Jun 13, 2016
Seeing The Invisible: Talking With Debut Memoirist Mychal Denzel Smith
Mychal Denzel Smith’s vital debut memoir Invisible Man, Got The Whole World Watching adopts its title from a song on Mos Def’s 1999 debut album Black On Both Sides. It’s the perfect metaphor for Smith to stand upon as a soapbox to speak on the duality of how black male identity is flattened, commodified, and consumed voraciously by the American masses. Check the ratings on this week’s NBA Finals or that ever-growing number below the frame on popular rap videos on YouTube for proof. But how many of those millions see those athletes and entertainers in their totality as individuals? How many of those millions see those ballplayers and rappers as the ones who were lucky enough not to be gunned down by police? Who sees the simultaneous consumption and destruction of black males? Those are the kinds of questions Smith, who we named one of Brooklyn’s 100 Cultural Influencers earlier this year, is asking.
Though it’s rooted in the familiar black male space of hip-hop, Invisible Man takes on the feel and scope of an epic socio-educational journey that is more akin to Lord of the Rings. Smith uses his personal experience as an American black male and turns inward interrogation and reflection outward, quickly expanding far beyond his experience, sparing no one with his critical eye. He examines how black men are failed, and how they fail themselves and the people around them. His view scans the blind spots of black male identity and perspective from all angles, critiquing their relationships with women, mental health, LGBTQ people, sexuality, celebrity, crime, violence, and a host of other aspects. He truly pushes himself and everyone around him to think more critically about black male identity, no matter what color race or creed, while ultimately successfully striking the balance of hope and honest criticism. Get a taste below.
What made you want to open with Trayvon as opposed to any of the other victims of police violence or in that case citizen violence?
Just the idea at the time being 25 years old watching a 17-year-old black boy have his life taken away and feeling so much guilt around my existence. If we’re going to trace back all of this period of sort of movement building I think that’s really the jump off point. He was killed in February of 2012. It’s reelection season for Obama. The 2012 campaign is in full swing. A lot of young black people showed up voting for Obama for the first time. The veil of hope just sort of fell in that moment, and it really refocused everyone. The idea of collective struggle resurfaced then.
I liked how you painted a real picture of who Trayvon actually was instead of flattening his identity to the kind of symbolic figure that we’ve made him into. What made you want to keep it kind of critical in looking at who he was as a person and then zoom out from that critical lens?
The thing is I didn’t know Trayvon. All that I know about this young man comes from the people who have survived–his mother, his father, his brother–who have been kind enough to tell us who Trayvon was. Even Rachel Jeantel, his friend who took the stand. We don’t know who Trayvon was, and that’s sort of the question. Did Trayvon even know who he was? If he didn’t, now he doesn’t get a chance to find out because of what George Zimmerman did to him. I got a chance that Trayvon and Michael Brown did not. What ideas would they encounter outside of just the racism that they were going to experience? Trayvon presumably was heterosexual. Rachel Jeantel was talking about the way that he talked to girls. What would his interactions with women would have been like being raised in a culture of misogyny, rape culture, all of that? Would he have been able to navigate that? Would he have been able to recognize what most of us don’t? It’s tricky territory, especially with martyrs, people that become the symbols of movements. But if we’re going to say I don’t want what happened to Trayvon to happen to anyone else, that’s beautiful, let’s work toward that.
You brought up a little bit about being brought up in a misogynistic culture, and then going into rap with the deep history of misogyny there, how much onus do you think should be placed on rap for how other races view young black men?
The very first sentence of the book is doing a lot of work because it’s juxtaposing the way the world is consuming black bodies in one respect as a form of entertainment, and then killing them on the other hand. Black men are going to be flattened and consumed. That is not going to be representative of the entire experience. There’s a truth that rappers are expressing. They’re representing the truth of the experience. There’s fantasy as well. We know that not all as rich as they report to be, etc. But even that is a truth of aspiration. We can’t place the blame on black men in rap music simply because if it wasn’t rap music it’s going to be something else that people use as justification for oppression. It’s always funny to me when people are like, ‘Well if the rappers weren’t doing this there would be a level of respect bestowed upon us.’ There never has been. They arrested Marcus Garvey. They basically drove Du Bois out. People were fighting King, they were slapping him in the face, stabbing him, throwing him in jail. He was one of the most hated men in America. It has nothing to do with rap music.
You express a lot of reverence for the school series era Kanye, but seeing what he’s either evolved or devolved into (contingent upon your perspective), what do you think he means as a black man and black artist currently?
I think Kanye has always been this guy. There’s something different in his expression and experience. When we get introduced to Kanye he’s hungry and hustling, he’s still very arrogant, but not super rich at that point. So his perspective on race and class are shaped by experience that sort of a middle/working class-ish black person from the suburbs of Chicago being raised by race conscious parents. You know: ‘Racism still alive they just be concealing it’ and ‘The white man get paid off of all of that.’ But because of Kanye’s artistic output and acceptance, then by those same institutions that he was challenging before, he finds himself in new spaces that he hasn’t quite learned how to navigate yet. He’s just all over the place because he can’t make sense of it all himself. Who could, honestly? He will disappoint you, like when he tweets Bill Cosby is innocent, and I think that’s sort of an understanding that we have to have of all of our heroes and all of our artistic icons.
What do you think his legacy will be when we look back on it?
I can’t erase the impact that Kanye has had on me. Him being so brash, so confident, demanding not only respect but recognition that he feels he deserves on an artistic level. He is sort of obsessed with whiteness in a way. Like why won’t they give me my own clothing line? Why do you need them to give you your clothing line? I can understand his thought behind that, but then it’s sort of one of those things that’s disappointing. His increasingly vile misogyny is disappointing. We’re not in a place to measure exactly what his impact has been or is going to be. Drake is not possible if Kanye didn’t do what he did. Kendrick kind of occupies the space that Kanye did at one point with the experiments on political consciousness, but straddling that line of pop and stuff. So it’s interesting to see Kanye still try to be relevant when there are new guys doing what he did.
In the same vein, you gave us a window into how you processed Obama’s first election, and you looked at him through a very critical lens as well. I know what he’s been to black people and the whole country symbolically, but also what he’s actually done politically and socially. How do you hope that balance will be struck?
I think in the most immediate future it’s going to be laudatory. Look at all of the wonderful things that he did as the president, all of the achievement he had in the face of this recalcitrant Republican congress racism, death threats. Look how he came on the other side of that. And that’s a grand achievement to be the first black president of a country that imported African people here, enslaved them, and made them build everything and all the infrastructure we still use. But we have this tendency to deify, and Obama is not perfect. The way he’s talked to black people especially has been less than stellar. If we don’t ever reach that point where we’re having that nuanced conversation it’s going to be one of those situations of Dr. King where 50 years later we have to do all of the historical correction and things. I can’t say what his legacy will be. Like if you’re ten years old all you know is Barack Obama as president. I don’t know what kind of impact that has. But at the same time, if you’re a ten-year-old Pakistani kid, your only experience of an American president is black. We’re going to have to be honest quickly if we’re going to produce another successful black politician that is representative of the new form of politics that we’re pushing now.
I was glad you were critical because I think in the same way you can flatten a Trayvon down you can crunch an Obama up. I think of that scene in Do The Right Thing where the pizza shop owner says Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy, and Prince aren’t black like they’ve evolved past race.
That’s exactly what they’re trying to do to Muhammad Ali right now. He transcended race right? As if that’s not the center of what his experience was, being a black man. That’s going to happen with Obama as well, the ways in which he transcended race. How much transcending of race can you do when there was a whole movement formed in response to your blackness?
Speaking of athletes, you talk about Lebron James, The Decision, and his response to Trayvon. If you think athletes had more of an individual voice to speak up on activist causes, do you think that would ultimately help with the view of how the next generation of black men will be viewed coming up?
I think use your freedom when you’re in a position like LeBron’s where he just signed a lifetime Nike deal. If you or I lose our jobs tomorrow for speaking up on something, that’s destitution. Recognize that Michael Jordan model where it’s shut up and cash the checks is not one that you have to follow. We’re entering into the phase where LeBron’s going to start diminishing physically. He’s not going to be as dominant or popular. Will there be other players who step up? I don’t know if they’re all interested in the way LeBron has been. There are always athletes who are activists, but we don’t hear about them much because they’re not the most popular. The most popular follow the MJ model. LeBron hasn’t done that. There’s no one who can say that LeBron has been silent. I wonder if NBA players after him will further the example he’s set. I wonder if we’ll see NFL players step up in that way. The celebrity is built differently in football, but there’s a space for that. Will we see white athletes step up and become activists, and talk about privilege and race and all of these things? I’m hopeful, but I’m cautiously hopeful.
Just like you’ve brought up in your book, we’ve only been talking about black men up to this point. So what made you realize you had to step outside of black male influences to address black women, and devote the pages that you did in your book to the plight of the black woman in relation to how the country sees the black male?
It’s just time. So many of us let ourselves off the hook by saying that’s not me though, I’m not a rapist. I’m not Bill Cosby. I’m not Chris Brown. I didn’t hit a woman. I wouldn’t do that. Well that doesn’t account for all of the other ways in which you’ve harmed women, unknowingly maybe, but in some instances definitely knowingly by virtue of having a value system in place that you have not questioned. Just because it’s not you personally doesn’t mean that you don’t take responsibility for the oppression that these women are facing at the hands of people that look like you. What responsibility are you taking when your boys are talking about fucked up things and they’re cat-calling women on the street, or their grabbing them? What responsibility are you taking? By not acting, you’re saying you’re okay with that. It’s time for a shift. I can’t in good conscience write a book about black male identity and not ensure that was a huge part of it.
Stemming from that, I thought Beyonce beautifully shifted the narrative away from black males with Lemonade [Editor’s note: If you haven’t read Collin’s piece on Lemonade, do. It’s excellent]. What are your thoughts on how important that album was and how she framed it from real or fictional events of her personal relationship and how she broadened it out to speak on all black womanhood?
I think it’s the most important artistic statement of Beyonce’s career. Beyonce hasn’t been getting credit for the politicizing work that she’s been doing. We were just calling it into question at every turn like is she really a feminist? Does she have space to appropriate the Black Panthers because she’s a capitalist? How are you not appreciating what it is she’s done right now? She’s standing up and telling the world not only that she’s not transcending race or gender. She’s embracing both of those parts of her identity, and what they mean to her. And she’s doing it in a particular Southern black tradition. All of that is meaningful, and you have to embrace those parts of her as well if you are a Beyonce fan, because that’s who she is, that’s what made her. She’s collapsing what we would generally try to make disparate black woman identities, like playing with history and sexuality and her marriage and motherhood and all of these different things that we want to separate out and make competing ideas–like you can’t be a mother and sexual at the same time. These are all a part of one’s story. I think it’s so critical. As much as you jam to it, I hope that everyone, and particularly black men, are digesting that album and witnessing the capacity for black women’s rage and sorrow and forgiveness and being like okay what are we doing on the other side of that?
You go into black mental health with Ron Artest and your own experience with panic attacks. I think that’s a huge conversation that no one is really touching on. Mental health has been a hot button issue for a while now so you see a lot of thinkpieces about it, but as far as black mental health–and the lack thereof–I think that’s a gaping hole conversation-wise. I know it was personal to you and that’s why you wrote it into your story, but framing it into the larger societal context had to be hard because there aren’t that many examples of people doing it. So how did you navigate weaving your personal story into the larger framework?
So that chapter is the most personal chapter in terms of the stories that are being told. It’s deliberate because I don’t think black men tell these stories. I wanted that experience on record. It’s only one experience, but I wanted people to sort of get into the mind of who I was and where I was and what I was experiencing. To move it out though is to simply interrogate why I felt so alone in that moment? It’s also a challenge for us where part of that is inheriting a model of masculinity that preaches that strength is not having any mental problems whatsoever. For us it’s like: If we can make it through that with just our grit and resilience and Jesus, why would I need to turn to anything else to survive a mental health breakdown?
You touched on this a bit with your mention of cisgender heterosexuality, but black folks’ relationship with the LGBTQ movement is complex. Black folk get offended when people try to liken it to the struggles they’ve gone through, and I understand where they’re coming from because you can kind of conceal being gay–though you shouldn’t have to–in a way that you can’t just erase your skin color. I constantly think about the relationship between the two movements and how they can help each other from an ally standpoint. What are your thoughts on how they relate and how they can aid each other?
The problem with that is the erasure of black LGBT folks who are at the intersection of that and asking what am I supposed to do with this? Then parsing out that L-G-B are sexuality and T is gender identity, it’s not as simple as just black folks want this and LGBT folks want that. We all just live at the intersection of various identities. I think black people get upset about civil rights language being transposed onto other movements, but “civil rights” is white language in the first place. There’s this speech from James Baldwin, I think in 1979 or so speaking at UC Berkeley. He’s talking about how “civil rights” is a meaningless phrase. We’re mad about this language that we have found meaning in and adopted as our own being taken by other movements that we think don’t represent us. I think you’re discounting an existence of black LGBT folks and accepting the terms that have already been forced upon us. The other side is that white mainstream LGBT movements have plenty of racists within them and any black LGBT person will tell you that. There’s so much here that to try to delineate those things as if they are separate is to act like there is only one experience per person. We can’t do that. We have to embrace it all.
The book still comes across hopeful to me. It’s not overly cynical. I could still feel your wheels turning toward being hopeful. I don’t want to ask how you want the book to perform because every writer wants to sell a crazy amount of books, but in terms of hopefulness and impact what do you want it to do?
It’s funny you say that. I didn’t feel so hopeful when I was writing it. But I’m not as cynical as I once was. I’m more of an optimist. I’m more open. I don’t want to conflate those two terms and ideas necessarily. What I hope is that this serves as a catalyst for new conversations around black male identity along with the recognition that this book is not complete. And that we have to have other questions be asked and other folds doing the answering, and other folks writing more books that don’t come from the perspective of another cisgender heterosexual black male. Where are the gay black men? Where are the gender nonconforming? Where are folks from impoverished backgrounds? All the different things that help make up ones identity can relate back to us breaking down what black male identity looks like. Not just black male identity either, I’m just focusing on that because that’s the book that I wrote, but really it’s about pushing people in way that I’ve been pushed to hopefully get them to push someone else in a new way and get the dominoes to start falling. I think people are ready for it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Invisible Man, Got The Whole World Watching is out tomorrow, 6/14. Get it here.
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