Honest and Good: A Reflection on INVISIBLE MAN, GOT THE WHOLE WORLD WATCHING

By Janet Stickmon

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

Mychal Denzel Smith’s Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching is a powerful memoir where Smith answers the question, “How did you learn to be a black man?” As he reflects upon his life, he offers key insights about the impact family and friends had on his development, as well as a number of public figures—a combination of activists, authors, musicians, comedians, and athletes, ranging from Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison to Dave Chappelle, Frank Ocean, and LeBron James —who also shaped his understanding of what it means to be a black man. Along the way, Smith plants gems signifying the urgent call for the humanity of black people—women, men, gay, trans-, straight—to be seen and no longer dismissed and discarded.

Smith’s personal story weaves in and out of events affecting the black community at-large, like the case of the Jena Six, the multitude of unarmed black women and men murdered by police, and the election of President Obama. In doing so, he reveals not only how his own understanding of being a black man was impacted but also exposes the collective impact that white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, and transphobia have on the black community. Smith covers a number of other concepts including: the role of respectability politics, the privileges of being a member of a dominant group, why black rage is essential, the responsibility of celebrities to speak out against injustice, the necessity of understanding Black womanhood, invisibility in the white mind, homophobia and the concept of “inviting in” versus “coming out,” and mental health and the idea of “living with” as opposed to “suffering from” a mental illness.

Much of what Smith speaks of is compelling and opens the door for rich dialogue. Truly, one could devote several pages to each of the topics above, but for now, I will focus this reflection on how Smith became a writer and his understanding of what it means to be a black writer.

Honest Man; Good Writer

Smith found his voice while working as a writer for the Hampton Script, the campus newspaper at Hampton University. He said he could be what James Baldwin called “an honest man and a good writer” and do so “in service of my people.” In response to a former business advisor of the Script who told him he couldn’t be a good journalist because he was an activist, Smith states, “If being an activist meant that I was approaching my work not as an observer but as an advocate, not as a curious outsider but as an active participant in struggle, then so be it. Honest and good. For my people. For Trayvon.”

These two quotes made me stop to think about integrity, being a good writer, and service, and how ultimately all three are intertwined. That the writing isn’t good writing unless it’s honest and it’s in service to others.

Regarding the latter quote, as Smith tells the story, he admits that it was unclear whether or not the advisor’s words were intended to be an insult. Nonetheless, without identifying as an activist (seeming aware of the multiple interpretations of the term), he defines it as being an “advocate” and “active participant in struggle.”

This initially reminded me of many of my colleagues and friends. Some of them self-identify as activists, and others do not. The work of both explicitly serve and advocate for justice…justice for various communities who, despite their cultural and social capital, are routinely marginalized and underrepresented and/or their images and narratives are distorted or rendered nonexistent. His words also prompted me to think of the broad spectrum of activism which includes writers; when writers write and advocate for justice, they shouldn’t be immediately dismissed as an “armchair revolutionary” (although this can sometimes be the case). Such a writer has the potential to inspire, bring healing, transform lives, ignite and sustain movements, and therefore, undeniably be an “active participant in struggle,” serving their community.

With respect to my personal experience of service and being a writer, everything begins with honesty. I have always taken great pride in my self-integrity. Being honest with myself and with others is vital. Otherwise, I find myself either feeling sick or heavy, stuttering and stumbling through my days.

As a writer, I spend a considerable amount of time checking myself, making sure my writing is real…making sure it comes from an authentic place. I do this by regularly asking myself, “Is this true for me? Do I really believe this? Am I willing to take this risk telling this truth?” After years of this practice, I don’t always have to ask anymore; there is an internal gauge that tells me the answer, and I feel the yes or the no. If I discover the answer is no, then I need to dig deeper or stop writing. Because if I’m not being completely honest, what’s the point of writing? What’s the point of creating art if it doesn’t reveal my heart and leave behind a piece of my heart to create a space for others to feel, be connected, and create something life-giving of their own that helps others to feel and be connected. Honesty clears the way for service to actually happen…and truly be genuine and selfless.

Being a Black Writer

Shortly after he reflects on Baldwin’s words, Smith talks about the honesty of a black writer and says, “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.”

IDeficit Theoryndeed, being writers, we are witnesses and record what we witness. And indeed, one of the deeply unfortunate realities of black life in the United States is how often it is interrupted by wholesale tragedy. However, I must add that being black isn’t defined by tragedy. Being a black writer isn’t defined by the tragedy witnessed. It certainly cannot be ignored; it’s something we can never run from, that’s for sure. However, I find that allowing tragedy, in and of itself, to be that distinguishing characteristic, marking the difference between “writer” and “black writer,” is dangerous and perpetually unhealthy. It flirts too much with things akin to deficit models in education or scarcity or deprivation mentalities; the latter is especially all too common among those who confuse the struggle with their identity or believe that communities of color are destined to struggle, considering it even virtuous.

I believe what distinguishes “black writer” from “writer” is resiliency: the strength and beauty we develop as we work through and beyond tragedies we never chose. I think this will put us in the frame of mind to think about the cultural and social capital we possess as individuals and as a community.  What does this capital look like? How does this country benefit from and rely on these assets born daily against a backdrop of tragedy? How can this capital be used to directly serve and benefit our own communities?

Perhaps, this concept of resiliency as defining factor isn’t entirely in conflict with what Smith ultimately advocates for in terms of mental wellness, especially when looking at statements toward the end of the book like, “In the rush to lock everyone away, the political class never stops to ask what kind of mental health care a community that deals with violence daily may need.”

If we want to ensure the emotional well-being of black people, part of that task must begin with changing our language and interrupting the thoughts that tempt us into believing that tragedy and death is all that awaits us. Doing this when our lives are constantly under attack seems virtually impossible…but our survival and our prosperity depend on it.

The Mind Body CodeWe must prepare our minds to be ready to recognize, accept, and create abundance, what Mario Martinez, a clinical neuropsychologist who developed the theory of biocognition, defines as the “the amount of health, wealth, and love that you require in order to lead a joyful life…a wellness life” (Mario Martinez, The Mind-Body Code: How the Mind Wounds and Heals the Body). When abundance arrives, we need to be in a position to welcome it and embrace it.

If one has lived a life of deprivation (i.e. gone without food, love, safety, or financial stability, struggle to have one’s dignity affirmed, rendered invisible by systems of oppression, experienced multiple deaths of loved ones, and/or the intersections thereof), there is a way in which the body and mind grow accustomed to this. Martinez argues that deprivation can be internalized by the immune, nervous, and endocrine system. In such a case, when abundance or joy enters our lives, our body then develops a stress response to it because it’s foreign and we can become sick or engage in self-sabotage, ultimately rejecting the very thing that we claimed to seek.

Integrating abundance into our lives will require a change in the cognitive frames that have limited and distorted our ways of thinking about our own worthiness, self-care, influence on others, and proclivity for success. It can strengthen our emotional and spiritual well-being. This shift in consciousness may include the guidance of mental health professionals, indigenous healers, and support groups; it can also include a combination of practices, such as meditation, prayer, affirmations, mental rehearsal (or visualization), and gratitude exercises. A mental and spiritual wellness regimen consisting of the above will not only help us recognize and fully enjoy abundance when it comes, but also hold onto it long enough to break the cycle of transgenerational trauma so abundance (in terms of health, wealth and love) is what we pass onto future generations.

All this in a word. Replacing “tragedy” with “resiliency.” The implications stretch far beyond what we bear witness to as black writers. It also becomes about how we can view our lives and our future as black people.

Conclusion

Through Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, Smith shares all that he learned from “the most meaningful people and events” in his life in order to draw a “sketch of the black man” he’s become. It’s a comprehensive look at the multiple forces that have shaped him, including how the words of James Baldwin shaped his view of being an “honest man and a good writer.”

Through Smith’s vulnerability, we are able to see what he is touched and transformed by. He creates the space for readers to ponder all the themes he explores. This work prompted me to articulate my own integrity as a black writer and what it means to serve and bring healing to our community.   Anyone who reads this brilliant text can expect to be inspired to think and moved to act.

 

stickmon-headshot-2016_2Janet Stickmon is an educator, author, and performer. Professor Stickmon is the founder of Broken Shackle Developmental Training and the Black Leaders and Mentorship Program. Stickmon’s Crushing Soft Rubies—A Memoir and Midnight Peaches, Two O’clock Patience—A Collection of Essays, Poems, and Short Stories on Womanhood and the Spirit have been used in courses at several colleges and universities across the country; she is also known for her latest parenting blog series, To Black Parents Visiting Earth:  A Life Guide to Raising Black Children in the 21st Century, due to be released in paperback in Fall 2017. Stickmon is currently a professor of Humanities at Napa Valley College, teaching Africana Studies and Filipina(o)-American Heritage.

Advertisement

Question Everything: An Interview with Mychal Denzel Smith

By Maya Payne Smart

Mychal Denzel Smith is the author of the memoir Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man's Education.
Mychal Denzel Smith is the author of the memoir Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education.

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.

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

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.

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.