Between Baldwin and Coates: Mychal Denzel Smith’s INVISIBLE MAN, GOT THE WHOLE WORLD WATCHING

By Jedah Mayberry

Holding the black body accountable for what someone endowed with authority might do to destroy him amounts to corking the gun barrel rather than disarming the hand whose finger rests nearest the trigger.

Buy the book at your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.
Buy the book at your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

There exists a pervasive tendency in the face of public discord to skim the surface, to scan the headlines, weigh mass sentiment against your own, and form an opinion. There is an altogether separate narrative that starts quietly inside our heads. It’s the story we tell ourselves as we attempt to make sense of the world as it flows in and around our thin bodies. Mychal Denzel Smith is no surface skimmer.

With Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, Smith sets out to examine a most basic concern: “How did you learn to be a black man?” The book opens with Smith contemplating where he might have been the night Trayvon Martin was murdered. He likens Trayvon to his seventeen-year-old self. Recalls that at seventeen he couldn’t imagine living to see his twenty-fifth birthday. He rests on the consideration that leaves black boys to hope that they grow to become black men. He laments that other boys, boys who are not black, are not left to walk the same tightrope between self-image and how the rest of the world views them. Their ascent to manhood is not in jeopardy, their livelihood not subjected to the same perils.

a_lesson_before_dying_novel“A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines was my first encounter with this brand of brutal introspection, the lessons behind which are painful to unearth yet so necessary to heed, especially for a black boy coming up in America. The story takes place in 1940s Louisiana. Grant Wiggins, the product of a small Cajun community, has returned to teach at the plantation school set aside to educate black bodies, children of all ages crammed inside a single classroom. At his aunt’s insistence, Grant accepts responsibility for bringing Jefferson, a young black man (i.e. black boy) convicted for the role he unknowingly plays in a botched liquor store robbery that leaves the white store proprietor dead, to stand and face his eventual execution as a man. My first read left me heartbroken yet somehow renewed in my belief in the resilience of the human spirit. Ellison, Baldwin, Wideman, and Hughes have each led us along a similar path, chasing the narrative inside their heads in search of answers to an all too familiar question: how does a black boy grow to be a black man in America?

between_the_world_and_me-jpegTa-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” charts a related course of examination. He endeavors to comprehend the forces at play that would see fit to deny him the freedoms that so many seem to take for granted. The narrative is presented in a series of letters from Coates to his fifteen-year-old son, a black boy, so that the son might survive to become a black man. James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” penned in the opening pages as a letter to Baldwin’s nephew, also fifteen at the time, reportedly inspired Coates’s offering.

Smith renews the immediacy of the narrative, the black boy’s plight again placed front and center at the lens-side of cellphone and police dash/body cameras across the land. The title alone cements Smith’s authority among a generation of black boys who breathe their pent-up frustrations through drumbeat infused rap lyrics: “Speech is my hammer, bang the world into shape. Now let it fall… (Hungh!!)” (“Hip Hop” – Mos Def, Black on Both Sides, 1999.).

Smith casts himself as the black boy who at seventeen wonders whether he’ll see twenty-five, and at twenty-five dare not assume that thirty is a given. He meanders along a string of notable events ranging in theme from white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia to class-based elitism, self-hatred, police brutality, and untreated mental illness. As part of a marginalized group, one should take care to not turn and marginalize members of another group.

Smith’s version of the narrative pays considerable attention to then-Senate-hopeful Barack Obama in the book’s opening chapter. Obama preached change, embodied hope for this nation. But to an eye trained in a different system of belief, an outlook rooted in equal measure by Frederick Douglas and W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X and Mos Def, Obama’s emergence as “our shiniest Great Black Hope to date” seemed to Smith regrettable.

“He represented a path forward, an escape from a morose and divisive view of the world. He was America’s reprieve,” Smith observes having attended a rally organized in support of Tim Kaine’s 2005 gubernatorial bid at which Obama was invited to speak. “Obama was nimble, exemplifying what would become his trademark balance. He was realistic about the big political fights facing the country, but optimistic about the ability of America to set aside their differences to solve our problems. He flexed his intellect without speaking down to people. He found the sweet spot between affable and standoffish, making his audience feel connected without giving too much of himself.”

Smith attributes Obama’s even-handedness as the factor undermining his ability to adequately address the plight of the black man in America. “He’s black in a way that allows (not all, but enough) white people to be comfortable with America’s history of racism. They can ignore it because Obama largely ignores it.” Obama, who in certain respects resonated with Malcolm and mirrored King, “seemed to be about denying the need to fight [for our freedom]” rang hollow for Smith, fell flat.

Smith concedes that Obama’s rise to the presidency constituted a step forward. “The ability of a nation founded on the enslavement of African people to elect a black man named Barack Hussein Obama to the highest office in the land is no small thing. It’s representative of some shift. But by every measure, Obama also represents the most ‘respectable’ black man this country has ever produced. And what has his respectability won him but disrespect?”

Smith lists Obama’s numerous accomplishments in pursuit of the “big dream” from hard work, to Harvard, to marriage and fatherhood, as a source of frustration. “If a black man can be elected as guardian of the American empire, … and still not be shielded from racism, what hope is supposed to be left?”

Smith describes Obama as coming out of “a school of thinking that may acknowledge the existence of racism, but sees it as the responsibility of black people to overcome, to achieve in the face of racism, not push for its end.” He indicts respectability politics in whole. Describes it “by necessity a politics of exclusion.” He relegates Obama to the class of shining black examples held up to represent progress: “The more we center the most “respectable,” the more people we make invisible.”

Smith lists Kanye West, Tupac Shakur among his heroes along different points in his upbringing. “Kanye took over the airwaves in the summer of 2005, and his raps about gold diggers and diamonds from Sierra Leone were helping to keep me sane while pushing apples and bananas to Wal-Mart’s sales floor at 7 a.m.” He applauded Kanye’s assertion during a relief concert organized to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” In that moment, Kanye went from one of Smith’s favorite artists to hero. “He was young, black, and just didn’t give a fuck on national television.”

Smith in time comes to question Tupac, who at one turn encourages black women to “Keep Ya Head Up” as a show of solidarity then attributes Brenda’s baby (“Brenda’s Got a Baby” – Tupac Shakur, 2Pacalypse Now, 1992) and the turmoil surrounding her troubled circumstance to an apparent lack of intelligence. But that’s how heroes work. Assign them too hastily, and most of their sheen will wear thin before you’ve extracted the full worth your hero has to offer. Be too hasty to dismiss, and you might overlook some genuine worth.

I tend to seek out heroes closer to home. My ninety-four-year-old grandmother is my hero. A magician of sorts, her rise from a Harlem housing project to make something out of relatively little on behalf of those dependent on her is noteworthy. My mother followed those footsteps, accepting the lot in life that sometimes befalls heroes. She picked herself up then got on with the business of providing a stable base for my sister and me to make our respective ways in the world.

My father, like Smith’s, was a career Navy man. His super power was disregarding any limitation the outside world sought to impose on him. He broke down barriers by refusing to acknowledge those barriers had any bearing on his individual worth. His innate reliance on self ultimately insulated him from other obligations leaving me to sort out those years of uncertainty from black boy to black man alone, much like Smith. My grandfather is the first man who asked me to challenge how I viewed the world, who shared with me the things he saw so that each of us might have some perspective on which to banter back and forth as we worked together to make sense of our place in America.

Smith’s narrative lands somewhere between that of Baldwin, who promotes self-determination to combat overt racism, and Coates, who seems to accept the permanence of racial injustice in America (Michelle Alexander, “Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Between the World and Me’,” NY Times Sunday Book Review, Aug. 2015 ). Smith seems to suggest that had his heroes only been more reliable, more determined, more Malcolm and less Martin—if they had used their platforms to take society to task for its transgressions—the atrocities committed against the black body will have ceased. Only Baldwin offers a solution, albeit arguably ineffectual when caught in the crosshairs of an armed vigilante or peace officer who sees a black monster, a demon, a thug, my progression from black boy to black man, fueled by self-determination, not able to spare my black ass.

Coates seeks to equip his son with the knowledge that those forces exist in sufficient numbers to merit consideration. Steeped in America’s heritage of demon colored glasses, those forces are bound to see little beyond my black, monster ass. Smith is right to insist that efforts to right the evils in society be aimed at the place where society is most broken. Holding the black body accountable for what someone endowed with authority might do to destroy him amounts to corking the gun barrel rather than disarming the hand whose finger rests nearest the trigger.

Smith’s only failing, if there is one, is expecting the world to get right with the need for the black boy to grow. The world is oblivious, save for other black boys, to the fate of one black body. The need for the black boy to become a black man serves no clear purpose to anyone who has never been made to second guess whether reaching adulthood is all but certain. I liken it to trying to light a match underwater. It’s not the match’s fault it won’t light in a sea bent against its success in the world. It’s not the fault of the body of water that it has extinguished the potential in the match to light in the first place. It is a state of being in America where black boys alone ponder their fate while the whole rest of the world is at most obligated to pay fleeting, surface attention when one black boy lies fallen somewhere short of adulthood.

Had Invisible Man been offered as an open letter, a weekly journal chronicling the ongoing roller coaster ride of race relations in America, I wonder what Smith would have to say about the Orlando nightclub shooting, the murder of nine parishioners bent in prayer in a South Carolina Church, the 2016 presidential race and the sentiments stirred with the express purpose of ridding the country of any remnants of our first black president.

I close with a call to J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Electronica, Nneka, Nitty Scott, Lecrae, Skyzoo, Chill Moody, Mali Music to assume the mantle, to take the torch passed by Common, The Roots, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Public Enemy, De La Soul, ATCQ, KRS-One, The Fugees, Jean Grae, Queen Latifah, to shoulder responsibility for uplifting the consciousness in hip-hop. The need for discourse persists.


Jedah Mayberry is the author of the novel The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle.

JEDAH MAYBERRY was raised in southeastern CT, the backdrop for his fiction debut, The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle. The book won Grand Prize in Red City Review’s 2015 Book Awards and was named 1st in Multi-Cultural Fiction for 2014 by the Texas Association of Authors. He has a second book due for publication late this year. He is also working on a sci-fi series entitled The Meek which features a young dark-skinned girl tasked with the responsibility for saving humanity from its self-destructive ways. His work has appeared at Loose Leaf Press, Flashing for Kicks, Linden Avenue, and Black Elephant. He drops in to contribute occasionally to The Prose App and The Good Men Project. Jedah currently resides with his family in Austin, TX.


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