“One of the most pernicious effects of racism on the psyche is the constant questioning of one’s worth and purpose. It can be almost as debilitating as death. Almost. I don’t wish to make these seem equivalent. I have my life; Travon does not.”
– Mychal Denzel Smith
Just Another Book
I don’t remember how I originally heard about Mychal Denzel Smith’s book. Maybe it was a tweet or Facebook post, which would make the most sense because I follow him on twitter and spend an exorbitant about of time on Facebook. Whatever it was, a tweet, the post, I immediately pre-ordered his book and then I forgot about it.
A few weeks later, I got a surprise! A package came and I was ready to devour it, but I didn’t. Like almost every book I have ever bought, I placed it on my shelf and forgot about it. Life was happening, and I was already deep into another book. I would get around to it, eventually. And then, all of a sudden I HAD to it read. Maybe I saw another tweet or post; maybe someone else was reading it. Whatever the case, it became an extension of me and was in my hands every chance I got.
Not Just Another Book At All
Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer for the Nation and frequent knowledge dropper on Twitter. Not much younger than me, his work includes writing about mental health, politics, and race. He even uses personal accounts to connect you, the reader, to an even bigger idea. As a true millennial (in a great way I think), he has made a name for himself on his terms, somehow using his anger as fuel and not dismissiveness.
Smith’s debut book is a study of his personal growth into manhood and the larger ideas and philosophies that shaped those important moments in his life. He chronicles snapshots or turning points in his formal (schooling/college) education against the social constructs we learn just from spending time with those around us. Through his thoughtful mix of historical context and personal narrative, Invisible Man, Got The Whole World Watching felt like no book I had read before.
I Have Nothing But Praise To Give
Smith was able to accomplish in writing the way my brain seems to work. He would take the historical accounts of our collective culture and place those decisions onto his own body. He used well-researched examples (his thoughts on Respectability Politics floored me) and then followed their historical trail straight to him. It wasn’t a hypothetical of what would happen if we followed or ignored certain ideas. He was examining his beliefs based on concepts created, argued, and implemented without his consent.
“I began to see myself, but only by refusing to see black women.” – Mychal Denzel Smith
He introduced his reader to the relationship black men have to things labeled too taboo to acknowledge (black women, homosexuality, mental illness) and then he candidly talked about them. Those chapters where the most interesting to read because they are almost never mentioned as something we should question. He talked about why he felt that way, and could admit his faults on being human. I didn’t know I needed this or was even looking for it, but he carefully explained the paradigm of his own blackness.
A Bookshelf Necessity
This book was so personal I sometimes I felt like he wasn’t really talking to me, but to himself while recounted a moment from his past. It was like I was invading his privacy and asking too much of him. You could feel the anger in some passages, but rightfully so. You are being brought into his world, and anger is warranted. Nevertheless, this book is filled with a clarity we all seem to search for but have yet to find. I needed to read this book, and just like Smith, have a desire to read black literature and become a black leader. This book became a turning point in my own activism and quest for leadership.
The night I finished reading Smith’s book, Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, LA. The next night, Philando Castile in Minnesota. Their deaths hit me hard- probably because I had just finished experiencing Smith’s point of view. Castile’s death (and the manner in which he died) crushed my spirits and reduced me to a shell of a person for over a month. I could then completely understand how Travon Martin’s death changed Smith’s calling and pushed him onto this path of writing for social justice.
This is the type of book I wish I could buy an infinite number of copies and just hand them out on the street. It changed my life and clarified my writing call. This is a book I plan on reading again and again (something I never do) and I recommend everyone go out and experience Invisible Man, Got The Whole World Watching. Available on Amazon. You can also follow Smith on Twitter.