Mychal Denzel Smith’s “Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching” describes the author’s experience growing up as a black man in 21st-century America. Smith begins with the death of Trayvon Martin and revisits many of the moments that informed his own young adulthood, such as the inept reaction to Hurricane Katrina, Barack Obama’s ascendancy and presidency, and the loss of black lives to institutional force and sanctioned violence.
Along the way, “Invisible Man” considers a compelling question — “how did [Smith] learn to be a black man?” He answers by sharing the books and music that shape his ideology, ranging from philosophers like James Baldwin and bell hooks, to rappers like dead prez and Mos Def, and artists like Aaron McGruder. Smith gravitates toward pop culture and speaks with familiarity about television shows, movies, songs and celebrities. He also reflects back on his college years, and we see the self-described introvert as a nascent activist and intellectual and writer.
Smith’s debut defies categorization. Although it centers around his experience growing up in a turbulent place and time, strictly speaking it isn’t memoir. Nor is it autobiography. At times it has the tone of long-form editorial journalism, but Smith also strives for the keen observations and thoughtful context often displayed in effective cultural criticism. He expresses himself clearly and directly; what he writes stands out more than how he writes it.
Ultimately, “Invisible Man” is a philosophical work. Smith supports James Baldwin’s idea that blacks in America can either be conscious and angry or blissfully ignorant. As a black man reviewing the book, I was frustrated by suggestions that a limited set of emotional reactions are available to me. I also grew impatient with Smith’s tendency to imply a dominant or mandatory black experience. Joy, self-care, sadness, frustration and indifference — all of them and none of them — are among the many permissible or even revolutionary responses to oppression.
The chapters devoted to Smith’s personal life resonate the most. He writes with courage and candor about learning to live with mental illness. He shares a different relationship with his father. A passage devoted to how he was affected when a beloved cousin was murdered is heart-wrenching and memorable. It reminds us of the devastating impact violence has on survivors.
“Invisible Man” challenges us to confront our legacies of racism, patriarchy, homophobia and violence. At a time when Americans seem to shout at each other across every demographic, Smith implores us to listen instead. His straightforward explanation of his experience growing up as a black man in America is worth our urgent attention. It allows for understanding and encourages empathy at a time when we need both.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist. He lives in St. Paul.
Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching
By: Mychal Denzel Smith.
Publisher: Nation Books, 224 pages, $24.