Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education
Mychal Denzel Smith
Nation Books, 2016
I had just finished Mychal Denzel Smith’s book when I heard about the murder of Anton Sterling. At a bar that night with friends we talked about the latest killing not realizing that in a Twin Cities suburb another black man, Philando Castile, had just been murder by police. For the next week my Twitter timeline was a bizarre maelstrom of rage, resignation, calls to action, action, a blow back in the form of casual racism (ignorant platitudes and malicious slogans), solidarity, and not just hope for change but the ambition to make it happen.
Literature is how I make sense of the world. It allows me the space to think and the tools to reason and make sense of my emotions. If it weren’t for Smith’s book Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, then I wouldn’t have had the resource to cope with the brutality of these shootings and the easy bigotry engendering and proliferating them.
“Born in 1986, raised on multiculturalism and diversity, a millennial in every sense” reading Smith is like seeing a Millennial mirror of my ten year older GenX self. At turns a memoir and a deep cultural critique, Invisible Man is perhaps the best articulation of what Millennials are enduring. Smith knows his historical context “A conservative America was the only America I had ever known, and before 9/11 I didn’t think to question it” and routinely acknowledges his how personal limitations within it. By the book’s conclusion, Smith has effectively and convincingly made clear why “We must abandon the hierarchies. Our challenge is to take the spirit with which we have fought for black men–cisgender, heterosexual, class privileged, educated black men–and extend it to the fight for everyone else.” A challenge that extends beyond what our casual, immediate allegiances and alliances would demand from us.
In exploring how he “became a black man in America,” Smith digs deep into his own bias showing readers how “We re-create white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, class-based elitism, self-hatred, violence, and untreated mental illness in part because we have failed to ask the right questions about hoe to end them.” Smith asks himself “How did you learn to be a black man?” to get at the right questions. Invisible Man is a testament to a deep self exploration that creates something profound for not just the one but for all. I see myself in Smith even though I am a white, GenX-er because struggles and techniques overlap when you are attempting to become who you want to be and realize who you are. Smith writes “down some answers, for the martyrs and the tokens, for the Trayvons that could have been and are still waiting,” but like the deep honesty and intellectual rigor of bell hooks, his ‘answers’ are for anyone.
Reading Smith places the narrative beginning with himself entering college believing himself to be a future African-American leader. The household he was raised in created an environment where “Everything I read, listened to, and learned validated my right to existence as a black man in America” and attempted to ingrain in him the Baby Boomer notion “to always present oneself as being deserving of white people’s respect.” It is here that Smith locates the kernel of dissent. Respectability politics is taken down by Smith in a exacting and incisive manner, one that never spills over into vitriol but always maintains the acute and appropriate level of critique.
There is an unspoken tension between the Baby Boomer generation and the children it has spawn, GenX and Millennials. Boomers have dominated American culture for more that sixty years. It is nearly impossible to escape their grasp or come out from under its shadow both culturally and politically. This is because Boomers “mythologize the era” of their parents “as one of perfect nobility and virtue” forcing “Each subsequent generation” to live “in the shadow of comparison to ‘the Greatest Generation.'” I grew up with this lecture, with Boomers turning into World War II nuts and falling in step with the evangelizing epitomized by Tom Brokaw.
Smith tells of how “At 17, 18, 19, 20, I’d heard all about how my generation was not honoring the sacrifices made by the folks who faced down the police, and water hoses, and dogs, and left their blood in the streets hoping for freedom. We were squandering the opportunities they fought and died for, choosing only to think of ourselves and not the uplift of out communities.” This lecture by Boomers is painfully myopic especially given how Millennials like Smith are now “as a generation…standing up. We, as a generation, were ready to take on this fight” but are constantly being told in a classic example of doublespeak by Boomers “We, as a generation, were being told to fall back.” Smith accurately lays blame at the feet of respectability politics “If we, as a generation, were apathetic it was because out apathy was taught to us.”
But, again, Smith doesn’t merely blame. In fact, this barb is minor; it is only a means to get at something more significant. It is a kind of critique that is sobering because it is effectively the dissolution of hero worship and the unnerving realization of complicity in the mythos:
But your heroes aren’t to be questioned because it makes the creation of your own mythology that much easier. If you’ve only ever learned from right-thinking individuals, your own thinking must also always be right. Their shortcomings, then, would become your own, and no one wants to bear the weight of those shortcomings, least of all when your life has been defined through perceived deficiency. These black men were my guides through the minefield of identity when faced with racism. I was attracted to the bravado, to the reclamation of black excellence. I wanted to absorb their performance of black arrogance as a corrective to self-loathing. But what I hadn’t considered was how that ego was gendered
Here Smith takes himself to task, he shudders in the shame but then pivots to find the true heart of his (and our) shortcomings. He isolates gender and begins to explore just how varied and layered the struggles to break out of the uniquely American dichotomy of “Cog or killer” is. Also, we each hold a certain kind of privilege we’re often blind to allowing us to believe “you can set your own benchmarks for bigotry.”
Smith names himself as guilty, “It would be too generous to call me a reformed homophobe.” He digs into just how casually these benchmarks can be ingrained:
The playgrounds and basketball courts gave me the language. Anything and everything that was undesirable we called gay. The rules about when and how to take the ball out after a made shot were gay. The home base during tag was gay. Being assigned homework on the weekend was gay. The cafeteria not serving pizza was gay. And any person suspected of being gay, we called a faggot. And then we laughed. And then the person being called a faggot got angry. And you didn’t have to do much to be suspected. And you never really recovered from the charge, unless you could prove someone else was the faggot. And all of this made sense to us.
“And all of this made sense to us” is perhaps the refrain of patriarchy. Smith shows how homophobia diminishes not just the persecuted but the persecutor:
Unless we recognize that liberation for black men based in patriarchy and male dominance is liberation for no one, least of all black women, but not for black men either. It turns us into the very oppressors we claim to fighting against. It makes us deny parts of ourselves in service of an idea of masculinity that does more to destroy than build. Recognition is only a first step. Recognition is the easy part.
And once it is recognized, much like the ability to read, it can’t be turned off. We realize patriarchy denies us the full experience of the world forcing us to “miss out on tenderness, on the opportunity to forge bonds with one another on the basis of openness and compassion. We qualify out greetings, compliments, and affections for one another to ensure they aren’t read as sexual, and in the process cheapen them.” Here again respectability politics is revealed as ultimately reinforcing the hierarchies of white supremacy. None of these can bee seen or understood in isolation from one another. Smith is able to thread a narrative that moves seamlessly from one to another through his own person.
For example, the myth of absent black fathers which Smith identifies as “a patriarchal twist on the mythological magical negro.” It is the belief that “By their mere presence, black fathers could stem the devastating effects of oppression impose from the classroom to the workplace to the court system. If black men just showed up in the homes of their children–acted like men instead of boys–black families and communities would fortify themselves and our long-held problems would simply wither away.” But, as Smith points out, the fact that “women-led households are more likely to live in poverty speaks less to the necessity of fathers and more to the fact that a single income is no longer sufficient to support a family in this country, that our economy undervalues the work of women, and that outside child care is a prohibitively expensive luxury. An economic shift to real living wages for women’s labor and a total societal investment in the well-being of all children would solve a number of the problems we think are only alleviated by fathers.”
The myths are stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. They are routinely fabrications that seems real on the surface, easily accepted, but upon even the most cursory inspection fall apart. Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching doesn’t provide direct answers or solutions, but Smith has crafted a memoir/cultural critique that provides us with the language and the articulation to understand white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in which we are mired. Mychal Denzel Smith like DeRay McKesson infuses a perspicacious intellect into the deeply emotional experiences of our cultural hierarchies, which led to Anton Sterling and Philando Castile being murdered. His writing is not a comfort; it is a challenge I will strive towards.
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