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Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man's Education - Mychal Denzel Smith

This disappointed me. It’s not really a memoir – which is probably for the best; the author wrote it at age 29 and his life to that point doesn’t sound especially remarkable – but instead it’s a 220-page op-ed piece without a single citation. It’s all the author’s opinions about various contemporary events and social justice issues, including lengthy descriptions of news and pop cultural events, including entire segments of the Dave Chappelle Show, excerpts from Obama’s speeches, descriptions of events in sports, etc.

The book begins by talking about unarmed black men sometimes being shot by the police, which clearly makes the author angry and upset (rightly so), but he doesn’t have anything original to say about it, unless you count the offhand claim that this is a deliberate effort to keep the black community down. By whom, he doesn’t say. Does he think police officers are doing this on purpose, rather than making bad snap judgments because they, like everyone else, grew up in a stew of racism in which the evening news constantly associates black men with crime? Or is it that these shootings have the effect of keeping people fearful, even without dastardly intentions? How does the rate of police shootings of unarmed black people compare to the rate of police shootings of unarmed people of other races? Why doesn't he talk about the racist genesis of the drug war? The facts are out there, but Smith seems interested only in sharing his own opinions, which might be more valuable without all the unsupported claims.

But then, shocking but unsupported claims seem to be his trademark; he writes about an incident in college where a protest in support of the Jena Six at his HBCU was preempted by a last-minute pep rally, and he responded with an op-ed entitled “Hampton University Hates Black People.” A professor later pointed out to him that the university (which is 90% black) consists of a lot more people than the one administrator who made that decision, and Smith acknowledges the point, but clearly hasn’t changed his style.

People have also praised Smith as a black male feminist, but I found this portion of the book to be the least valuable. Yes, the civil rights movement sidelined black women, and today’s black culture (as well as white culture) could certainly do better. But Smith’s criticism is over-the-top. He takes lengthy aim at a rap song (“Brenda's Got a Baby”) for insufficiently specifying what makes its female subject unintelligent, but it seems to me “the girl can barely spell her name” makes things clear enough in this context; it's a song, not a novel. Then there's this passage: “There isn’t a man alive who hasn’t abused a woman in some way. Through outright lies and lies of omission, deception and manipulation, exploitation and judgment, silencing and ignoring.” At the point that you define every negative behavior as “abuse,” the word becomes meaningless. And it’s unhelpful to paint gender relations with such a broad brush – claiming that all these behaviors carry more weight when enacted by men due to patriarchy – when African-American women do better than their male counterparts in important areas such as educational attainment. It’s a subject that requires nuanced analysis, and Smith doesn’t offer any, apparently opting instead to just prove himself “woke” and move on.

There are a couple of chapters that are better, though. To me the best is the chapter about homosexuality, where Smith writes honestly about dealing with his own homophobia, and about the ways that the homophobia and macho requirements of black male culture are damaging to everyone involved, and about realizing his own heterosexual privilege. The chapter on mental illness is also decent – he writes about his own struggles with depression and anxiety, and how long it took him to acknowledge this as a genuine problem, and how dealing with discrimination and violence causes mental health issues. Again, though, this chapter would have benefited a lot from some research to back up Smith’s opinions; some studies, some interviews with experts, some statistics would have improved it immeasurably.

In the end, Smith touches on a lot of important topics, but he doesn’t do so in a way that seems helpful in moving the conversation forward. This is essentially a book-length op-ed, but like most op-eds, it offers simply rhetoric, which will have people who already agree with the writer nodding along without coming away armed with new facts or knowledge, and people who disagree dismissing the piece for its inflated language and unsupported claims. And in his criticism of Obama for talking about the complaints of working-class white people alongside those of black people, he comes across more interested in proving his righteousness than in finding solutions; ironically, the exact same attitude shared by Trump voters. A quick read, but as a cultural contribution it’s lightweight.