Anyone who reads Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching will immediately want to talk to someone about the questions it raises. If you want to discuss the book with your book group, here are some questions to get the conversation started:
Q: Early in the book, Smith writes, “But your heroes aren’t to be questioned because it makes the creation of your own mythology that much easier. If you’ve only 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.” Who are the heroes that Smith questions in this book? Did any of his critiques surprise you? Did you find yourself automatically disagreeing with any of them? If so, why?
Q: In Chapter 2, Smith offers a long discussion of Kanye West’s unscripted pronouncement at NBC’s Hurricane Katrina telethon, A Concert for Hurricane Relief: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” This was a event that received a lot of attention and criticism in the media. Does Smith’s reaction to it match your own at the time? He quotes West’s words in their entirety. Do they match what you remember being covered in the news? Why does he place so much importance on them?
Q: Smith takes issue with the way he “was being groomed to be a credit to my race” in large part because it “meant the rejection of the stereotypes imposed on our psyches, that of the Angry Black Man chief among them. Nearly every black elder in my life stressed how important it was to keep my composure, whatever the situation, because being labeled an Angry Black Man was a punishment akin to death.” Why did Smith’s elders stress this? Why does Smith resist them?
Q: In Chapter 3, Smith compares how Dave Chapelle walked away from a lucrative Comedy Central contract for The Chapelle Show with Michael Jordan’s political neutrality and statement that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Whose side does he favor? Why?
Q: As editor of The Hampton Script, Hampton University’s student newspaper, Smith wanted to turn the paper’s coverage of the Jena 6 into a tool of political activism. The university administration pushed back. “This split didn’t cut clearly along generational lines, though,” Smith writes, “as evidenced by the fact that other HBCUs were able to get their rallies off the ground with full administrative support. It was ideological, Booker T. (Washington)’s legacy made real for the twenty-first century.” What is that legacy? Who was Booker T. Washington and what was his political philosophy? (For extended reading, check out the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, often anthologized as “Battle Royal.”)
Q: Smith writes, “For public relations purposes, it would be ideal if every victim of injustice was a person of impeachable character.” Why? What is he suggesting about the way we frame guilt and injustice in media and personal narratives?
Q: Smith quotes Toni Morrison’s critique of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man and her question, “Invisible to whom?” He writes, “Invisibility is established through white people’s refusal to see black men as fully human” and goes on to discuss “white gaze.” What does this term mean? What are some examples of it? How does “white gaze” turn American problems into “black problems” or “hip hop problems”?
Q: In Chapter 5, Smith writes, “One of the privileges of not being a part of a marginalized group is believing you can set your own benchmarks for bigotry.” What does he mean by this? What would it mean to allow people in marginalized groups to set the benchmarks for bigotry?
Q: At the end of the book, Smith writes, “Trayvon Martin had a father. Jordan Davis had a father. Michael Brown had a father. Tamir Rice had a father. Having a father won’t protect black boys from America.” What does Smith believe will protect black boys—and from whom do they need to be protected?