By Maya Payne Smart
Necessary and audacious, Mychal Denzel Smith’s assured debut fuses memoir and cultural criticism to ponder an important and too-seldom considered question: How did you learn to be a black man?
While his answers are compelling, the way he scrutinizes the origin of his beliefs about black identity and masculinity on the page is revelatory–and instructive. He mines his particular personal history as a black millennial in the age of Obama in the service of a larger vision: social transformation through personal awakening.
As he traces his own education, through family, books, music, comedians and college, he illuminates a way forward for anyone willing to grapple with their own cultural inheritance. He models a process for envisioning a new self and a new world freed from past constraints.
“Essentially, I wanted to write the book that I thought I needed when I was 17 or 18, given all that I know now.” he says. “I’m writing to the 17-year-old black boy coming up in a culture of white supremacy, but also patriarchy and homophobia and all of these other things and saying these are the questions that I’ve been challenged with over the years. Here’s a starting point for you so that you don’t get to 25 or 30 and haven’t been asked these questions.”
When you critique your culture, appraise your morals and shatter your worldview, you have a shot at growing up whole, he posits. You have a chance to create something other than the self-hatred, violence and mental illness all around us.
Though written with black boys in mind, this is a message that’s applicable to all. “I wanted it to be a book where even if you weren’t a cisgendered hetero black man like myself, you could read it and look through that intellectual process from whatever position or whatever identity markers you are experiencing it from and unpack those things for yourself,” he says.
Smith’s emphasis on questions over answers may frustrate readers seeking a cure-all for The Race Problem. But his depth and candor in exploring the making and remaking of his own identity illustrate an important first step: To fight a system of oppression you must understand how pervasive it is and how you are complicit in it.
Reading and writing are unparalleled tools in this pursuit. In the book, Smith recounts an episode in the second grade when he struggled through “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” to produce a class presentation that alarmed his classmates and prompted the teacher to cut him short. Years later, he’s still at it–reading, thinking, questioning, creating. “In the process of writing the book, I discovered this ability to sit with ideas for a period of time to challenge one’s own assumptions, to do research, to come to understand your own ideas better, to think differently about yourself and the world around you,” he says. “I don’t think that happens quite the same way in any other space aside from writing.”
Fittingly, he’s measuring the success of this book not by sales figures, but by its influence. “I want everyone to walk away from this book and not think about my journey, but think about your own,” he says. “Then do the work of interrogating what you’ve learned and whether those are useful ideas in the context of pursuing justice and equality.”
He’s eager to see where the next generation of black boys takes the conversation, how their consciousness shifts, and what cultural product they make in turn.
Maya Payne Smart publishes book reviews and musings at MayaSmart.com and interviews authors at KirkusReviews.com.