As a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute, Mychal Denzel Smith has become a crucial voice writing about politics, social justice and pop culture through the lens of black male identity. His highly-anticipated, forthcoming book Invisible Man: Got The Whole World Watching (Nation Books, 6/14) grapples with what it has meant for Smith, personally, to come of age as a black man during the presidency of Barack Obama.
When did you realize you first wanted to be a writer and cultural critic?
Ha, I’m still not sure I want to be a writer. I just don’t have any other skills. I’m mostly kidding. But I realized I was going to be a writer in college, when the things I wrote in the school paper pissed off the administration. The power of words became real to me then.
What was the first piece you wrote or published that felt like a personal milestone for you, and why?
It was my first piece for The Nation. I wanted to write for them since being introduced to the magazine in college. But I was conflicted because the piece was about Trayvon Martin. I didn’t like the idea of a professional milestone being tied to the death of a seventeen year-old black boy. Reflecting on it, though, it was the moment I realized my writing and activism would be one and the same. I took this on as responsibility, just as much as an art form and career.
Can you tell me a little bit about being a Knobler Fellow for The Nation, what that entails etc.?
The Nation Institute (separate from The Nation magazine) awards fellowships to journalists in order to support the kind of work that is challenging, unpredictable, adversarial, and truthful. I was lucky enough to have them offer me and support my work for the past three years. Their institutional support means I’m free to pursue the kind of work that’s meaningful to me without compromise.
Who are some writers and thinkers that had a major impact on your own philosophy and thinking?
I could spend all day answering this question. I think the best living writers are Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon, and Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. My first teacher was Malcolm X. Later I discovered James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks. Angela Davis and Naomi Klein. People I now call friends like Melissa Harris-Perry, Marc Lamont Hill, and Janet Mock. Many, many more.
How did you decide to focus on writing about race?
Here, I’ll quibble with the question just a bit: I don’t write about race. I become a pedant on this but I think the language we use is really important in framing these conversations. I write about racism, not race. And I think it’s important to draw a distinction there because I want to talk about the system of oppression as opposed to the social construct used to rationalize its existence. And that’s true of each of the forms of oppression I seek to address in my work. I don’t want to write about any of it. I really do wish I could spend my days watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and having sex (not necessarily at the same time, but if it can be managed, dream come true). I think the stakes are too high to ignore racism (heteropatriarchy, homophobia, capitalism, imperialism, transphobia). I write about it because I don’t know any other way to get free.
When did you decide to write a book, and what was that process like for you?
Very early in my career, I sat down with Marc Lamont Hill, who has been one of the most important mentors I’ve had, who told me my work was telling us what it means to be a young black man in America today and that I should write a book. I wasn’t ready then. It was literally the beginning of my freelance career, I’d only been publishing for a few months. But then on February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. From there I knew this book had to happen. As a writer, it was the best thing, spending so much time crafting something, pushing myself every step of the way. As a human, it was the worst thing, sending me into bouts of stifling self-doubt and depression. I think I’m better, as a writer and human, for having done it, though.
Now that you have a highly-anticipated book coming out, does that change your perception of your other blogging work?
I don’t know how highly-anticipated it is, but writing the book changed the way I look at other work. I wish everything that I write could be approached the way I did with the book. I wish I had the same kind of space and time to explore ideas, the contradictions within those ideas, to tease out the nuances, to challenge my own assumptions, and give the attention to the craft of sentence writing. The Internet, however, moves fast, and there isn’t the same level of patience. I’m trying to figure out now how to balance those.
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