by Aaron McGruder I found when I was fifteen. Reading it was a huge part of my political awakening. This was just after 9/11, so McGruder was going after politicians pushing the Iraq war, so Bush and Cheney, but also there were references to the Reagan era, the first Bush era, the politics of crack distribution, Iran-Contra. I had no familiarity with this history, but it made me want to read more. To me, that speaks to the different entry points that people have. Comic strips and music were important for me. However it happens, it is important to have your worldview challenged. The Boondocks provided me with a black radical perspective.

Shenk: In a way, the best thing education can do is to force you to question previously unexamined premises. But for you the ground had been prepared by early encounters with a figure who looms large in your account: Malcolm X. How did he fit into this?

Smith: Malcolm X was always around. My dad kind of looked like him. My parents were pretty much apolitical in that they didn’t talk about politics in the household. My dad was in the Navy, served under Democratic and Republican presidents, and never said a bad word about either one. My mother was keen on me learning black history but not translating it into any formalized politics. But Malcolm X is around in part because Spike Lee’s Malcolm X film came out in 1992, which was part of a resurgence of interest in him as a figure and political thinker. My dad had the X hat, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I did my second grade Black History project on Malcolm X.

Shenk: You made someone cry!

Smith: When I was in the middle of giving my report, the teacher made me stop because some white kids were crying. What I was saying about Malcolm X made them afraid. My presentation about this militant black man who has this incisive critique of white supremacy and a gun was too much for kids who had only learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. They had been primed to look at black people and see these shining, bright faces of hope and American exceptionalism.

Shenk: Music is a really important part of the book. A little bit after seven, you discovered hip hop. What did that teach you?

Smith: Hip hop is part of a black literary tradition. I’m a writer because of listening to the way rappers put together words and structure stories. But also the stories they were telling were important. I was listening to a lot of “conscious rap”—so Talib Kweli, Common, Mos Def. I first heard of Dubois’s Souls of Black Folk because of Kweli.

Shenk: Mos Def gives the book its title.

Smith: Even outside that conscious sphere, Jay-Z is a sociologist in the ways he breaks down the surroundings that created him as a hustler and as a drug dealer, and what it means for him to accumulate wealth. When he sits at the table with a mayor or goes to the White House, it’s meaningful because he comes from Marcy Projects in Bed-Stuy, where despair is the order of the day. He’s saying to the people still in that situation, I’m here to represent you and your interests. Now, does he always? No. There’s no way he’s representing the interests of the disenfranchised and the impoverished when signing off on Barclay’s Center. He falls in with a tradition of black politics that does have a capitalist bent. Hip hop is a battleground for those ideas. It also opens up conversations around gender and around masculinity. What does all the posturing mean and why is it so meaningful to these rappers? Why is it important for some to denigrate and downgrade women and to separate themselves from queer identity? What’s happening in this space where people are finding identity and presenting that to the world?

Shenk: That’s something I liked most about the book—your ability to learn from your inspirations by disagreeing with them. Another one of those complicated inspirations for you was Kanye West. What did you see in him?

Smith: I had been a fan of Kanye’s music and production since The Blueprint in 2001 with Jay-Z, and then his first album as a rapper, The College Dropout, came out right as I’m about to start college. But the moment that crystallizes him as a political figure is Hurricane Katrina. Our government is doing next to nothing to respond, the networks host a celebrity telethon, and Kanye says: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Watching it I thought, when was the last time, on national television, that a black person levied a critique against the American government in such a direct way? In a moment that’s supposed to be apolitical, Kanye blows the lid off of that in a way that was so powerful to watch. After civil rights, the Black Power era, and then the professionalizing of the civil rights class, black politics was really being shaped by a few mainstream, nationally recognized leaders, like Al Sharpton, or Jesse Jackson, or Louis Farrakhan.

Shenk: It seems like that old guard never really connected with you.

Smith: They’re being challenged now, and in a way they’re not stepping up. Kanye represented that shift away from the old guard, and not even just the old political guard. Hip hop had been depoliticized so much within the mainstream context, that he was offering a challenge not just to America but to the folks who were garnering that kind of media attention: if they’re going to put the cameras and microphones in our faces, he was expressing, we have an obligation to say something. What’s so tragic about that is, a decade later, you put those same cameras in front of Kanye, and I don’t know what’s coming out. I don’t want to psychoanalyze him, so many people already try to do that, but I think he wasn’t prepared to step into the role of political leader. Now he mostly speaks about racism in terms of how it affects him personally. But that doesn’t take away from the meaning of that moment in 2005 or the fact that he has produced music that has been challenging and meaningful.

Shenk: As important as all the people we’ve discussed so far are to the book, the most significant has to be Barack Obama. The books starts when you’re first hearing about him in 2004. What were your first impressions?

Smith: After the DNC speech in 2004, everyone was enamored with Obama and I just didn’t get it. In that speech he talked about uniting the country, but in the process erased American racism. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the Unites States of America,” he said, as if somehow the divisions were not based on systemic disenfranchisement and oppression but people choosing to separate ourselves because of our differences. I was not impressed. I was not hearing him tell America the truth about itself, and that was disheartening. On the other hand, you go and see him in person, and it is awe-inspiring. His oratory skills are impeccable. Also, I never believed there would be a black president. There is a level of progress to be noted there, but how much progress?

Shenk: You started college a few months after Obama’s 2004 DNC speech. In the book you say that it was like encountering thousands of mini Obamas. What did that feel like?

Smith: I went to Hampton, which is a historically black college in southeast Virginia. Booker T. Washington went there, and that’s representative of their mission, which is assimilation, essentially. The education was focused on making students respectable and presentable to the white capitalist class, and lots of students on campus were buying into that. But it doesn’t matter what we wear, how we speak, or what we produce, we’ll always be denigrated. If black people were all to pull up our pants and wear three-piece suits every single day, suddenly that would be the attire of a thug. That’s the way blackness operates.

Over and over again Obama is saying to the nation that there’s basically nothing wrong, black people just need to get their stuff together. It’s harmful because of his position in history, and because his microphone is so much bigger than the rest of ours. If someone tries to counter him by pointing to the way in which the criminal justice systems operates, or the way in which budgets are built on the backs of black people in Ferguson, St. Louis County, the response is: but Barack Obama said. . . . He has nodded to the history, but he has fallen short of a real critique. I don’t expect it from him. He is the American president, he’s not going to critique the system that makes him possible. But we fall short if we deify him and get wrapped up in the narrative of progress that his presidency offers.

Shenk: Do you have a sense of how students coming in today might approach these questions? You and I are about the same age—do you think there’s been a shift in temperament since we were in school?

Smith: We can see quite a bit of that shift in terms of student activism, not even just around issues of racism. The current organizing around rape on campus is very different from Take Back the Night. Before it had to do with personal behavior, and now it’s a questioning of institutions. Current campus rape activists are saying to their universities: you’re not doing enough to protect us.

Shenk: There’s a long passage you quote in full in the book from Obama’s 2008 Philadelphia speech on race and racism:

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community, most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel like they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience. As far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage and landing a good job, or spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told their fears about crimes in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

You describe this passage as a false equivalency and I can understand why it would grate, but reading this today it seems like a good starting point for a diagnosis of Trumpism.

Smith: It’s a diagnosis for the feeling, but it does not examine the falsehoods that prop up that sentiment. There’s an economically disadvantaged class of white people that have real grievances, but the idea that their race doesn’t privilege them is just false. We can trace the history of the way in which programs meant for poor people in this country have worked. JFK, when he’s running for president, goes to Appalachia, sees these poor white people, and responds by creating the modern welfare system. But when black people start getting access to it, suddenly we’re talking about welfare cheats and welfare queens, and slashing the programs. The idea that race doesn’t give poor white people any advantage doesn’t stand up. If you’re black and poor, you have even less, and you have even less access to these programs. In terms of jobs going overseas, it’s not as if they were taken away by black people. Meanwhile, those jobs that offered black people access to a middle-class lifestyle are being gutted, in part because a lot of those jobs were in the public sector. There’s still more opportunities for white working-class people who have their jobs shipped overseas than there are for black working-class and poor people affected by government budgets being slashed. In the private sector, it’s more likely you’ll get a callback if you’re a white person with a criminal record than if you’re a black person without one. So the sentiment Obama described in 2008 is real, but he doesn’t acknowledge all of the factors that contribute to it. Donald Trump is the backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama, to the Dreamers, to Occupy Wall Street, to Black Lives Matter, because he speaks to that resentment and offers solutions based in xenophobia and racism. The problem is that those of us on the left haven’t offered a program that speaks to that feeling. We haven’t figured out how to address the xenophobia and racism. We’re trying to protect people’s feelings and reassure them they’re not racist, even when they are.

Shenk: You quote a line from James Baldwin “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Do you see the Trump campaign as an example of what this kind of politics looks like when white people take it up for themselves?

Smith: Absolutely. I believe in the legitimacy of anger. I recognize that white rage is borne of something and it is a real sentiment, and that particularly for white working-class and poor people, it is representative of the lack of opportunity and the precarity of their situation. That is not something to be dismissed as trivial. That is to be addressed by whatever programs we’re implementing and how we’re upending the system and instituting a new one. But black political rage has always been rooted in the truth of our experience and the truth of the American experience by virtue of examining the systems for what they are. White rage and anger, on the other hand, so often has been rooted in the desire to protect entitlement and to deny others’ humanity, which we see in the Trump moment.

Shenk: What did you make of the Sanders campaign’s failure to make more headway with African-American voters?

Smith: The campaign was disproportionately white, and outside of Killer Mike and Nina Turner, there weren’t many black spokespeople. Part of that has to do with a failure on the part of white socialists and Marxists, that’s been happening for quite some time, to get beyond a class critique. Bernie Sanders’s campaign failed in the same way that so many others had.

Shenk: But he made the effort.

Smith: He did when he was pushed to do so. At first he was just hammering home that class analysis, without acknowledging the ways in which blackness itself can be experienced as class. Even though there are class divisions within black communities, blackness itself can operate in a way that rich black people can have similar experiences to poor black people. How do you speak to that with your class analysis?

Shenk: Do you think we’ve learned from this experience? It’s one of the oldest questions in American politics, but do you think that after Sanders, whatever movement comes next will do more to hold race and class together in the same frame at the same time?

Smith: I think there’s been an opportunity to discuss the ways in which forms of oppression are intertwined. Jesse Myerson and I wrote a piece about an economic program for Black Lives Matter, and most of our suggestions were not explicitly about racial oppression, like baby bonds. It wouldn’t be a program explicitly for black children born into poverty; it would be for all children. Something like that does ameliorate poverty, which disproportionately impacts black people. There are pieces of socialist agenda and class analysis that would benefit black people if implemented correctly. The problem is not acknowledging that, even in socialist formations, racial divisions can then be reinscribed. The language of universalism is not going to solve all of our problems.

Shenk: You don’t talk about it much in the book, but working on this memoir must itself have been a kind of education—maybe the last stage in becoming the writer you are today. How did the book change you?

Smith: I struggled through the first half of this book, in part because in the beginning, I didn’t know what my mission was. Then I traveled to Ferguson for the one-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown, and it became clear. Being there, the day of the anniversary, the police shooting another young black man and the streets erupting in protest once again, and witnessing that scene—it came together. I realized what I was trying to do was articulate a new politics for the time period we’re in, and to offer something for the next generation to have and to question and to work through for themselves, particularly for young black men. There’s a canon of black male literature—Native Son, Invisible Man, Black Boy, The Fire Next Time, and now Ta-Nehisi’s Between the World and Me—and these books are handed down to black boys of a certain age who are told: this is what articulates your experience here in America, this is what you need to know. Knowing that my book would enter into dialogue with all of those other books, I realized the question was: what’s missing from that tool kit of survival that we’re giving black boys? What did I not know at seventeen that I wish I would’ve known then? That question helped me dive deeper into subjects that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. It made me do a lot of work on the chapter of sexuality and homophobia, because that’s something I never had to wrestle with. Those are subjects that, generally, we’re not asking black men to deal with in these types of books. So that question made me delve deeper into my own self-interrogation, and do some loving critique of myself and my past self. I hope it’s useful for other people to read as they do that work themselves.

Mychal Denzel Smith is the author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching (Nation Books, June 2016), a Knobler Fellow at the Nation Institute, and a contributing writer for The Nation magazine.

Timothy Shenk is a graduate student in history at Columbia University and a Dissent contributing editor. He is the author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist.