In his book, Smith, who is also a contributing writer at The Nation, addresses a myriad of important topics pertaining to the progression (or lack thereof) within the black community like the persistent stigmas attached to mental health, to being a man and showing emotion, and to the LGBTQ community. Or the lack of recognition of black feminists and black female revolutionaries as major contributors to our historic movements and victories. Or our traditional beliefs in the so-called “effectiveness” of respectability politics. And in candidly reflecting on his own struggles (Smith discusses his battles with an anxiety disorder, depression, homophobia, lack of an emotional connection with his father, and his struggle to accept Obama as beneficial to the black community) Invisible Man, Got The Whole World Watching opens the door for other black people, men and women alike, to relate and feel empowered to confront and discuss our own imperfections.
Personally, there were a few topics Smith discussed that I’d never thought I’d end up questioning so thoroughly. And at one point, this book had me wondering: Have I been doing this whole social activism and progressive/intellectual black woman thing wrong this whole time? Like, for instance, I used to believe having an increase in black fathers in our communities, (thus decreasing the amount of households financially lead by single mothers) was a major key to solving many of the socioeconomic and behavioral health issues that run rampant among our youth — particularly among our black boys. I’d never asked myself why we believe we specifically “need” black fathers to be present in order to fix the growing issues we have among black families. Smith asks,
“If black children were raised in an environment that focused not on their lack of fathers but on filling their lives with the nurturing love we all need to thrive, what difference would an absent father make? If they woke up in homes with electricity and running water and food, and went to schools with teachers and counselors who provided everything they needed to learn, then went home to caretakers of any gender who weren’t so exhausted from work that they actually had time to sit and talk and do homework with them, and no one ever said that their lives were somehow incomplete because they didn’t have a father, would they hold onto some pain of lack well into adulthood?”
I’d also never thought deeply about the possible consequences that exist in the collective erasure of black women in the Civil Rights Movement that now (arguably) continues within the Black Lives Matter Movement. Smith notes that the lack of recognition of black women within our movements has gone on (to our detriment) for decades, saying:
“But such is the story of black women standing behind and by black men through the most challenging parts of our existence, and black men looking behind and beside ourselves and not seeing black women standing there...We rallied for the Jena Six, but we don’t speak to the ways in which black girls have their voices and behaviors policed in school settings. We balk at the number of black men locked behind prison walls while ignoring the increasing number of black women with similar fates...This is not accidental. We haven’t been neglecting black women as substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and minds--through some collective black male brain fart. We have done so because we have come to believe in patriarchy and male dominance as the realization of freedom.”
Photo: Nation Books
Smith even challenges the idea of respectability politics, using President Obama as an example:
“The ability of a nation founded on the enslavement of African people to elect a black man named Barack Hussein Obama to the highest office in the land is no small thing….But by every measure, Obama also represents the most 'respectable' black man this country has ever produced. And what has his respectability won him but disrespect?”
In examining his personal triumphs, trials and shortcomings as a young black man in America during the times of Trayvon Martin, President Obama, Hurricane Katrina, The Chappelle Show, The Jena Six, Oscar Grant, LeBron James, marriage equality and black feminism, Mychal Denzel Smith’s timely account of his journey into adulthood pushes his audience to challenge the status-quo. To go back to the basics and reflect. To question what we absorb, promote and ultimately, what we choose to accept.
It’s easier to criticize the society that surrounds us for it’s shortcomings, but we can also use that same vigor for our own self-examination, much like Smith has done here.
So thank you, Mr. Smith, for pushing us all to confront the issues we’ve allowed to hide in plain sight.