Watching the World: A Young Black Man's Memoir Turns the Lens in Two Directions

Taking shape: Smith cites influences from Mos Def to Aaron McGruder.EXPAND
Taking shape: Smith cites influences from Mos Def to Aaron McGruder.
Jesse Dittmar

What times we are living in. The number, horror, and apparent senselessness of police shootings of defenseless African Americans are exhausting our ability to convey our grief and outrage. A statement as simple and self-evident as "black lives matter" meets with indignation, and the specter of a Trump presidency makes these days still more frightening and infuriating.

Self-evident, too, are many of the ways that all of this is harming the black community. Less obviously harmful is the way these dark days encourage a closing of ranks, a dismissal of any criticism from within the community as being, at best, beside the point and, at worst, traitorous in a time of war. This means that Mychal Denzel Smith, a Nation magazine writer born in 1986, is particularly brave in choosing this moment to publish his memoir, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man's Education.

In the book — which borrows its title from hip-hop lyrics by Mos Def, which in turn reference the Ralph Ellison novel — Smith describes the shaping of his consciousness by public figures, works, and events: from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to the Mos Def album Black on Both Sides (which, he writes, was something "like a religious experience for me"); from Kanye West's famous criticism of George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina to LeBron James's call for justice after the killing of Trayvon Martin; from the murder of Smith's hero Tupac Shakur to the rise of Barack Obama. In doing so, the author traces the political education that has readied him to oppose systemic racism and simultaneously apply some tough love to the African-American community.

To be clear, Smith is fiercely pro-black. He enrolled in historically black Hampton University with the aim of becoming a "Black Leader," a role that, with just the right touch of self-deprecation, he claims to have realized he was unsuited for ("the pressure was never good for my anxiety") as he made his way to activism by way of journalism. His self-criticism is sometimes funny: By his second year of college, he writes, he'd learned to stop judging his peers "based on whether they also had an unread copy of Wretched of the Earth lying around."

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In that same spirit, when Smith takes members of the black community to task for certain prejudices and shortcomings, he begins, honestly and poignantly, with himself. In turning the lens on homophobia among African Americans and on the second-class status assigned to women in the black liberation struggle, he focuses first on his own past failures, acknowledging having been "afraid of someone believing I was gay" and having taken for granted his brilliant, emotionally supportive college girlfriend. And, in calling for greater acknowledgment of struggles with mental illness among blacks, he discusses his past reluctance to confront his own bouts of anxiety and depression and asks, "What would happen if we reframed the way we understand black male life in a way that took mental health seriously?" What makes these stances wise, of course, beyond their moral components, is that a community with equally empowered members is a stronger one — key, at a time when that community needs all hands on deck.

This engaging, very readable book isn't perfect. At moments Smith's rhetoric soars so high that it loses contact with ground control. George Zimmerman "didn't spring forth from the womb seeing young black men in hoodies as assholes that always get away," Smith writes. "America taught him that." So far, so good, but soon America is identified not only as a breeding ground for racist killers but as a killer itself, one that uses violence to "send a message...that it's actually better to be a nigger than to live free." Yes, the killings of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, and too many others to list here are symptoms of an urgent problem on a massive scale, but the trouble with identifying America as the animating spirit behind it all — a sort of Unholy Ghost — is that while we may seem to get at the heart of the matter, we end up clutching air. If America is the true culprit, whom do we indict?

A book that touches on the challenges facing black America cannot avoid mention of our first black president, who comes in for some harsh treatment here. Smith acknowledges the racial and political constraints within which Obama is forced to work, but then blames him for working within them. About the then-candidate's celebrated 2008 "A More Perfect Union" speech — which sought to calm fears, after the airing of controversial remarks by his former pastor, that Obama was really an angry black man in disguise — Smith writes, "It was brilliant in the way political maneuvering is brilliant. As a statement on racism in America, however, that shit was straight garbage." (Or was that garbage straight shit?) The speech, he notes, reflected Obama's understanding that "an Angry Black Man could never be elected president." Smith's frustration over what he sees as palpable tonal compromise is understandable; still, his criticism might be better focused on an electorate that makes such placating necessary.

Finally, at the sentence level, the book has moments of plain old sloppiness. Smith writes about listening to Kanye's music while at work: "[H]is raps about gold diggers and diamonds from Sierra Leone were helping to keep me sane while pushing apples and bananas to Walmart's sales floor at 7 a.m." Rap can be moving, but I have yet to see it move apples and bananas.

Mainly, though, Smith's book inspires admiration. In addition to being gutsy, it's a fascinating look at the author's intellectual and political development. The "young black man's education" of the subtitle began, interestingly, with Aaron McGruder's comic strip The Boondocks, whose references to Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, and Huey Newton showed Smith whole worlds to explore. It is a pleasure to go exploring with him.


Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education
By Mychal Denzel Smith
240 pp., Nation Books


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