Novelist Ralph Ellison introduced us to the Invisible Man in 1952. "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” he writes in the prologue to his most celebrated book. “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me." Ellison's invisible man was of "substance" and "mind," technically seeable but unseen. This was the radical black writer's deft metaphor for the black man's condition under the white gaze.
Before writer Mychal Denzel Smith had read Ellison, he had heard Mos Def rap the line "Invisible man, got the whole world watching." And before Smith used those lyrics as the title for his first book (published this week), he had tattooed the words on his left bicep, a few months after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. "The challenge of overcoming invisibility is one that black men take up daily in the quest to live freely," writes Smith midway through his book, "But Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis and Michael Brown and Oscar Grant didn't choose their visibility—it was thrust upon them by the same system that made them invisible to begin with."
Smith, writing six decades after Ellison, isn't just interested in undoing the invisibility cast on black men by the white gaze. Yes, Smith wants to be seen, and seen as a young black man. He wears t-shirts bearing slogans like "UNAPOLOGETICALLY BLACK" on network TV, always paired with a pristine pair of Air Jordans from his collection of well over 100 sneakers. Smith has righteous swagger; if he had been in Kanye's position during Hurricane Katrina, I venture he'd have said "George Bush doesn't care about black people" on live TV, too. But the author doesn't want a visibility that leaves black women or black LGBTQ individuals in the dark; he’s trying to figure out what that looks like. The homophobia-driven Orlando massacre is grim reminder of the necessity of such work.
I spoke with Smith—my friend and many-sneakered roommate—about rage, respectability politics and the tension involved when oppressed people reckon with the oppressions they themselves uphold.
Natasha Lennard: You note that black figures are offered up as either "martyrs" or "tokens". Martyrs like Michael Brown, Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, and all too many more. Tokens like Michael Jordan, Jay-Z, and, at the apotheosis, President Barack Obama. We have a grim double standard in which black lives and struggles only get humanized in the media once they are reduced to corpses or elevated to the very highest offices. Can you talk a little bit about how you think this martyr/hero dichotomy affected you growing up, and what it says about our current failings in media representation of black life?
Mychal Denzel Smith: I can't speak to how it affected me growing up because it's not something I noticed. The martyr/token dichotomy is something I've only been able to recognize through years and years of experience. But it speaks to the way in which media flattens our lives. The thing that's consistent is whether martyr or token, you can (and most likely will) be villainized. In death, we wonder if Trayvon Martin had a predilection toward violence. In wealth and success, we wonder if Jay Z is setting a good example considering his past as a drug dealer. That's something you can't escape, because villainizing blackness is how white supremacy is maintained. My aim with the book was to acknowledge that, but attempt to get us beyond that framework, because it does no justice to examining the interior lives of black men.
NL: A key aspect of Invisible Man, qua coming of age story, sees you reckon with the misogyny and homophobia that you had never confronted while seeking a teenage education in black struggle and black power. You write about coming to terms with the fact that your heroes had regularly bartered in both tacit and explicit misogyny; the marginalized position of the black woman had been absent from your discovery and embrace of the embattled but powerful black man. How do you manage the difficult terrain of pointing out how misogyny functions in black culture without a) feeding racist stereotypes about brutish black men and b) risking letting white people frame misogyny as some sort of uniquely black problem (because white people are really good at scapegoating)?
MDS: First by not allowing the white gaze to determine what is and is not important. Once you understand that white supremacy will do the work of denigrating blackness no matter what, you can let go of the idea that you will contribute to the propagation of racist stereotypes. Whatever those stereotypes may be today, they can change tomorrow, so long as it serves the purpose of making blackness a marker of second-class citizenship. If, tomorrow, misogyny and homophobia disappeared from black communities, the absence of misogyny and homophobia would become further proof of black people's backwardness. Whiteness must be defined in negation to blackness in order to maintain the system.
And to the second point, white people already frame misogyny as a black problem. The question for me is what are we gaining by continually pointing that out? We illuminate the fallacy of white supremacy, but we do nothing to address the actual misogyny that is practiced and lived within our communities, and does as much damage as white supremacy. We've come to believe we have to choose one or the other, and I reject that as a false choice. We can, and must, fight white supremacy alongside misogyny and homophobia, and understand that making one fall will not undo the others.
NL: You’ve said before that you are critical of the idea of "allyship"—being a feminist ally. Is that because being an "ally" is to assert that one is not oneself a feminist, but just an auxiliary? Which framings do you prefer?
MDS: To be an "ally" costs nothing. All you have to do is announce it as your identity. It produces no shift. I've opted for the language of "accomplice" because to be an accomplice is to risk something alongside someone else. For those in a privileged position, if you're not willing to lose the power and privilege afforded to you by your identity, then you're not actually interested in a change of system. To claim "allyship" allows you to sit comfortably in your knowledge of the existence of oppression without ever having to contribute toward its end. Because there is no worthwhile change to an oppressive system that will not require some sacrifice on the part of the privileged. "Allies" don't sacrifice, and therefore "allies" are largely useless.
NL: Your upbringing, as you describe it in the book, was very much focused on making you one such "token"—a respected, respectable community leader with unimpeachable academic and professional records, "twice as good" as your white counterparts as a bulwark against racist treatment. But you came to reject this, to internalize the powerful invocations of thinkers from Malcolm X to Mos Def and Tupac. Their's was a righteous demand for respect and power, not a bowed request for basic human decency. Do you ever still find yourself haunted by a conditioning drenched in respectability politics—does it sneak up on you sometimes?
MDS: Unfortunately, yes. Unlearning is difficult. Altering thought patterns that have been ingrained since childhood, it turns out, does not happen simply because you decide one day to do so. What's key is a vigilance of critical thought. You have to be willing to challenge your own assumptions. If a protest tactic makes me uncomfortable, I have to ask myself why, and closely examine whether it's because I genuinely don't think it's prudent, or because of some residual thoughts around the "proper" way to engage. I haven't completely escaped my upbringing, but I don't feel trapped by it either.
NL: We saw an age-old debate play out during the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore in the last couple of years, in which elder statesmen decried "violent" protest as counterproductive (and included broken windows as victims of “violence”). But we also saw a lot of voices, yours strong among them, defending and supporting the outpouring of black rage in the streets. I was surprised by how many even mainstream liberals seemed to understand the legitimacy and strength of this sort of riotous protest. This seemed like a shift to me. Especially compared to how, say, the London riots of 2011 (also catalyzed by a police killing) were dismissed across the the media, from left to right, as "criminality pure and simple,” as Prime Minister David Cameron put it. Do you think the discourse has shifted? If so, what might that mean?
MDS: It's shifting, but Cameron's position is still not only considered legitimate and wise, but it is the default. There are more voices, but they are voices of pushback. That those voices have found space within in the discourse is encouraging, but a shift, for me, would mean that the orthodox position is to see rage and rioting as inevitable and proper responses to violent oppression. Or at the very least there would not be a rush to condemn, but rather to contextualize. And in order to defend, the voices of pushback would not have to qualify that defense by wavering into finger-wagging and calls for swift punishment. It's wishful thinking, I'm aware.
NL: As a writer, you have been able from a mainstream platform to make radical arguments, from abolishing police, to defending looting, to the absolute necessity of black rage. Do you ever fear that our ability to defend and endorse rage over outrage or respectability politics might actually defang that rage? How threatening to the status quo can something really be if we can publish it in the New Yorker, or even talk about it here? Just last month the New York Times Men's Styles section profiled you and your vast sneaker collection. We all contain contradictions, but how do you navigate seeking recognition, popular celebration, being a style icon (!) and wanting to maintain a radical role.
MDS: I wish I had a better answer to this question, because it's something I think about constantly. I think it's a good shift to be able to argue for radical politics in popular outlets, but understand also that if something is massively popular it is likely to be non-threatening. I'd like to think that the reason we're afforded these platforms has to do with the strength of our arguments and talent as writers, but I'm not naive enough. There are other factors about who we are that make us more palatable to a wider audience. We're sneaking the politics in through a side door.
The danger of that is that the maintenance of personal popularity often requires a diluted politics, to make sacrifices in the hopes that you will always have access to these platforms in which you'd like to intervene. It's a tricky balance. Now, a number of people know me for my sneakers, but how many are taking note of the socio-political underpinning you mention? I can't say for sure. I don't know how many of them are reading my work on abolishing police. But now that they're engaged with me, the opportunity presents itself to introduce those ideas to them.
NL: Barack Obama comes up a lot in Invisible Man—you reject his liberalism, his respectability politics, his milquetoast approach to smashing white supremacy. As you put it, he's "a black man… not a race man." But you also recall how seeing yourself, your identity, reflected in the president was profound and significant for you and so many others. Now, with the next election serving up a steaming cauldron of horror, hawkishness and a small peppering of not-quite-socialism, Obama gets to look pretty good legacy-wise. He hasn't ended wars, closed Guantanamo, and his vaulted prison reforms and pardons have been miniscule. What are your thoughts on how his legacy will play out and the possible dangers or optimisms it might entail?
MDS: I can't predict Obama's legacy, but I'll do it, anyway. I think he'll enjoy a long period of unbridled celebration. His two terms will be judged against those of his predecessor and the conclusion will be, because of his leadership and force of personality, Obama rescued America from the darkness. He'll be praised for the example he set as a father and husband, for being a role model for young black men everywhere who, after him, should no longer make excuses for not achieving at the highest levels because anything is possible now. Fine. In some ways, he's earned it. Being the first black president can't be written off as insignificant. I just hope it won't take terribly long for us to be honest.