It’s an unfortunate coincidence that two of the year’s most important books about race in America — Marc Lamont Hill's Nobody and Mychal Denzel Smith's Invisible Man, Got The Whole World Watching — arrive during yet another volatile time in our country. But the timing is nothing if not evidence that the issues we continue to wrestle with — from mass incarceration and the widening wealth gap to incidents of police brutality in communities of color — are still ongoing.
Where Smith’s debut is an emotionally charged memoir about coming to terms with his blackness in Barack Obama's America, Hill takes a more academic approach with Nobody, examining systems of inequality that led to tragedies in neighborhoods like Staten Island and Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was gunned down in 2014. One place the books meet is in the work both authors do as public intellectuals who defy simple character descriptions. Hill is a professor at Morehouse and pundit for news outlets, but he also hosts a talk show on VH1 where he examines hip-hop and reality TV. Smith, for his part, is a contributing writer at The Nation, was profiled in the New York Times about his sneaker addiction, and named his book after a Mos Def lyric.
In a recent conversation with The FADER, the two authors spoke about their latest works, and the work that must be done.
I want to start with a quote from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which both of your books reference in a way. In the prologue the narrator says, “Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible.” Can you unpack that?
Mychal Denzel Smith: That’s sort of what the black experience is. You are constantly reminded of your invisibility, and even when we’re being talked about, people are talking around us. People are coming to the table with scripts about our lives that they’ve established that don’t fit our humanity, that don’t fit the nuances of our experiences, that don’t speak to the interior of our lives. So we as a people have had to — for the vitality of our survival — create art, create culture, do the things that then get co-opted and appropriated by white people. We create slang and create new languages to just relate to one another and create a space for ourselves that feels safer than the rest of America.
Marc Lamont Hill: There’s a kind of erasure and disappearance of our experiences and our lives. That’s part of why my book is called Nobody, right? It's a double entendre. On the one hand, you’re nobody: you’re a social misfit, you’re an outcast, you don’t exist, you’re erased from the social contract, you’re not given access to government resources. And the other way, you just think you’re invisible. Part of our solution to problems we have is to erase people. Like, “Oh, we have a problem with poverty. Well, let’s criminalize the poor and the homeless and keep them in jail so we don’t have to see them anymore.” Or, “We have a problem with the medicalization of drugs. Oh, let’s not treat [addicts], let’s get tough on drugs and put them in jail.” Or, “We have these people who need housing, let’s build these monstrous public housing facilities and stuff as many people as we can in them so we don't have to see them.” They’ll literally build bridges over communities so you don’t have to set foot through the poor people who you’ve disposed of.
In these ways people are literally erased and are nobody. And so, the challenge of being black and brown in this country is to wrestle with various forms of erasure and dislocation and not being seen. And then when you are seen, your voice is considered less valid and less relevant. Like you don’t matter. That’s what makes Black Lives Matter so significant. That’s what made Jesse Jackson screaming, “I am somebody!” so significant. We have to scream to be heard.
I’d like to know about the similarities between your life experiences. You’re ten years apart so you grew up with the same cultural reference points, but you were in different stages of your lives when Barack Obama took office, when Trayvon Martin was killed. Where do your lives connect and where do they divide?
Hill: I think one of the biggest differences is the social media piece. I came of age trying to make sense of the world without asking a lot of people or thinkers. I didn’t know there were people like me, so I felt completely isolated in 2000 when George Bush stole the election. I didn’t have anybody to talk about that shit with. Then in 2008 with Obama, there was a space to emote and impart joy and laugh in a different way. I also think in 2008, I won't say there was more engagement or consciousness, but I feel like when I was coming of age and for the entirety of my 20s, I didn't have the same community of people who were pushing back. We were getting shot then, we were getting beaten then, but I don't feel like we were as active or as engaged or as smart or as reflective about these issues as Mychal. Where Mychal is, I wasn’t. I didn't have that in me.
Smith: Aside from social media, I think the biggest thing is Barack Obama. I think the idea of coming of age in this moment where Obama is the prism for which the country understands blackness and understands black male identity — it’s just vastly different from coming up in your 20s and George Bush is president. It’s just going to be a different world. And that prevented opportunities for new conversations, but also a spitefulness in certain ways.
What I think we're up against is that before there was an identifiable enemy that you could point to and say, “That’s the reason we don’t have adequate education and housing.” And now, we’re in an era where people make excuses in a way that feels different. The presence of Obama, the progress which he supposedly represents, there’s a way in which it can distract from structural issues. The conversation is rerouted toward a conversation around the example that Obama sets.
And then when you have, from that seat of power, a president who has to embody a form of blackness that is non-threatening and speaks to black audiences in a way that is condescending and rhetorical, that lends legitimacy to a lot of already racist thoughts. When Obama is talking about how parents need to turn off TVs and kids need to pull up their pants and they need to hit the books — as if those are the only things holding them back — it lends a legitimacy to a legacy of racist thought around black life. When the most powerful black man in politics is saying it, then of course it must be true. So, contending with that in a generation that showed out in record numbers for him, then are disillusioned by the reality of the first black presidency, it’s something that we’re still going to be wrestling with even outside of our 20s.
Did you see A$AP Rocky on The Breakfast Club last week?
You've both talked about Jesse Williams’s speech at the BET Awards. LeBron James at the ESPYs was really powerful, and a lot of other public figures have spoken out as of late. When you see someone like Rocky who's given the opportunity to speak out but is unequipped to do so, are you disappointed?
Hill: Disappointment always implies an expectation. I don’t expect [celebrities] to do it; I like when they do it. My thing is, you could just go to the opposite extreme. You could just say nothing, right? That’s an option.
Smith: I’m of mixed mind and emotion on that. Yes, I would love to see more people with that platform speaking up to the issues I care about. But also, how many of these folks are engaged in these issues on a day-to-day basis to be able to speak eloquently towards them? And if A$AP Rocky is not, that’s fine! I’m still going to jam to his music. I’m good. It’s just that you don’t have to say things that are detrimental to the movement. You don’t have to say things that feel as if you’re disrespecting the work that people do want to do. That’s the problem with Rocky’s comments. What he’s saying to people is, “I don't have any sort of responsibility and how dare you ask me about it?” And that the work that someone like Jesse Williams or LeBron James or the WNBA players are doing right now is not valuable. He doesn’t view it as valuable, and that’s my problem. Just shut up.
As far as cultural touch points you share, Mos Def's Black On Both Sides was obviously relevant to Mychal and, I’m assuming as a hip-hop fan, to you too Marc. Mychal you were 12, Marc you were 22 when it came out. How do you remember reacting to it when you first heard it and how has that changed with time?
Hill: It changed my life for sure. The moment those drums hit and you hear Oh-oooh, it just took me to a place. I thought the album was so smart and it was speaking to my needs intellectually and culturally. Track to track, I thought it was brilliant. I probably spent the rest of my fan life waiting for him to make another album just like that. And I just gotta tell you, “Ms. Fat Booty” is one of the top five hip-hop love songs of all time. It’s probably the most underrated one because the title betrays the nuances and complexities of the love story.
Smith: It’s one of those albums where, immediately, you hear it and you have to play it back all the way through. Like, “I know I missed some shit and I gotta catch up.” When he's like, My restlessness is my nemesis, I was like, “What the fuck?!” Mos was just doing something on a whole other level there. Musically, the issues he was exploring — like, who else has made a song about the world water crisis and made it dope? You know what I mean? That album remains in my top five favorites of all time, even the way in which it still speaks to me. It changed me when I heard it and it still speaks to me.
Mychal, you wrote a piece for the Washington Post last week about how Obama has failed Black Lives Matter and how his mourning of the death of officers distracts from police shootings of innocent men.
Smith: What that piece was talking about was this letter to law enforcement that Obama wrote in the wake of these killings of the police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. He offered that full-throated support to all officers, saying how patriotic they are for the work that they do and how tough it is and how much we thank them for keeping us safe and how police officers just show up for strangers and treat them like family. And it’s bullshit! It’s not true. That’s the problem. It’s just not true and it’s not borne out by what we’ve seen, it’s not borne out by statistics, it’s not borne out by our experiences. So if none of that is true, what Obama was doing was affirming the mythology of the heroic police officer, to police officers. If you cannot be honest with them about what the nature of their job, then there's no hope for reform.
If they’re not going to come to table with an honest assessment of what they’ve been tasked with, then there’s no way that we’re going to have this dialogue or this fixing of police-community relations. If elected officials cannot be honest with police officers and essentially tell them that historically, what you’ve been deployed for, is the enforcement of racist laws. The enforcement of laws that reaffirm hierarchy of poverty, of gender, of race. If you can’t tell them that, then what hope do we have for any sort of change in the structure of policing? And that's really at the heart of what needs to be done. We’re not asking for different types of training or more diverse police forces, the problem is what the police have been deployed to do.
Hill: I think Mychal hit the nail on the head. We tend to look at these things as a problem with bad apples, right? That there are these awesome people who do awesome things who are constantly being undermined by these bad people who do bad things, and bad people get all the attention and we lose sight and perspective of how good the good guys are. That seems to be how we talk about this. And even the so-called leftists sometimes adopt that language too: “We’re not saying all, we’re just saying that we got some bad ones we gotta get rid of.”
That kind of logic and thinking isn’t the point of what the current resistance movement is about. What the current resistance movement is about re-imagining the role of police, it’s about re-imagining the role of the criminal justice system, it’s about having an honest conversation. If we don’t talk about that stuff and keep waiting for the bad cops to get caught or age out or retire, then nothing happens. I don’t deny that most of these officers are good people in their home lives. It’s just like American presidents. George Bush is probably cool as shit. But that doesn’t change his policy approach, that doesn’t change how he engages the world.
I’m not worried about their personalities or their intentions. I'm worried about the consequences of their actions. To get at that, you have to get at the structure that Mychal was talking about. You have to understand how we are seen, how we are treated, and how we are imagined.
Marc, you’ve been open about your love of reality TV and pop culture. And Mychal, you've talked about being a hip-hop kid and sneaker head. Can it be difficult to be intellectuals who also engage in modern culture that way?
Hill: I don’t think it’s difficult for us, I think it’s difficult for the people who don't want you to be a whole person. I don't see the contradiction. It's like, all week, people have been making Melania Trump memes, even people who aren’t into politics. So when I see someone making Melania Trump memes, I don’t say, “Look at you, why you doing politics? You’re supposed to be talking about dumb shit.” When I comment on the new DJ Khaled album, I’m going to do that because I’m going to be listening Major Key. I just am. And I enjoy that. And I enjoy watching reality TV. And I enjoy watching basketball games. And I don’t think we lose our critical eye or critical faculties when we engage that stuff, we bring our toolkit to those things as well. But I think there also has to be a space in life for joy and for healing and for laughter.
Smith: What are we fighting for? Are we not fighting for the access to that joy? If on the other side of the revolution we’re all miserable, what was the point? Embodying that now and living through that now is vital. And really, how are we supposed to survive right now? How are we supposed to survive the daily threat to our lives if we don't find the joy, if we don’t find something worth living for every single day? That engagement of pop culture, or whatever it is that brings you that joy, why would you deny yourself that?
Also, just as Marc was pointing out, it’s not as if we’re completely turning off our critical faculties when we engage this stuff. Like, I’m not buying sneakers without an awareness of the politics and the economy of the production and what big companies are doing in service of the labor they’re exploiting. We’re not blind to what types of misogynistic and homophobic messages are permeating the culture that we’re consuming. And it’s important to be engaged with that culture, because that’s what’s shaping people's thoughts. Most people aren’t going to go to Ferguson and expand on the entire history of that region like Marc did in his book, but if Marc can go there and he can also talk to people about the shit that they do love, then make the connection, that's what public intellectual work is all about. The idea of the intellectual as someone who is removed from society is one that’s false.
Circling back, what connection do you see between your books?
Hill: It’s funny, because they’re very different types of books. I wouldn’t call mine a memoir or a cultural criticism per se, but I still have a connection with the content of the book and the idea of what it means to be seen and not seen as a black body in America. I think we’re both wrestling with how all of the things we’re dealing with as a society are magnified, complicated, and sometimes contradicted by the age of Obama.
At the core of both of our books is a freedom dream. I think Mychal articulates his freedom dream more explicitly, and quite frankly, better than I do. For me, the freedom dream is more implicit. I’m saying that if we stop being treated like this we can get somewhere, and Mychal is saying what that “somewhere” looks like.
I think we both have that same freedom dream. We both want to find joy. We both want to find an end to suffering. And we both understand that can’t just happen on an individual level, it also has to happen on a structural level.
Smith: Both of these books serve as a social history of a moment that we’re going to be trying to understand generations from now. We’re wrestling with how to “be” within a society that does have a black president but still registers black people as nobodies. What Marc does so beautifully in his book is not just giving us the moments, but also getting us to the moments: examining the history of Ferguson, examining the history of Flint, telling us how we got here.
He's giving us that history because it’s vital and necessary to understand the trajectory. We have to know who made the decisions and how they made those decisions to get us to this point, and not be ahistorical in our analysis. What Marc is very good at is giving us all that context so that we’re armed with a greater analysis that cuts to the core of how white supremacy operates and how gender oppression operates within the system. And then, once you have that analysis, having the freedom to dream of what a world would look like without those things.