As black men are cut down by the police and self-appointed vigilantes, an activist wrestles with competing claims—from his family and community, his historically black university, the media, and white America—on his blackness and how it is to be lived.
Nation contributing writer Smith, who was raised in a strict military household and surreptitiously listened to hip-hop under the covers at night, writes of the tension between his straight-laced parents and the brash anti-establishment views of his artistic heroes. His political awakening was framed by a litany of names, men and boys like Trayvon Martin, whose death “places us in the unenviable position of wishing that our martyrs could have survived to become tokens.” Voting for Barack Obama was his father’s proudest memory, but the author did so unenthusiastically, feeling that the “potency of black political activism is undercut by the unfounded belief that we can find a place within the system and thrive.” Smith uses deeply personal, often haunting imagery to describe his formative years at a historically black college and his struggles with mental illness that left him a few credits shy of a degree. He gradually came to realize that, in his internal worldview, women had been nearly as invisible and agentless as black men in the white imagination and that the names of black women and black gay men who meet similar fates as Martin are quickly forgotten. “We use our anger at the state as a justification for the violence we enact on black women, then tell them not to hold us accountable until we have defeated racism,” he writes, and he connects sexism and homophobia to the structural and systematic oppression of black men in America.
Realizing that he has more questions than answers, Smith cautiously sketches a useful blueprint for radical and intersectional politics in a country where a black child can grow up to be president but where living while black is still dangerous.