Design: DF/Public Seminar

“Coming off of a decade or so—oh God, this year marks 12 years since I first published—of thinking about the worst things that happened to Black people in the United States, I just wanted some pleasure in my life,” says writer Mychal Denzel Smith from his balcony in Brooklyn. Smith’s most recent book, Stakes is High: Life After the American Dream, winner of the 2020 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, challenges the American Dream by unflinchingly confronting the realities of American life. Now, after being mired in tragedy during the years it took to write and promote the book, Smith is working to incorporate more levity into his life and work. 

With a cigar in hand and wearing a black velour hoodie— “a nod to the smoking jacket, but way more fly”—Smith joined Erica Marrison on a sunny March afternoon for a conversation over Zoom. The pair discussed strategic writing, the problem with progress as an ideology, and the necessity of prioritizing pleasure. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Erica Marrison: How did you get your start in journalism?

Mychal Denzel Smith: I got my start professionally writing for a tiny Black news-focused site; that was still in the days when they would’ve called us “bloggers.” We were writing opinion pieces—what we now think of as “hot takes.” 

EM: Now, when you are writing longer essays, do you rely on craft more than when you’re writing something that’s more like a “hot take”: something short that responds directly to, or is inspired by, the current moment? 

MDS: It’s actually the opposite for me. Writing quick responses exercises a particular muscle where, for the most part, I’m relying on what I already know, things I’ve already read, and I’m just sitting down for a few hours to knock it out. With a book, or a long essay, something that gestates for quite some time, I’m looking for the spark, looking for the thing that hits, you know? I’m reading things that maybe aren’t even related to what I’m writing, I’m going out for a walk, I’m doing all these things that are me searching for the heart of what I’m attempting to capture. 

EM: In your first book, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, you use pop culture to mark time and memory. Is that an entry point for you as a writer, or is it a strategy to get the reader to engage with political conversation through something that excites them?

MDS: Both. Even writing about myself is a strategy, right? It’s a way of engaging an audience and allowing people to see themselves within a story. And that cuts across various identity points. You know who Kanye West is, so when I’m engaging with Kanye in this moment, you’re understanding and connecting to your own memory of him and viewing it through a different lens as I detail my relationship to him. 

And then, it’s also saying, there’s an understanding of the things people are engaging with every day that are not theory, that are not political in the most myopic sense of that word, but I want them to reimagine those things and reassess their relationship to them.

EM: Do you use pop culture as a strategy in your teaching as well?

MDS: I wouldn’t say I use it in that way. Some of the stuff we are reading is about pop culture, but we’re really getting into the nitty-gritty of craft in my class. For example, we did a whole class on Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s essays. We read three of them, and they’re about Dave ChappelleKendrick Lamar, and Missy Elliott. So yes, these are obviously pop cultural figures, moments, and experiences, but I’m trying to nail down the craft. I’m thinking, what do I think good writing looks like? And, how can I introduce my students to it? I’m getting them to think about the big themes and ideas that go into good writing, and then to get granular: What makes this sentence good? And what does that portend for the rest of the essay?

EM: Speaking of craft, in your writing you really reject respectability politics. You reject the demand from dominant media and editorship to pander to white comfort. What are the ramifications of that for your professional life? 

MDS: I made my declaration that I wasn’t going to pander to white comfort when I wrote an essay for Harper’s called The Gatekeepers. I was talking about what it means to be a Black intellectual, what demands are being placed onto you, what the media ecosystem asks of the Black intellectual, and then, what effects that has on what we can imagine. 

Look, my inbox fills up when a Black person has been shot by the police. My inbox fills up when someone says the N-word somewhere. But there’s less interest if I want to explore Black culture in ways that are just about my own understanding and my own meaning making of things that had nothing to do with white people, particularly when I was younger. 

I think that’s shifting a bit because there are more Black editors sitting in those places now, but I also think that there’s still a discomfort among white “gatekeepers” with a politic that sits a little more outside the mainstream. But that can change. In 2015, I would’ve thought it unthinkable that Mariame Kaba would publish an op-ed in The New York Timestitled “Yes, We Literally Want to Abolish the Police.” But by 2020, when that’s a rallying call in the streets, you have to contend with it. If cultural and political shifts happen outside of the media ecosystem, the media is called to respond and it opens up some opportunities. 

I’ve been lucky, in part, because I sold a book the first time around that did pretty okay. It wasn’t about white people at all. My second book was actually truly addressed to white people that had been activated during the election of Donald Trump. It didn’t sell as much, but it won a nice literary prize. Now that I have some professional cache, I can say, “I’d like to do this,” and I can get an audience that will consider it. It’s not going to be the same for every up-and-coming Black writer.

EM: In Stakes Is High you write, “the problem is when progress becomes its own ideology.” Can you expand on what you mean by progress as an ideology? 

MDS: The problem is believing that the incremental betterment of things is in and of itself the best that one can do. My issue here is that your ideological outlook is relegated to the idea that in the short-term, mid-term, and even long-term, for some things, a lot of people are going to continue to suffer, but we can pat ourselves on the back for making incremental progress. Like, a few people are doing a little bit better, and therefore, things are getting better. 

I’m thinking about this in terms of the trajectory of Black Americans in this country. I’m supposed to be grateful that I’m no longer in chattel slavery. And am I? Absolutely. But that does not negate where we are in terms of Black people’s socioeconomic outcomes in a country that has produced an immense amount of wealth through the exploitation of our labor and our bodies. 

What I want is to dismantle the systems that create the conditions for that. And if you can’t see the continuation, can’t see that it has embedded itself into our institutions, that the exploitation of Black labor is the way to build wealth—because it starts there—and you’ve never done the work to actually take that out, then you are satisfied with the incremental progress. I’m not satisfied with that.

EM: Is radicalism the corrective to that ideology?

MDS: Yes. Because what radicalism is doing—that is, the definition that has been handed down to me by folks like Angela Davis—is that it’s grasping at the root. It’s saying, we have to get to the very bottom of what the problem is. And then you uproot, you completely toss it away, and you plant something new. 

Does that mean I think that you can just eliminate a system and then everything’s immediately better for everybody? No. But within the idea of progress, you are allowing a system of violence to continue to perpetuate itself and become more ingrained in the way that we think about the world. And the further ingrained it becomes, the harder it is to uproot. 

So if you’re committed to the idea that the best course of action is a simple progression from terrible to decent, to one day in the far imagination, utopia—because I don’t think people who think of progress as the ideal even think that there’s something on the other side in which everyone could be cared for—then you are also committed to the long-term suffering of generations upon generations.

EM: You wrote a collaborative letter in Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, with Laymon, Darnell MooreKai M. Green, and Marlon Peterson. I’m curious about the process of writing that together.

MDS: It was the brainchild of Darnell Moore; Kiese anchored that and put it in his book. I couldn’t remember the last time that I had written a letter, then to address it to multiple people, to try to capture an intimate interior dialogue within myself, and to open up the space for all of them to respond with their own intimate thoughts? It’s one of the most beautiful experiences of writing that I’ve had. It was the first time that I really experienced that our community was building something. 

That’s something that I want more people to be thinking about in terms of the actual process of writing. When a lot of people confront the page, they’re thinking of themselves and what it is that they’re trying to transmit, but not always thinking about themselves in dialogue with, and in community with, other people and what we’re all working toward. This letter was my first experience of that and it’s guided a lot of the work that I’ve done since.

EM: Was your Playboy column, Philosophy of Pleasure, which you’ve since taken up on Substack, born from the same time period as your podcast, following Stakes is High?

MDS: Yeah. I had the idea for the column to explore all of my pleasures in life. I mean, we’re sitting here right now and I’m smoking my cigar. It helps to manage my anxiety in a number of ways, but it’s also this pleasurable thing. I got really into bourbon, and it’s this pleasurable experience to learn more about something that I’ve drunk before but didn’t know anything about. Coming off of a decade or so—oh God, this year marks 12 years since I first published—of thinking about the worst things that happened to Black people in the United States, I just wanted some pleasure in my life.

EM: Has writing about your joys and pleasures changed the way you approach your work, or do you still have a lot of journalistic pressure to respond to the times?

MDS: I’m never not going to be responding to the world, that’s at the core of me. That was the whole purpose. That’s why I started doing this anyway. But you ask whether writing about my pleasures changes the way that I approach things. Yes. I don’t want to have to compartmentalize my pleasure and separate it from the ways in which I observe the world and think about politics and radicalism, because they’re not separate entities. 

You have one life and you live it all, simultaneously. I want to find the connections between all of those things and be able to explore them through the lenses that I’ve developed and that will keep developing, and hopefully find ways for them to sit beside each other without ruining it for myself.

EM: And you’ve spoken before about how we, with the necessity of talking about all of the suffering in the world, often forget to remember and imagine what makes life worth living for. 

MDS: Absolutely. What are we fighting for? We want good lives, but what does the good life entail? If we’re thinking about the biggest thing facing us—climate disaster—and we’re wanting to shift the way in which we get energy, what are we putting that energy toward? Because on the other side of figuring out our energy problem we have to ask: What are the things that we want for ourselves that we’re going to be devoting that to? 

I feel like I’ve become a materialist, but I do find pleasure in things. I like getting dressed and putting together a dope outfit. That’s pleasurable to me. I like doing my skincare routine. I don’t want to have to lose these things. Now, if it’s absolutely necessary to lose it for the survival of the planet and the species, all right, we’d have to do away with some things. But what are we getting in there that’s going to make life worth living? Because I don’t know about anybody else, but if I’m just left with my own mortality, I’m like, “What the fuck are we doing here? That’s all we’ve got?”

Pleasure must be, if not the driving force, close to the center of what we’re searching for, because it’s the thing that makes all of this work worth doing.

Mychal Denzel Smith is the author of the New York Times bestseller Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching (Bold Type Books, 2016) and winner of the 2020 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction Stakes is High (Bold Type Books, 2020).

Erica Marrison is a writer and MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School.