What I’m Reading: Mychal Denzel Smith

February 5, 2016

I read books every week — books I’ve assigned my students for class, books I’m reviewing before publication, books we’ll be discussing on my MSNBC show, and books for no other reason than the pleasure of reading. Every week (or so) I share the books I’ve been reading and my reflections. Sign up here.

Trayvon Martin was born on February 5, 1995. Today he would have been 21. A man.

In honor of Trayvon, what I’m reading today is Mychal Denzel Smith’s brand new memoir, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching.

We did not watch when Trayvon was shot by George Zimmerman’s bullet. In fact, when the image of his body was initially leaked, we were still, as a public, capable of being scandalized by seeing the twisted remains of a dead teen. But think of how routine it has become since to witness black boys meeting violent ends. Captured on police dash cams or bystander smart phones we watch black boys die as videos replay hourly on cable news and are clicked feverishly on YouTube. It is still rare to watch black boys grow – to hear them laugh or cry, to declare their passions, and to reason carefully.

This is part of why Smith’s book is so affirming, necessary, even delightful, despite its brutality and angst. Mychal Denzel Smith answers the pressing but unasked question: what would happen if all those black boys felled by bullets had a chance to make mistakes, read books, fall in love, hone skills, take new paths, and grow up?

The story is fully and unflinchingly Mychal’s, and because Mychal is so distinctively self-aware, so intellectually invested, and emotionally raw, it cannot simply stand in as a generic tale for all the lost black boys – except that they, too, would have had stories entirely their own to tell if only they had had a chance to write them. We owe it to them, and more importantly to ourselves, to read Mychal’s book and render visible what we would rather forget.

On Trayvon’s birthday, I read Mychal’s story, because Trayvon did not get to grow up to write his own.