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Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education, by Mychal Denzel Smith.

January 21, 2017

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education, by Mychal Denzel Smith.  Nation Books (2016), 240 pages’

4 stars

An articulate statement of what it means to come of age as a young black man “in a world of “black lives matter” protest, rap, and a black president.

Mychal Denzal is a 29-year-old young African American man who writes for The Nation, as well as appearing in a variety of Progressive program and magazines.  His autobiographical book provides excellent and much needed insight about young blacks creating a new protest movement today.

Any book by a young black writing about himself and his view of the world is bound to be compared to Ta-Nehisi Coates award-winning Between the World and Me. Both Smith and Coates’ books are excellent and much needed especially by those of us trying to understand current black anger. Books are important because they offer different perspectives on racial struggles than that of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Both authors dare to define themselves as “angry young men.”  I strongly recommend that everyone should read both.

But the books and their authors are different.  Smith is more than a decade younger than Coates and he focuses on the issues of the last decade. Coates’s style is more literary, and he focuses on classic questions of protest movements.  The son of a Black Muslim, Coates uses the literary device of writing a letter to his son and, without advocating violence, he points out the inadequacy of peaceful protest.  The son of a retired navy officer with no children, Smith subtitles his book as being about his own education.  He rejects his parents’ teachings of respectability and the need to prove yourself twice as good as whites, an approach he also criticizes in Obama. While understanding and respecting why African Americans have taken such a position, he disappointed and sadden by it.

Like Coates, Smith has been deeply impacted by the violence against young blacks, often directed at violence at other men of his own age.  The death of Smith’s cousin in street violence was a turning point in his life.  Travon Martin and others seen so frequently on TV appear regularly throughout his book.

Smith also moves into issues that Coates doesn’t address.  Unlike Coates he writes forcefully and critically about the aggressively masculine approach that runs through the black protest movements.  He reads and takes seriously black women in and outside the movement.  In addition, he chides the black community for being slow to accept the validity of LBGT lives.  Part of his rejection of respectability politics is that is too exclusive, requiring and accepting white norms rather offering accepting all as equally human no matter what their norms.

The autobiographical element in Smith’s gave me a new sense of what it means for a generation of blacks who came of age during the Obama presidency.  I have seen and heard them before, but Smith gave me a new sense of what it has felt like to be young and black in the crazy racial society we inhabit.  Smith writes openly about his own struggle with depression and the lack of services for a community riddled with violence and death.  Describing his shifting search for a hero, he also conveys his own confusion over what it means to a black man today.

It’s a process of self-creation in a society that has already defined you.  It’s resisting that definition because it denies your humanity.  It’s fighting to live long enough to recognize your own humanity.  It’s fighting to define yourself in your own terms.

In the end, Smith comes to aspire to the simple goal of “being an honest black man and a good writer.”  His book is testimony of his success.

Read it, everybody.

For my local blog readers, there is copy of this book in the church library.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2017 5:48 pm

    I wonder where the politics of this movement will go in the post-Obama age…

  2. aartichapati permalink
    January 23, 2017 2:17 pm

    I’ve not read this book before, but I saw the author speak in the fall. Some of the criticism directed towards Coates was that he did not talk enough about women, he focused mostly on men. I am glad that Smith took a more universal and open approach.

  3. February 3, 2017 9:24 am

    This book is high on my wishlist, and your review certainly pushed it up even higher. I definitely wished Coates spoke more about women (they seemed side-lined and objectified in certain parts) so I’m excited to hear that this author talks about women and minorities more. Thanks for the review!

    • February 4, 2017 9:20 am

      Good. He is much better than Coates on several issues including women, black masculinity, and homophobia.

    • February 4, 2017 9:28 am

      I think I am the only person to have anything negative to say about this book. It is definitely powerful. But I am troubled by his particular blend of fact and fiction–perhaps because I am so upset with the “alternative facts” we are told to believe. I usually like books that push this line, but here I felt it was important that his descriptions of slave life really were within the realm of possibility, if described through fictional characters, and that his other communities were not.

      Thanks for stopping by. Glad to have you back.

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