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Mychal Denzel Smith’s “Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: a Young Black Man’s Education”

Perhaps this is cause for optimism. As racism in the United States has gotten worse, young black intellectuals are unafraid to express their outrage at America’s original sin. A year ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates published Between the World and Me, the writer’s explanation (among other things) of why young black men are so fearful of life in the United States. Coates’s brilliant examination of race in the United States has remained near the top of the best-seller lists for the better part of a year. I take that as an encouraging sign, in spite of the ugly Republican racist campaign for the Presidency we are currently undergoing. Some of Coates’s readers must certainly have had their eyes opened, begun to look beyond the surface of racism in the United States.

Mychal Denzel Smith’s Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education shares a number of similarities with Coates’ work but it also moves in other important directions. Both men are barely thirty, both attended Historically Black Universities (and neither finished their degrees), both entered the field of journalism and had the fortune of seeing their work published in major outlets (The Atlantic, for Coates, and The Nation, for Smith). It is to the credit of both of these publications that they recognized these young men’s talents, their ability to write about difficult topics during the Obama years. Remember how Obama’s presidency was supposed to usher in a post-racial era? Well, that hope was pretty much shattered the day of his first inauguration.

This is the way Smith sees Obama’s situation: “He did everything. He studied hard. He went to Harvard. He got married. He had children. He worked. He dreamed big. He pulled his bootstraps all the way up from his humble beginnings to the presidency. He invisiblemanwatchlived the American Dream. And he was called an African witch doctor. People asked for his birth certificate. A congressman shouted at him “YOU LIE!” He faced the most recalcitrant Republican Congress ever that was elected by a constituency that wanted to ‘take the country back.’ If a black man can be elected as guardian of the American dream, do exactly that, and still not be shielded from racism, what hope is supposed to be left?” Worse, how can Barack Obama be a symbol of hope for young African-Americans?

You wonder. You weep. No surprise that so many of us feel defeated. My wife keeps saying that she wonders how Obama can get to sleep each night.

Smith writes about three areas that Coates left untouched (he had his own burdens to unpack): African-American males’ treatment of black women, African-American attitudes toward homosexuality, and African-American responses to mental health. All of these are tied into Smith’s role as black writer and his surprise that he has become one. “To be a writer is to bear witness. To be a black writer is to bear witness to tragedy. In order to be honest and good, this is something I can’t escape.” To this he adds, “That job—bearing witness—is often at odds with my other job—as a black man—which is to survive by any means necessary.” Coates says this similarly.

But then, Smith makes this bold statement, using the racial slur of the oppressor:

“The nigger is America’s greatest asset and its biggest fear. The nigger represents the bottom, from slavery to incarceration, America’s most reliable source of exploited labor. The nigger generates profit that America feels no obligation to share. The nigger is reminded of its position at the bottom by being shuttered off in the worst neighborhoods with the least amount of resources, while being told to be grateful for America’s benevolence. And so long as the nigger exists, America can say to its other exploited populations, ‘At least you aren’t the nigger.’”

See how useful that is? How satisfying to white America, especially those very people who have turned Donald Trump into their messiah?

Smith says that he survived this humiliating context in large part because of black women, confessing at the same time that he took advantage of them. Of the female student at Hampton who helped him the most to become a journalist, he confesses, “I reaped the benefits of her emotional and intellectual labor without ever asking how I could support her. I barely said ‘thank you.’ She was there, making time for me…through her tough schedule to maintain straight As and all her postgraduation concerns of my emotional distance. She was there. She saw me. It fills me with deep regret that I’m unable to say the same.” And then the most important sentence in his book: “There isn’t a man alive who hasn’t abused a woman in some way.”

It takes incredible courage and self-awareness to make an observation like that. As I reread the sentence a number of times, I couldn’t help thinking of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son. I understand why he killed Mary Dalton, but I will never forgive him for Bessie’s murder. Even that’s an easy observation. Although Smith is writing about black men and their treatment of black women, that sentence is not related to ethnicity. It’s about all men, myself included.

If Smith is hard-hitting about black male treatment of black females, he is equally harsh about African Americans’ treatment of homosexuals. His explanation for this, however, is profound: “In one way, the strong desire for this traditional family structure among black Americans makes sense. For a people who have historically had their families destroyed because they were considered property and sold away at the discretion of a slave owner, and later through state-sanctioned violence and economic depravement, the longing for the bonds of family are deep, true, and unwavering.” In order to change this, he believes the concept of what constitutes a family will need to undergo a major correction, not an easy change for many to accept but necessary if we are ever going to break the negative stigma about homosexuality. “We haven’t been brave enough to love the black gay men who have invited us in [to understand their perspective]. We’ve attempted to define them out…. But we can change.”

Finally, Smith tackles issue of mental health. Unlike Coates who reveres Howard and writes warmly of it as the Mecca, his Mecca, Smith’s years at Hampton did not run so smoothly. As editor of the student newspaper, he rattled the authorities who thought they knew better. As he threw himself into activist journalism during his senior year, he cut too many classes, became suicidal, and drank heavily. He’s particular critical of mental health as it is typically applied to black people. How can it be any surprise that mental health attitudes of the political class simply don’t get it? “Black people of all ages and genders are walking around with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and survivor’s guilt without anywhere to turn.” How can this be a surprise to white America? When will we finally understand this?

All of these remarks are tied together by Smith’s return to President Obama: “…how America periodically issues violent reminders that its niggers are still niggers.” If this is what the country does to its first black president, what hope for all the others? Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching is a brutally honest book, exactly what is needed in our ever-to-be-delayed postponement of a serious dialogue about race in the United States. To pick up Smith’s title metaphor, echoing Ralph Ellison’s great novel, Invisible Man, America persists in treating its largest minority as if they are invisible. Even a black president didn’t change that.

Anything more hopeless than that?

Mychal Denzel Smith: Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education

Nation Books, 2490 pp., $25.99

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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