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Mychal Denzel Smith Talks Malcom X, Gender and Mental Health

Mychal Denzel Smith discusses some of the main themes in his new book, “Invisible Man, Got The Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education.”

Mychal Denzel Smith. (Photo: Syreeta McFadden)

Part of the Series

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching is a chronicle of Mychal Denzel Smith’s political and personal education in a country and era defined by both the presidency of Barack Obama and the state-sanctioned murders of so many Black people. In this compelling mix of memoir and analysis, Smith questions our assumptions about race, masculinity, mental health, feminism and LGBTQ rights. Order your copy today by making a donation to Truthout!

Mychal Denzel Smith has written an engaging and brilliant book about his growth and transformation as a Black man in the United States, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education. The book begins with the story George Zimmerman told of what happened the night he killed Trayvon Martin, illustrating how Black boys’ and men’s deaths are justified by centuries-old beliefs about their inherent violence and criminality. Trayvon Martin didn’t get to grow up, figure out who he was, make mistakes, evolve, love, hate, fail, try again, live. Any Black boy in 2012 could’ve been Trayvon, just like any Black boy in 1955 could’ve been Emmitt Till. Smith’s life could’ve been violently ended by white supremacy at 17, but it wasn’t. He lived to tell his story, unlike the thousands who weren’t able to.

Smith writes, “I was born in 1986 in Washington, D.C., when Ronald Reagan was presiding over the early phase of the War on Drugs. I grew up the son of a career Navy man in Virginia Beach, Virginia, during the 1990s, while Bill Clinton triangulated politics, exploded the prison population, and slashed welfare. I entered high school the year of George W. Bush and purged voter rolls.” He situates his story and life journey within the context of the United States’ history of various types of state violence inflicted on Black people. Throughout the story of his journey, readers learn about the people, places and events that influenced Smith’s political education about issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia and politics, as he discusses Kanye West and Hurricane Katrina, his time at Hampton University, the Jena Six and Dave Chappelle.

Smith spoke with Truthout about some of the issues he engages with in Invisible Man, Got The Whole World Watching.

Truthout: In Chapter 1 you discuss discovering Malcom X and what he as a person and his philosophies and teachings meant to you as a child and then as a teenager. What does Malcom X mean to you now, as an adult, and what ways do you feel his philosophies and teachings are present in the current movement for Black lives?

Mychal Denzel Smith: Same thing he’s always meant. I consider Malcolm X my first real teacher. I don’t believe he was right about everything, but he set the example of self-creation, re-definition and boldly standing in your truth. I love him for his fire and deep, unwavering love of Black people. And that’s a big part of his influence on the current iteration of the Black liberation movement. He was unapologetically Black before we were using that phrase. But he also had a global perspective on oppression, and you can see activists making those connections today.

Malcolm never [minced] words and was unsparing in his critique of anyone who stood in the way of Black liberation, even when that was other black people. He understood the ways in which power could/would co-opt movements and movement leaders. This generation is heeding those warnings and maintaining a critical, radical distance from those who would attempt to use them as pawns.

In addition to Malcom X, you detail how several Black pop culture figures (Kanye West, Dave Chappelle and Lebron James) have had influence on your journey. With the emergence of celebrities such as Jesse Williams and Amandla Stenberg publicly speaking about racial injustice to a mass audience, how do you see their actions having an impact and influence on young people?

2016.7.28.InvisibleMan(Image: Nation Books)

We’ll see. I wouldn’t presume to know how young people are receiving the messages from celebrities around white supremacy and institutional oppression. They will tell us when the time is right. But this also brings up the question of how we’re defining young people. We’ve seen college students standing up, before Jesse Williams and Amandla Stenberg started gaining notoriety for their comments. And this has been a youth-led movement in pretty much every respect. For those young people, the impact of celebrities speaking up may just be that they feel less alone, or they’re grateful to have someone translating these issues to an audience they don’t have access to.

With so much structural violence impacting Black communities, we rightfully demand of our elected officials to provide policy that will address the various forms of violence (police violence, mass incarceration, educational inequity, etc.). But often, as you talk about in the book with President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, the solutions proposed by elected officials do not address the roots of the violence (body cameras for police) and are also often predicated on the belief that it is Black people’s fault that we experience this violence. In what ways do you think that we can strengthen our demands to our elected officials so that we get policies that will actually start to undo the damage caused by structural violence?

We’re doing it. We’re building a movement, building bases of power, and showing our political mettle and vitality. We are forming campaigns to hold elected officials accountable (see Anita Alvarez in Chicago), we’re shutting down highways and we’re changing the terms of debate.

As long as we keep it up, the politicians will have no other choice but to respond and change their tunes.

I really appreciate the story of the spark that led you to examine how Black women’s experience with racial and gender oppression has been ignored and pushed to the sidelines. In the last couple of years, we have seen the stories of some Black women victims of state violence receive national mainstream attention, and gain the attention of local organizing groups. Although the Black Lives Matter network was founded by three Black queer-identified women, and the African American Policy Forum created the #SayHerName hashtag in February 2015, and along with other organizations, including the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies of Columbia University Law School, hosted a #SayHerName vigil, helping to launch the movement to raise awareness of Black women killed by police, in what ways do you think we are continuing to see the emphasis on Black male oppression and how might we better improve the centering of Black women?

The problem isn’t with the organizers as much as it is with how the public responds. We understand the script and everyone’s duty when there’s another cisgender hetero Black male victim of state violence in the news. We don’t have that for Black women. Unfortunately, we need to develop that script.

What’s preventing us from doing so is the roles we’ve assigned to Black women in this narrative. If they are always strong, nurturing, caregivers who are able to carry the weight of resilience for their communities, when would we ever stop to consider their pain? And if our response to state violence against women is to come back around to the idea that it’s most painful for Black men because it’s emasculating to not be able to “protect our women,” when will we ever afford Black women their own story? It’s a matter of letting go of narrow notions of Black womanhood as well as rejecting patriarchal visions of Black liberation.

This quote from Chapter 4 of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching really struck me with its truth-telling about how Black women — our lives, experiences, and loyal support to Black men — are often downplayed, ignored or outright denied: “None of us has done enough work to unlearn patriarchy and male dominance, to open ourselves up to true equality and justice, to build new selves. Because none of us has done enough to see the black women standing right there, nursing our wounds and holding the truth of their oppression.” What have been some ways that you have begun to unlearn patriarchy and male dominance, and what do you think might be some concrete strategies men can implement to begin unlearning patriarchy and centering the experiences of Black women in our movements?

The only concrete strategy is to listen and believe. The oppressed have already told the oppressors everything they need to know. Not listening is a choice, and a callous one at that. If someone tells you that your boot is on their neck and you turn to act as if they haven’t said anything, it only reinforces the violence. But it’s not enough to listen if you’re going to be dismissive and tell someone how their concerns aren’t real. Listen, believe, and then prepare to lose your power and privilege.

I was blown away while reading your journey of discovery and coming to terms with your mental health. It’s only been recently that I have begun to see an increased number of Black people publicly discuss our mental health, specifically Bassey Ikpi, whom you mention as an influence. Why was your mental health journey important for you to include in the book?

Because there aren’t enough stories told by Black men documenting and naming their experiences with mental illness. I wanted to tell my own so that anyone who can relate knows that they are not alone and there is space for healing.

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