Where You Put It on the Line: A Conversation with Mychal Denzel Smith

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If you weren’t paying attention, it might appear that Mychal Denzel Smith exploded onto the scene in 2013. With a regular column in Feministing, as a Knobler Fellow for The Nation Institute, appearing on MSNBC on Melissa Harris-Perry (RIP), and with writing in a host of other publications—including Ebony, the Guardian, the Atlantic, and Salon—if you were tuned into Internet publications, it was hard not to notice him. His early writing reflects much of his current work, touching on topics like Jay-Z and Biggie and misogyny in lyrics, student loan debt, the killing of black boys, mental health, and learning to love yourself as a young black man who is taught to hate himself. With his work, Smith has been one of the modern mainstream voices writing about the struggles of young black men. In some ways, it can be said that Smith has been writing for his life.

Fast-forward to June of 2016, when his debut nonfiction book, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, was published by Nation Books. I didn’t read this book thinking of the current version of myself—I read it thinking of a younger me who was searching, but wasn’t quite ready for Audre Lorde or The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book chronicles Smith’s coming-of-age as a young black millennial. He writes about the importance of having guiding forces in your life who see you, even when you don’t see yourself. He writes about the idea, for young black men, that you either grow up broken or you don’t grow up at all. His classics are not by F. Scott Fitzgerald or J.D. Salinger, but by Angela Davis and Malcolm X. Though his work may seem heavy—and it is—I found myself laughing more times that I can count. Smith’s voice is critical, but it is also witty and bitingly sarcastic. There is a lot of excavating that is done here, and a lot that emerges as resonant.

I gave a copy of the book to my then seventeen-year-old nephew who prefers most things to reading and he told me, “This book is really interesting and I love it. I really appreciate this gift!” Many of the arguments that Smith makes are not new—I have seen them made in various forms, by various people, often on Tumblr posts or in Twitter threads. What is new is that Smith has compiled his life to date and his politics and offered it in a distilled form, so that I can, in turn, offer to my nephew an opportunity where he can, perhaps, see himself clearly and learn what is yet to be seen.

Mychal and I spoke on the phone, from our respective spots in Brooklyn with a neighborhood resting between us, about critical love letters, emotions, embodying a feminist black manhood, and more.

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The Rumpus: What made you want to write this book in particular?

Mychal Denzel Smith: The book starts with the killing of Trayvon Martin. And that really was it. It was seeing the direction that the conversation was going after Trayvon was killed. That we keep rehashing the same tropes of black male life—young black men being an endangered species, the talks that black parents have to have with young black men about how to comport themselves in order to be able to survive the world. And as sadly necessary as it may be to continue having those conversations, my feeling was that we had reached this point where we keep telling the same story over and over again and what it has allowed black men to do is to ignore other aspects of one’s identity. To always think of the self in formation and response to white supremacy and how the survival tactics developed to do so. But there are so many other factors bearing down on the formation of that identity and I specifically wanted to interrogate from the perspective of my own coming of age and learning process and the country at large during this time of the first black presidency, what some of those things look like. So, we’re facing a world of white supremacy, yes, but also patriarchy and misogyny and homophobia and capitalism and violence and mental illness and all of these other things that are coming at you. And I wanted to start asking those questions. I wanted to write the book that I believed I would have most benefited from as a seventeen-year-old who had been given those same lessons around surviving white supremacy. There’s a whole learning process in the decade-plus before I published this book and I wanted to add to the canon of literature that’s handed down to black boys as a means of survival to say that there are other questions to ask yourself aside from the ones that have to do with your own particular oppression.

Rumpus: Do you feel like, in some ways, this was a love letter to what raised you? Like when you talk about the different books you read and the musicians who validated your experiences.

Smith: Certainly. It’s both a love letter and a critique. It’s a loving critique. It is to say that there are things that I’m incredibly grateful for, to have been introduced to in my life and to give me some semblance of a self. That I could exist in the world, in the public sphere. It was meaningful to see a Dave Chappelle and a Kanye West operating on the stage that they were and saying the things that they did, but also to note the limitations, not just of their physical existence in the public space in terms of the challenges to structures of oppression, but their complicity within forms that they never challenged. I want to talk about Dave Chappelle’s biting satirical critique of racism in the United States and how he was able to be so poignant on that note, but failed an internal analysis—failed to challenge an internal homophobia. As much as he represents a rebuke of the system’s exploitation of black men’s talents in the moment where he rejects the fifty million dollars and goes off to South Africa, the show itself definitely trafficked in those gender norms and heteronormativity. And not just did it do so, it also played to the denigration of those other identities as somehow illegitimate. So yes, the loving part of the things—the books, the music, the culture, the people—that helped me find some sense of self, but on the other side of that is to say that all of these people come out of the same systems and inherit some of the same ideology that is harmful. To truly interrogate oneself on the basis of trying to become a better advocate for equality and justice means to, then, interrogate those who shaped you.

Rumpus: Can we talk about emotions for a second?

Smith: Sure.

Rumpus: You write about being angry and how you were mad that no one else seemed to be upset about what was happening to black men. I remember being angry, too. And you and I both believe that anger can fuel social movements.

Smith: Yes. It has to.

Rumpus: There are plenty of black folks who have written about anger—you mention James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and I thought of bell hooks’s Killing Rage. But I wonder about when the onslaught of psychic and physical damage done to black bodies turns to sadness, instead of anger. Or even something deeper than sadness. You write about living with depression and anxiety. Why did you feel like these were important experiences to have on the page?

Smith: I don’t know that the anger ever turns to sadness, in that I think they coexist. I think that the sadness is ever-present. I mean, how could you not be sad? How could you not feel the weight of the experience of blackness in the United States and not just as, from my perspective, a cisgender hetero black man, but as a black woman? As a trans black woman? As a queer, trans black woman? All of these different identities that marginalize and serve the function of othering and the othering then meaning the denial of your humanity—how can that not make you sad? How can that not affect you on an emotional level where your response is not just the anger, the lashing out at those systems, but a response of feeling as though you are not a part of the human family? That someone that you are sharing this experience with, that you would think would be by your side because it’s an impossibility for any of us to survive any of this with any semblance of sanity without one another, there’s whole swaths of people telling you that you do not matter or that your existence is useless, or that you are to be relegated to a specific role. That you have nothing to offer, whether it be intellectually or otherwise. That sadness is ever-present and it’s the balancing of those emotions that means that you’re able to just get up and face a day.

And that’s why I think it was important for me to talk about the effects thereof, in terms of talking about mental illness and caring for one’s mental health, because so many of us are walking around with these things undiagnosed, untreated, unexamined, unrecognized in our own selves. And I think that internal work, in terms of just being able to survive day-to-day—it’s not even a matter of whether or not we’re going to push past these systems. It’s a matter of surviving those systems day-to-day. Taking on the weight of that will require a lot of care. A lot of love for oneself. And expressing that is difficult when your basic needs of survival are not being met, but it still remains vital. So, it’s important to talk about. It’s important to put it on the table as something that we need to fight for because we’re dying slowly. As quickly as systems of oppression may kill us, the surviving of them still is killing us on an emotional level, whereby we exist in bodies that go through the motions but are not thriving. The world is not feeding us. So, it’s a matter of ensuring that we’re caring for the whole self and that we can get beyond that sadness and that sadness turning into something, maybe, deeper.

Rumpus: You saw anger in Kanye West in 2005 when he said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He was basically one of your idols. It’s nearly twelve years later and he has endorsed Donald Trump, while also saying that he didn’t vote. How do you feel about what’s going on with him now?

Smith: Kanye’s a lost cause. Part of the experience of Kanye West in the past decade-plus is the lesson in not idolizing and not placing someone on a pedestal, because it was easy to do so for me at that time that he made really dope music that helped clarify feelings that I had and also opened me up to new experiences and ideas that I wasn’t introduced to before and then he was speaking out and being brash. He was owning black genius and making the world stand up and pay attention, and then he was transferring that politically and saying to the world, I’m going to challenge the highest seat of power in the United States and put the world on notice that this person occupying that position does not care about people who look like me. He’s letting them languish in utter despair as they try to free themselves from what is a natural disaster, but on top of that, the man-made disaster that accompanied it… So, it was easy to make Kanye into this hero because he was doing all the things that I would want to do at that point. But no human being infallible, Kanye is a mess of contradictions. Kanye is self-absorbed; Kanye seeks the validation of white people in a way that I don’t find to be quite useful or helpful; Kanye is a misogynist. All of these things mean that for me now, what is my relationship to Kanye because what is he giving me? And if what he’s giving me is all of the things that I don’t find useful and barely holding onto the things that I did idolize once upon a time, I just don’t think that I need Kanye in quite the same way. And whatever the reasons there may be for Kanye doing the type of things that he does, I do also worry about Kanye.

When he came out and met Donald Trump at Trump Tower two days after he had just gotten out of the hospital where he was involuntarily checked in for paranoia and sleep deprivation, I worried about him as well. This is the mental health issue coming again. I mean, this is someone who very clearly needs some more support around him, needs some more help, but is not getting it because part of his self-absorption and worshipping of celebrity is that he wants to be in the spotlight all the time. And that doesn’t seem to be the healthiest place for him. So, I worry about Kanye, but I also recognize that it’s not just a matter of him needing mental health care right now. Part of this is just who he is. Yes, of course, he thinks that he should sit down with Donald Trump or that Donald Trump would make a great president because Kanye doesn’t understand that they’re similar and that they understand things through the lens of celebrity. They believe that people who are famous are smarter, better, and more deserving of power. So, Kanye is not as meaningful to me. He may still be meaningful to some people, but I don’t need Kanye anymore. I’ve gotten the things that I wanted from Kanye and now my hope is that he just gets better.

Rumpus: Your cousin Demetri’s death had a huge impact on you—you wrote about feeling guilty that you were still alive while he was not. Do you feel like you really know how to grieve, or that you were taught to?

Smith: No, not at all. I think that’s definitely something that everyone in my immediate, and even extended family where I would have learned how to grieve, struggles with. And even since then, I just don’t know anyone that has adequate methods for grieving. And you know, it makes me wonder if any of us do. It makes me wonder if it’s not more of a lifelong process than it is a momentary thing that one can accomplish and move on from. Because I still grieve Demetri. I feel the pangs of that quite often. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him, think about that moment in my life, think about how I felt at that time and carry that with me and try to—not move on, but not become stuck there. And it’s hard and there doesn’t seem to be a blueprint to me for healthy grieving. And if there is one, I’d like to see it. But it’s difficult to reconcile because the longer that I live, the more opportunities that I’m given to do things that Demetri never got a chance to, and the guilt continues to weigh on me. It never ceases. Now, I can process it in that I can recognize it more easily, but it doesn’t go away. It’s always a part of me. So, how then to recognize that as a part of the grieving process? To note that he is no longer here, but that I may feel some sort of spiritual connection to him.

I think that also gets into my jealousy of religious people, because they have—for them—a conviction and understanding of what happens in an afterlife and what their relationship to the afterlife is and those who’ve joined an afterlife. And I have so much uncertainty and so much doubt over official narratives around what that looks like that I want to foster that connection, but don’t have any concrete ideas around what it looks like. I’m pushing myself to establish that and it’s all so confusing. Death feels so final that to try to make a connection to something that feels so ethereal as a spiritual world—I don’t know what that looks like without a religious text to dictate it to me. I’m out here trying to figure that out on my own. So yeah, I don’t know what healthy grieving looks like. I don’t know anyone that does. And that makes it all the more frustrating. I think that part of what drives my writing is a search for healthy grieving.

Rumpus: You write about being groomed to be a credit to your race, someone like Barack Obama. Despite rejecting that, do you still feel an occasional pull in that direction or have you re-conceptualized what being a credit to your race can mean?

Smith: It’s hard to say. I reject the idea of one being able to be a credit to the race in that then we would somehow accumulate enough credits for oppression to end. Like, “Oh, if just enough of them proved themselves worthy, then we’ll do away with that racism thing. It’ll be over.” Because now they’ve shown that they can sit at the adult table at Thanksgiving, you know? But I will not say that the lessons that were taught to me are completely out of my system, as if to say that I don’t still tense up and recoil at the idea of acting out in front of white people or feel like I’m participating in something that’s going to make white people look down upon me. I do feel that, and hear the voices of my parents in my head saying, “Stop doing that. You’re going to make them think less of us.” Or something. But my greater understanding is that politically, this is not useful. We are not going to achieve liberation through personal behavioral correction. Oppression has nothing to do with that. It will modify the behaviors that it finds acceptable in order to continue oppressing people. It’s similar, in respects, to conversations about rape and sexual assault whereby you want to tell people how to dress and how to act and how to comport themselves in order to avoid being assaulted and it doesn’t work that way. One cannot take actions that will absolve them from the effects of a system of oppression being in place, but we all think that we can. Or want to believe that we can at some point in our lives. So in terms of conceptualizing what it means to then be a credit to the race, I just have rejected the whole concept that one can or should aspire to that. What’s necessary is less of a collective chin-checking around whether or not we are proving ourselves acceptable to the oppressor, but to locate the oppressor within ourselves and do away with our strivings to replicate those systems because it is incumbent upon those who derive power and privilege from systems of oppression to undo them.

Rumpus: What do you have to say to other young black men who feel they are going to college to become a Black Leader?

Smith: You have to understand that the days in which the singular charismatic black male leader who is exalted and the avatars for movement building—that’s over. One, it was just never the case that a single charismatic black male figure was responsible for movements. Certainly the ones to get the headlines. Certainly the ones to do the speechifying. But the day-to-day organizing work, the intellectual work, the emotional work, the physical labor was always done by a multitude of people and most often done by black women. And not only are we seeing more of those stories being told now, but we are, within movement spaces, diffusing the idea of central leadership to the point where we don’t have a single leader within these spaces, but what activists will tell you is they need a full movement where all people are participating in the organizing, the public work, the behind-the-scenes work. Everyone gets a chance to write the articles and go on television and fight on those fronts, but everyone is also charged with doing the nitty-gritty of fundraising and political education work and door-knocking and being in the streets and getting arrested—wherever you fit into that, using one’s talents. And no one gets more credit than the other. More people are understanding that now.

So, if you’re going to fashion yourself as a Black Leader—if that is what you are attempting to do, understand that there is no such thing as being a Black Leader per se. There is a role that you fulfill. Are you going to be a writer? Are you going to be an organizer? Are you going to go into electoral politics? When you decide that, what traditions are you going to steep yourself in? Who are you going to surround yourself with? And ensuring that you are always accountable to those communities and to those ideas. The idea that you’ll come out ready to be president of some organization—how about joining an organization and doing all the work that’s necessary? We have to get away from the chasing of celebrity status that has come in the media era. Not to say that before the proliferation of mass media, there weren’t people who were seeking celebrity on the basis of activism, but it’s simply easier now to get some attention and to fashion yourself as a, or the, leader of a movement. What’s more important now is that the recognition of that work does not happen alone and it does not happen because a singular black male charismatic figure emerges to lead the people. The people come together and choose to fight alongside one another.

Rumpus: You wrote about the Jena Six and how they were, in some ways, central to furthering your politicization in college. You thought your school’s administration would support your fight on their behalf. Eventually, you seemed to reconcile with the idea that the school is bigger than its administration, but it reminded me of things I heard at my college when we tried to agitate for change and would be met with members of the administration asking who the administration was. Did you ever feel like the deflection of responsibility was used as a tactic to shut things down before they could really get started?

Smith: I guess what’s different is they didn’t really deflect from responsibility. They just said no. It wasn’t, “Oh, I just don’t have the power to do that.” They just didn’t want us to participate in anything that was perceived to be radical. They didn’t want us to agitate. They weren’t saying that their hands were tied; they were saying, “No, you are not to be that type of Negro.” Their mission was more of assimilation and training us up to enter into the corporate world and white America. And not to confront, but to understand the culture so that one could move through it more nimbly and accumulate personal success. And so, that’s the thing that bothered me. It would have been one thing if there was a bunch of people like, “Well, I just can’t help you here. I wish I could. I wish that I had some type of pull here, but I just don’t.” It wasn’t that. It was people continuing to just say no. Continuing to push an agenda that ran counter to a lot of the history that they were nostalgic for or that they used as a cudgel against us to say that we were apathetic or that we had no sense of responsibility or duty to blackness, to the black race. Except we had a different outlook and that’s where we butt heads. And that’s why I wrote the things that I wrote and why I didn’t graduate. I wish there were more people that deflected as opposed to just straight up tried to deny us access to this larger activist and radical world, but it felt like there was no sympathy toward that at all. What there was, was a system of control.

Rumpus: I think deflection is another form of denial, though. Because it’s all these people who get into these positions of power, but still are holding onto remnants of what they were if they didn’t have any power, or just refusing to engage with the full power of their position.

Smith: Yeah, refusing to take on responsibilities that they now have and the means they have access to in order to actually challenge some things and push an agenda. They have the ability to do that, but they’re just saying, “I don’t know, I don’t think I’m supposed to do that.” It’s like no, that’s your job.

Rumpus: You write about how in 2008, Obama gave a speech that chastised black fathers. And it mostly seemed like he was using statistics to back up personal hurt, since his own father wasn’t around while he was growing up. You criticize the speech he gave, for good reasons. But within the context of your book, you seem to be hard on your own father in very specific ways—at one point, you say that he taught you love was conditional. Do you feel like in some ways, with your book, you may have mirrored what Obama was doing in his speech?

Smith: How so?

Rumpus: Less on a general scale, and more on a personal scale. Do you feel like you were hard on your dad?

Smith: I didn’t feel that way. But I also wrote it and have a really fraught relationship with my father. Maybe I don’t have enough perspective on that. I felt as though at the very least, I got to a point in the book whereby I lent an understanding and sympathy to my father’s position whereby I recognized where those lessons were coming from and what the desire for my life was and why he pushed me in certain ways, but that didn’t then translate into my acceptance of those ideas.

Because the whole book is about the challenging of the lessons that are passed down to black boys, and because I did indeed have my father in my life, I wanted to speak to this idea that what’s necessary above all else is black fathers in the home guiding their black boys from boyhood to manhood. I wanted to ask more questions about, “Well, are these the lessons that we were supposed to learn, because I think that these lessons are inadequate.” I think that these lessons were reifying certain forms of dominance, certain forms of oppressive ideology, that I think were more harmful. So, there was a question to me of, “Okay, if we’re saying we need fathers in the home, are we also asking the questions about what those fathers are teaching? And if we’re not, then why not?” And so, the question or the experience is my own personal one and there were many things that I inherited from my father that I wanted to ask some questions about. So, I don’t know. I don’t feel that I was hard on him. And if I was, I don’t feel that I was harder on him than I was on myself or any other figure or cultural product that is also featured in the book. It’s meant to be highly critical and I think it’s reflective of that on all fronts.

In terms of whether or not I was mirroring what Obama was doing in the number of speeches that he has given whereby he talks about absent fathers, I think yes. There is this part where I was speaking from a level of personal hurt that comes from my relationship with my father, and asking certain questions about that. I think the difference—and to me, it’s a big difference—is the subverting of the status quo versus the reification of it. Obama—in those speeches, what he’s doing is trafficking in a lot of racist ideas around black people and a patriarchal notion of what, then, will save us. My agenda is to question that. To say that either position doesn’t still reflect our personal hurt would be to be disingenuous, but I think that the larger question is the actual substance of it and the substance of the critique and whether or not it holds up. And I don’t think that Obama’s messaging holds up. I think that we have been given that messaging over and over and over again and we haven’t asked any questions or interrogated the other side of it. That limits the number of solutions that we’re willing to engage and the kind of solutions that we’re willing to accept. So I think that that’s the major difference there, but the idea that it doesn’t still come out of personal hurt is true. But for me, the greater question is what is the substance of the critique.

Rumpus: I gave your book to my then seventeen-year-old nephew for Christmas.

Smith: Nice.

Rumpus: And told him that if he read enough of it before I talked to you, he could ask you a question.

Smith: All right.

Rumpus: So, his question is: At my school, people are nonchalant when it comes to African-American insecurities and Black Lives Matter, especially African-American people. Besides sharing this amazing book, what other ways could I promote cultural awareness without receiving critical backlash?

Smith: There’s no such thing as not receiving critical backlash. That’s the big thing that people have to understand. I feel like everyone wants to engage this work in a way that will be safe for them and that they won’t rock the boat and no one’s going to get mad at them. Where everyone’s going to be comfortable. You have to prepare to lose friends because if you’re going to talk about uncomfortable truths, you’re going to make people upset and they are not going to want to talk to you. You have to be prepared for that. There’s going to be a critical backlash from people that you expected it from, and some people that you didn’t expect it from. You have to be prepared for all of that and you have to say how much further engagement you’re willing to do. Whether or not you think someone is coming to you in good faith. Whether or not you fundamentally see the world differently or that you have disagreements on the minutiae of the problems or their solutions. There’s no way to do the work without any backlash. Some of the critique and criticism is necessary to hear in order to sharpen your own analysis and become more empathetic and to broaden your sense of what justice looks like. To make sure that your blind spots are being accounted for, you have to be able to hear that stuff. To hear the racist, sexist, homophobic backlash is going to be disheartening. It’s going to be troublesome to try to navigate that and want to continue the work. But there’s no such thing as doing it without it and you have to decide for yourself how much you’re willing to endure and whether or not you still find the work to be fulfilling or whether or not you personally have the stamina for continuing. I immediately laughed at the last part to say that without critical backlash—sorry, that’s just part of it.

Rumpus: I agree. In Walton Muyumba’s review of your book for the New York Times, a criticism he had was that you don’t “fully reckon with what a feminist black manhood might actually look like.” How do you practice a feminist black manhood in your daily life? In what ways do you fail?

Smith: I would just first say to that critique, I can’t establish that for everyone. I wasn’t going to set it out in the book to say, “This is what it looks like.” And say that everyone’s supposed to follow that model. What the book is about is asking the questions and everyone needing to do that work on their own. It was never going to lay out what a black feminist manhood was going to look like for every person. I wouldn’t want to rob us all of our individuality. I would ask that we establish that individuality outside of the oppression and denial of humanity for others. And so, what I will say in terms of what it looks like for me is that my reading list is chock full of black and queer folks. That’s where I learn the most and want to engage and want to ensure that my blind spots are continually becoming clearer to me and that I’ve not been enacting the same forms of oppression on others that I’ve experienced myself. That I’m making room for and to note the number of opportunities that may come my way on the basis of people being more comfortable with my presence and ensure that when that door is open for me, I’m bringing all of those other folks through with me. That when I’m getting a call for doing media appearances or speaking engagements, that if I don’t think I’m the right person for speaking to that topic or I think someone would be better doing it, or I simply am not a part of the group of people that are being discussed, that I pass off that opportunity, and that’s whether there’s money involved or not. That it goes to someone else who is better suited for it and a part of the group that doesn’t generally get those opportunities, that people continue to shut out. That when I would want to say yes to something but simply can’t fit it into my schedule, that I always recommend a black woman for it, or a queer person. That when I’m going to write a story and they need a photographer or artist for it, the recommendation is always a black woman, a black queer person. That I’m not stepping into conversations and trying to dictate the terms of what it is or the parameters for discussion around issues that do not directly impact me in quite the same way as they do for other folks. Just to step back, learn, and amplify the voices of other people.

Where do I fail? I want to hear from folks where I’m failing. I’d like to know that. I don’t want to diagnose that myself. I would say that particularly in the promotional realm for the book, I’ve been taking up more space than I should. I’ve been trying to promote a book—another one written by a cisgender hetero black man, and even though I’m trying to do the work of interrogating those identities, it’s still a book by a cisgender hetero black man. I’m pushing it and pushing it and pushing it and wanting it to sell more and more so that I have more opportunities, which would then mean that there would be less opportunities for other people. Or that I would get offered more and they would just simply—even if I make a recommendation, they wouldn’t go to folks I recommend them to. So, I mean, that has made me feel like I’ve been failing because of the nature of what promoting a book looks like. I’ve been curious in terms of the book itself where I failed to interrogate gender identity and sexual identity and my position as someone who is privileged in terms of those particular identities, how I failed to address that within the context of the book. That hasn’t been the substance of the critiques, so I’d be interested in knowing that.

There are still certain things, I would say, in my personal life where I have to be more aware, in terms of: am I speaking over someone in a moment where I shouldn’t? Am I ignoring people’s voices? Am I hogging a conversation? Those little day-to-day things. I think probably the biggest failure of most cisgender hetero men is not speaking up in spaces where misogynist and homophobic rhetoric is flying around and there’s just a bunch of other cisgender hetero men around. I think that’s probably the biggest failure in my life that I can point to without letting someone else do the diagnosis. I would wager that it’s like that for most other cisgender hetero men. You become a coward. You’re just a coward in those spaces. You choose not to rock the boat, you choose to go along and get along. That’s a huge failure. And I think that’s something all of us—particularly myself—have to work on, because that’s where you lose the privilege. That’s where you put it on the line. And if you’re not doing that all the time, you’re not living up to your ideas and I fail at that more than I would care to admit. But it’s something to work on.

Rumpus: Was it hard to write this book?

Smith: Yeah. I went bald writing this book, it was so stressful.

Rumpus: Actually?

Smith: Yeah. So, I say that—my hairline was receding before. It was slowly creeping back and I noticed that. I noticed that my barber had to take my line back a little further each time. And it was fine, though, because I still had it. I could have still grown an afro out if I wanted to. But then, halfway through the book, I noticed my hairline was way further back and it was thinning so much that I could no longer hold onto it. I just had to start rocking the baldy. I was just so stressed out. I was like, “How come I have to go bald? Why couldn’t I go gray?” Obama’s still got a full head of hair; it’s just snowy up there. And he was fucking President. Why is writing a book this stressful? Yeah, it was hard. Especially the first half of it, because I didn’t know how to write a book! I’d never written a book before. The longest thing that I had written before starting this book was five thousand words. And when it got to print, it was cut down to about three thousand five hundred words. That’s the longest thing I ever had published before I tried to embark on writing what turned out to be fifty-four thousand words. It was stressful. It was not easy. But at the same time, it was the most rewarding experience as a writer. I’ll definitely be doing it more. And just losing more hair.

Rumpus: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me came out almost exactly a year before Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching did and won all of these awards and got all of this attention. And I know in an ideal world that there would be enough space for all black artists and writers to put their work into the world, but did you ever worry that there wasn’t enough space for both of you?

Smith: Oh, absolutely. Oh, I was shook when his book came out. I was like, “Oh, no one is going to pay attention to my book. They got their black-dude-book for the foreseeable future and that’s all that anyone was going to pay attention to.” Yeah, I definitely thought and felt the fear of being crowded out of the space by just how much attention Ta-Nehisi’s book got. And yeah, my sales definitely paled in comparison to his. The amount of critical attention and everything, yeah, sure. But I also had to pull back and recognize that this was my first book. My platform for this book was not as big or even close to that of Ta-Nehisi’s. And that there’s room, because what I was doing was different than what Ta-Nehisi was doing. What I was doing, I felt was necessary. The tenor of the books are different. The material is different. The objective is different. And we have to note that that’s the beauty of the art form—we can have these varied expressions and so many voices can come to the table. It’s the beauty of the democratization of the Internet, that all of these different voices are available to us and can have the opportunity to publish books and challenge existing scripts. So, yeah, that fear was definitely present, but I’m happy with the way that the book turned out. I’m proud that it’s my first book. And the folks at my publisher worked really hard to get as much attention around it as possible and the people responded. People that continue to read and engage the book are definitely heartwarming in their responses. Anytime I see pictures of it, particularly being given to young black boys, that makes me know that what I did was meaningful to people and that it’s reaching exactly who I wanted it to reach. And so, yeah, it’d be nice to share some of the adulation and recognize of Ta-Nehisi’s book, but I also know that that’s not the barometer of success that I was looking for. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t want to sell all those books or get all those awards, but in terms of gauging whether my book was a success, I’m happy to just keep receiving pictures of young black boys reading it.

Rumpus: I really appreciated the conclusion and how you recognize that your ideas and opinions will not remain static. Do you feel like any of the opinions that were put forth in the book have changed since publication?

Smith: I wouldn’t say that just yet. It’s only been seven months. I’ve been challenged and had to sharpen some of my analysis and the ideas put forth in the book, but I don’t disagree with anything in the book just yet. And that’s, again, not to say that I won’t someday. I just hope that I don’t become a crotchety sixty-year-old black male conservative, because it seems that that’s right around the time that black men start getting really conservative. But I hope that I don’t look back at sixty years old and think, “Oh my god, that stupid radical.” I hope that with the evolution of my thought process is a maturation of the ideas, as opposed to a rejection of them.

Rumpus: Toward the end of the book, you write, “If we believe, simply, that it gets better, there is no incentive to do the work to ensure that it does.” In light of our new times, what work do you envision yourself doing over the next few years?

Smith: Oh man. What I always tell people when they’re like, “What should I be doing to help these causes?” I ask, so what is it that you do? I think that what we all need to do is employ the talents that we have in the pursuit of the implementation of this ideology in all different spheres. And so, what I’ve told people is that I am a writer. That is what I do. I will continue to write. But then, there are moments when Donald Trump is on the verge of tweeting us into nuclear war where I’m like, “Is writing sufficient? Is there still utility in this?” And I wonder. I wonder if there won’t come a time where it’s necessary to shift roles and do something different. I couldn’t tell you what that is because I don’t know what that world looks like when that time comes, but it might be breaking people out of internment camps. Who knows? Until that time comes where it feels like the situation is just more dire than publishing words, I’m going to keep publishing words.

Rumpus: Who do you write for?

Smith: This book was written for seventeen-year-old black boys trying to find themselves and their place in the world. But more generally, I guess I would just say that I write for anyone who feels the anger of injustice and can’t sit still and can’t allow themselves to be on the sidelines. Anyone who wants to fight.

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Author photograph © Syreeta McFadden.


Abigail Bereola is the Feature Books Editor for The Rumpus. She aims to be a socially conscious creative. On Twitter, @sherarelytweets. More from this author →