An author’s aspirations in the time of Obama and Trayvon

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JOHN YANG: Finally tonight: the story of a black man growing up in a society fraught with racial tension.

Jeffrey Brown has the latest addition to our “NewsHour” bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: “I started this book with the question, how did you learn to be a black man?”

That line comes from the new book titled “Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education.”

Author Mychal Denzel Smith is a contributing writer for “The Nation” and other publications. This is his first book.

And welcome to you.

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH, Author, “Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching”: Thank you for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s start with that question, how did you learn to be a black man? Why was that the question? Why was that still the question today?

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Well, so the book has its Genesis after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin February 26, 2012.

After that event, we were having a conversation about the lives of black men in America, and particularly young black men and the experience of walking through a world that’s still — where racism persists, and the judgment on the basis of stereotype has this effect where one’s life could be taken.

And we were having a conversation about the talk that black parents would give to young black men about how to survive in this country, how to comport oneself with authorities.

JEFFREY BROWN: How to behave.

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: How to behave.

And what it did was, it was flattening the experience of what it is to be a young black man in America, and to say that that’s the only thing that we have to concern ourselves with. Like, it’s a big deal to — continually to exist in a country that upholds racist ideas and racist structures, but the interior of black men’s lives are a thing that we don’t really talk too much about, right, the nuances of our experience.

Walking through racism is important, but how are we dealing with talking about patriarchy and misogyny and homophobia and class race elitism and mental illness? We’re not including these things in the narrative around young black men.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you do that by taking us through your education, looking to role models that you looked to, right, leaders, writers, musicians.

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You also refer to a kind of traditional black narrative. You said, the traditional black narrative, I experienced racism, I overcame racism.

And you’re specifically doing something different or feeling something different.

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Yes.

I don’t think that it’s something to overcome. I think that these are systems that we are experiencing and need to be dismantled, but I think that there is a feeling, particularly in black communities, that one does the hard work and does — and presents himself as twice as good and as respectable, and that you will be spared the sting of racism, because it cannot touch you if you present yourself as impenetrable to it.

And it’s just not true.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Mr. Speaker…

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: We have lived through eight years of a black presidency, and we have seen the amount of racist attacks against him, a man who, by all measures, is the most respectable black man that the United States has ever produced, and achieved the highest office in the land and can still be hit with racism and has faced the most recalcitrant Republican Congress in history, on the basis of racist backlash.

So, that idea just does not sit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Barack Obama, this presidency that we have lived through, is perhaps the most pivotal figure in this book for your life and for our times.

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, for you, most interestingly, what comes through is the deep ambivalence you feel about him, right, that he is almost not who you wanted to be.

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Yes, well, he’s not — it’s not a question of whether I want him to be anyone. Right?

I think that he is who he is, and he’s a product of certain traditions and ideology. And he’s only — he’s only president — the first black president possible because of the ideology that he espouses, because he is sort of — he is a very centrist, mainstream Democrat whose politics are not going to challenge the status quo in radical ways.

And so, yes, he’s successful in large part because of that. And he’s the first black president in part because his narrative, his story doesn’t remind people of America’s racism, in the same ways that a person who is a descendent of slavery would. He is not of that.

So, there are certain things that make Barack Obama possible and make him an inspirational figure in a lot of ways, but then there is the way in which he talks to and about black America.

I think that a lot of what he — the work that he has done in assuring voters who turned out, white voters to turn out for him, was that he wasn’t going to play favoritism to black America, that he wasn’t a race man, that he wasn’t concerned about the idea of racism to the point of policy changes and an actual shift in the way in which we conduct business here in the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you wanted something more from him and from yourself, from others?

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: I would like to see more movement on the ground and consciousness-shifting and discuss — and discourse in our everyday lives, so that we produce the kind of politicians that respond to that.

I would like to see more of us engaged in reckoning with the history of the United States. I would like to see more of us dealing with what the present of racism looks like, so that we understand how this country is built and who it’s meant to benefit.

And, in that way, when we, as voting constituencies, shift the way that we’re thinking about it, our politicians have no other choice but to respond.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about for yourself, finally? You write near the end of the book about wanting to become, as you say, an honest black man and a good black writer.

What does that mean? What are you aspiring to?

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: The honesty is that — is knowing that there has been a very masculinist narrative around black life in the United States, and that someone in my position, as a cisgender, heterosexual black man, knows what that experience is and can continue to repeat it over and over again, and never have to interrogate complicity within other structures of oppressions.

And I think being honest means that we start doing the work of that interrogation for ourselves, and that gets us to a politics that’s more open and more inclusive and talking about equality and just for all people.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book is “Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education.”

Mychal Denzel Smith, thank you.

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Thank you.

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