Mychal Denzel Smith, a contributing writer for The Nation, among other things, has written an important book. Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching — A Young Black Man’s Education held my attention and driving home its central point. We live in a racist society, and no amount of rationalization or picking apart the facts of a particular incident can deny that black people are getting killed by the police at an alarming rate, and that this fact is symptomatic of our racist society.
Smith was in his late 20’s when he wrote his short, intense book. He covers a lot of ground, ranging from the central fact of systemic racism to more unusual themes. He discusses the difficulties black women have endured in a movement that has frequently focused only on the plight and challenges faced by black men. This is something Smith comes to see, just as he begins to appreciate the plight of gay black people. Smith is candid about his experience and points to times when he may have rushed to conclusions or when he faltered in his own life. Smith struggled with depression, and he is candid about his reluctance to seek help and about the value of the help he finally received. Ultimately, Smith projects a remarkable and well-placed confidence in himself and his options.
This book is also a remarkable account of an undergraduate education. Fortunately, his family didn’t give him much choice about attending college. It was assumed he would go and do well. Like a lot of teenage boys I know, Smith doesn’t seem to have given a whole lot of thought to where he would go to school, and he wasn’t a driven student, for the most part. Fortunately, his time at Hampton opened his eyes to a lot of things. The fact that he wasn’t studying for a particular career gave him freedom and the opportunity to experience a number of things. He gratefully notes how at least one teacher had an enormous impact on him, and his adventures and misadventures in running the school paper gave him a practical political education. It is always a good thing to stop and reflect upon the advantages of a liberal arts education and of not having a fixed game plan at an early age.
Nothing undercuts Smith’s anger and bleak assessment of racism. That is the crucial underpinning of this book. He doesn’t try to provide a fix. His willingness to look back and assess himself and others and to adjust his thinking about certain “norms” make this a very illuminating book. Mychal Denzel Smith advances the conversation on race in America. His own willingness to assess and reassess his own assumptions and positions over time set a fine example for the rest of us. I am so glad I read this book. It was often an uncomfortable read, but it kept offering new ways of looking at issues and events. Throughout there was the constant drum beat that until the police killings of black people stop, we have little hope of moving ahead. Given that underlying premise, Smith opens a dynamic conversation.