"Art has to be a kind of confession," James Baldwin said, fifty-four years ago. "If you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too." Baldwin, more than any other American writer, showed us how every sentence contained the possibility of discovery for both writer and reader. Over the course of the ensuing months, I'm going to ask some of the country's most incredible creators to let readers into the crevices of how they do the work of facing and discovering life. Every creator will be asked the same six questions.
Two of the questions focus on memory, love, misogyny, and blackness. Two of the questions place us at 12 years old, the same age Tamir Rice was when he was gunned down by police in Cleveland Ohio; and the same age Davia Garth was, who was killed by her stepfather in the same city. One of the questions asks us imagine two incredibly needed national policy proposals. The final question ponders how black lives can actually matter in 2015.
Our first creator, Mychal Denzel Smith, a Knobler Fellow at the Nation Institute and a contributing writer at The Nation, has written some of the most consistently brilliant, probing, and unafraid prose I've ever read. No one in my world brings as much passion and precision to the work of discovering as Smith. He is one of the few writers on earth whose love for us refuses to stop when the ink dries.
Laymon: Tell me about the first time you remember your love for black folks being threatened?
Smith: I was in second grade. My teacher had us doing the obligatory Black History Month project where you select a single black person from the approved list of noteworthy negroes and then reduce their life to a couple of highlights. Actually, I don't even think we were going to do anything particular to Black History Month until my mother went to the school and asked about it. Anyway, I remember this project out of all the ones I would later do because, A) it involved some craftsmanship, as the assignment was to build this movie reel-style contraption out of a shoebox and paper towel rolls, and B) because I did mine on Malcolm X. It was the first time I read his autobiography. Keep in mind I was seven years old. I didn't understand everything I was reading, and built the project mostly around other, easier to comprehend for a seven year old, resources, but there were things in his life that were clearly very rich and fascinating that I wanted to share with my classmates.
I was an aggressively shy kid, not one to raise my hand or volunteer to speak in front of the class. But I was excited about this. And my mother came to school to help me with my presentation. Other kids got up and did Jackie Robinson and the like. Then it was my turn. I stood there with my mother, talking about this dude, Malcolm X, that seemed so cool to me. And I'm just talking about his life, and his philosophy, and some white kids started crying. Like, got mad upset. Their parents were there, too, and they wanted me to hurry up and finish my presentation so I wouldn't further upset their children. I didn't understand what was happening. My mother helped me keep rolling my little shoebox movie, skipping over some parts—I guess the ones that may have upset the kids and their parents some more—and I sat down after finishing to the most lukewarm applause.
When you were twelve years old, can you describe for me what a perfect day would look like?
Is it sad or endearing that a perfect day for me at twelve years old is eerily similar to what one would look like for me at twenty-eight? Because all I wanted then, as now, was to eat breakfast food, play basketball, watch cartoons, get some new sneakers, and stay up all night reading and writing. Only difference may be that twelve year-old me would want bacon.
If twelve-year-old you could describe the most exciting thing you did last night, what would he say?
Twelve year-old me would've enjoyed last night. That's all.
Can you describe your first memory of misogyny and anti-blackness colliding?
I was at, of all places, a Wu-Tang concert. I missed Wu's heyday by virtue of being a pre-pre-teen when they took over hip-hop. I felt I needed to shore up my hip-hop head bonafides by going to one of their shows 15 years after after 36 Chambers dropped. I went with my girlfriend at the time, and we waited the mandatory two hours after the show was supposed to start for Wu to finally get on stage (sans Method Man and with way too much Cappadonna). The place erupted, in part for excitement to see the Clan perform, but also because everyone had been standing around drinking for a long time and they couldn't contain themselves any longer. Wu-Tang shows are filled with white frat boys. Hip-hop shows in general are filled with white people, but Wu has a particular following among white frat boys that bond with them over the fact that they, too, enjoy marijuana.
So when Wu hit the stage, it turned into a white, frat boy mosh pit. It's the least sexy shit I've ever witnessed. Just a bunch of drunk white boys mashing up against you, with no room to move or enjoy the music, at least what could be made out of it. Anybody violates your personal space for too long, you're bound to get upset, and that's what happened. These white boys acted like me and my girlfriend didn't exist. We weren't there to entertain them, so in many ways, we didn't exist to them. But our elbows did. We weren't on some Dennis Rodman fighting for a rebound shit, but we did what we could to clear out some space for ourselves. One white dude didn't take kindly to that. He got up in my girl's face and told her to watch it. She ain't never been the type to back down, so she told him about himself. I stepped in between them. He told me he was sorry. He apologized to me. Then proceeded to talk over me and tell my girl that he'd get some friends to fuck her up. Then he apologized to me again, after I gave him a few words of my own for that comment. It's amazing how, even though both of us were invisible in that crowd, my black maleness got apologies and her black womanness got physical threats.
If you could concretely propose any two new national policies, what would they be?
One: reparations. I know we kinda talked about the issue last year, but I want reparations for black folks, reparations for the victims of police brutality, reparations for anybody who has been incarcerated due to the War on Drugs, reparations for anyone who ever had the police called on them while in school, reparations for survivors of sexual assault, reparations for anybody who has done years of unpaid domestic work, reparations for anybody saddled with student loans, and reparations for all the folks who have worked a job for minimum wage. There's going to be a lot of overlap, and so be it. Cut them multiple checks.
Two: I know it's not the important agenda item, and not even really a policy, but I'd love to change the national anthem. I want something that's a true affirmation to black self-love. Imagine a whole nation listening to Janelle Monáe's "Q.U.E.E.N." or Kendrick Lamar's "i" before the Super Bowl. How dope would that be?
How can black lives really matter in these United States of America?
They already do. I guess the question is how do we start treat them like they do. And the only answer to that is put an end to white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. That's how we ensure all black lives are treated like they matter. How do we accomplish that? The homie Jesse Myerson and I recently laid out a few concrete policy goals that could assist in that effort over at The Nation. But before that, we have to understand as a society, as a culture, as a democracy, as a country, that true justice won't come without sacrifice. It's not enough to simply understand what privileges we derive from the system. We have to be willing to commit to living without them.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at the Nation Institute, a contributing writer at The Nation, as well as Feministing and Salon. He was recently named to The Root 100 and was a finalist for the National Association of Black Journalist's "Salute to Excellence" Awards. His work on race, politics, social justice, mental health, and black male identity has appeared in various publications, including the New York Times, The Atlantic, and Ebony. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
[Photo via AP]