A Black Man’s Coming of Age in the Age of Obama

Mychal Denzel Smith
Courtesy of Nation Books

In the title of his first book, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education, The Nation contributing writer Mychal Denzel Smith calls to mind three works: Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man, Mos Def’s “Hip-Hop” and Lauryn Hill’s seminal album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. With the eloquence and beauty of all three, Smith deeply excavates his own personal experience set against the backdrop of contemporary America—while acknowledging the clear lines of history that tether us to the past. How, Smith asks, do you learn to be a black man? What is it like to be a black man in America?


Smith explores pressures his parents laid on him to become one of the “good blacks”—to assimilate silently and be successful in America—versus his own desires to become a modern black activist along the lines of Malcolm X. For Smith, authentic blackness was also found in the world of conscious hip-hop by Mos Def, Tupac, Public Enemy and the black comic strip Boondocks, where “it was as if the blackness messiah had come down to lay hands on me personally.”

There was a power in black art, Smith writes, “to articulate the rage of a generation that took to the streets in rebellion (called riots in the rest of the world) because the police could beat Rodney King within an inch of his life and be acquitted of all charges brought against them.”


But who was allowed to be angry? Smith asks. Although black anger had long been a political tool for social justice, anger now “belonged to thugs, menaces to society,“ writes Smith. “I was to be a member of the talented tenth, and therefore my anger needed to be suppressed.”

This duality is seen in the immensely nuanced and complicated portrayal of his relationship to President Barack Obama that runs through Smith’s book. Here, Smith explores, as other leading thinkers have, the lack of attention Obama has paid to his black constituency; Obama’s focus on absent black fathers; his lack of redress toward institutional racism and state-sanctioned racial violence; the fact that black Americans, under Obama, are worse off than other groups.


Smith posits that Obama had to be a certain type of black—not the “militant Malcolm,” not even the racially conscious Martin Luther King Jr.—to get elected. Obama “was a black man,” writes Smith, “but he was not a race man,” meaning that “he did not focus his condemnation on the United States’ history of racial terror, did not seek explicit redress for the exploitation of black people’s labor and creativity." Obama was the kind of man Smith’s parents were trying to raise him to be to succeed in America. Writes Smith: Obama was “the right kind of black. The successful, respectable kind of black. The kind of black that was ‘twice as good,’ that made itself known and then faded.”

But, for Smith, divorcing his selfhood from his black activist politics was impossible. Meditating on the responsibility of black leaders, he found inspiration in the political activism of Muhammad Ali and Harry Belafonte in comparison with the apolitical silence of the famous blacks in entertainment in the ’80s and ’90s: Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan.


It is LeBron James who created a “new model” outside Jordan’s political silence, Smith writes. James has “exhibited a great awareness of his position as a highly visible black man and not shirked the idea that it comes with some social responsibility.” Smith recounts the profound impact of James and his Miami Heat teammates speaking up after Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman. For Smith, this was as important a moment as Kanye West standing onstage after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to say, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Smith thankfully devotes attention to the invisibility of black women in the work of his heroes and in his education. Because of this mindset, the pivotal role of black women in past and present social-justice movements is woven through Smith’s book. There is a clear accounting of the need to stand up for black female victims of racial violence as much as for black men, plus a discussion of specific violence against the black LGBT community, which gives his book a more thorough relevance than others on this topic.


Most interestingly, Smith looks at the role of mental health in the black community. Inspired by bell hook’s book on the topic, Rock My Soul, Smith looks at the historical and contemporary causes of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of dealing with racial violence on a daily basis.

There is also analysis of the effect of the military and the state in taking advantage of young black men to become “cogs” in the war machine—the long history of mining the working class and minority populations as cannon fodder. “Choice is a privilege not afforded most black boys trying to become black men in America,” writes Smith. The combination of racism and, oftentimes, poverty creates severe limitations and becomes life-threatening during any given chance encounter with a representative of the white supremacist patriarchy eager to do violence upon black bodies.


Malcolm X. Hip-hop. Racial activism. Black feminist thought. Black art. Hurricane Katrina. The killing of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and on and on and on—“each one nudging the anger of a new generation from dormant to active.” These are the formative influences and experiences that made up Mychal Denzel Smith’s education. Here is the deeply thought accounting of the contemporary black experience by one of our foremost writers and thinkers. A scintillating, rewarding read.

Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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