Photo: APB Speakers.

Michael Eric Dyson’s latest book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, was a bit of struggle for me to read because I was a little mad at him for writing it. Not because I’m not fan of Dyson’s work, which includes regular op-eds for the New York Times, a radio program, and close to twenty titlesI am. Like many black scholars and writers, I learned this game by watching Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown and one of America’s most visible political analysts, dazzle with his rhetorical ability, and felt cared for by the fact he took black culture seriously enough to give it thorough analysis. He never condescended toward the youth or chastised us for some perceived moral failings. He provided a blueprint for doing public intellectual work and being a cool motherfucker.

Nah, I was mad because I kept saying to myself, “This shit ain’t for us! Why you writing to white people, Mike? Why you wasting your time with them?” His signature brilliance was always on display, but I couldn’t get over the fact that I felt one of my intellectual heroes was abandoning us at a time when we needed him most.

I decided to take the opportunity of this interview to ask Dyson about that change in gears, and much more. And I walked away knowing that he hadn’t abandoned us at all. He was just showing a different side of the game.

Mychal Denzel Smith for Guernica

Guernica: Let me first start off by congratulating you on the success of your new book.

Michael Eric Dyson: Thank you.

Guernica: It’s an instant New York Times Best Seller. How’s that feeling?

Michael Eric Dyson: It’s great, man. Now I know what it feels like to be Mychal Denzel Smith, bruh [laughs]. But I’ll tell you, it’s been great because obviously a book directed at white people that tries to come to grips with some of the flaws and failures, as well as the weaknesses and blindnesses whiteness has presented and possessed, is a risky venture. But so far, so good. A lot of white people have bought the book, responded to the book, written to me about the book. And the fact that it’s been on the New York Times Best Sellers list for six weeks now is especially gratifying in light of the difficult subject that it tackles.

Guernica: You’ve written a lot of books. I haven’t read all of them. It’s a lot of books. But this is a departure for you, I think, and from the imagined audience of those other books, in that it seems like every other book of yours that I’ve read is directed toward black people. So why did you choose to write this book toward a white audience?

Michael Eric Dyson: I wanted to reach out to them in a challenging but not necessarily menacing fashion. So I adopted the form of a sermon to do that. And I wanted to address them specifically, because as they say in the streets, “Stakes is high.” The consequences of whiteness are particularly lethal right now. And the ignorance about it, especially on the part of white people themselves, makes them unavoidably complicit in a system that has to be unmasked, unveiled, undressed in order to be reformed or destroyed. I think it’s extremely important to challenge white brothers and sisters and think more systematically and strategically about the whiteness that they possess. So I thought it was time to have an honest, open, frank, unvarnished conversation with white brothers and sisters about the whiteness that they are often unaware of, that they know nothing of, or little of, or haven’t been forced to come to grips with. And I wanted to make certain that in this book I offered plenty of evidence of its existence, an anatomy of its destiny, and how we can figure out how to challenge it, and ultimately, I think, ask white brothers and sisters to stop being white—by which I mean stop being invested in a myth and a narrative and a faction that has little do with the truth of who we are as human beings.

Guernica: You’re not speaking only to wealthy white Americans, or liberal white Americans, or conservative white Americans: you’re addressing all of white America. And so, my question then is, in employing the sermon structure, do you feel like you can reach the entirety of that broad spectrum of whiteness? Because my initial reaction to that is that white people who are more of a secular ideology are going to immediately be turned off and feel alienated by the religiosity of a sermon. And conversely, those whites who may be more inclined to engage with religious tone, the Christian tone here, could be turned off because they don’t want to engage with the black rhetorical tradition found in Christianity.

Michael Eric Dyson: Yeah, that’s a brilliant analysis, and a very sensitive and careful distinction to draw. So let me address it. First off, some of the greatest leaders and thinkers in our country have been black preachers. From Martin Luther King, Jr. to Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Carolyn Knight, Gina Stewart, and so on. And Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the greatest sermon America ever heard in his “I Have A Dream” speech. Instantly memorialized of such stunning oratorical skill and extraordinary persuasion that it continues to be cited to this day as his greatest speech, though I think that honor really belongs to the speech he delivered the night before he was murdered. So America is capable at single moments of receiving the depth and the breadth of the homiletical vision of black America when a black preacher rises to his or her craft at the height of his or her ambition and the desire to tell America the truth. I had to take courage from that—plus, James Baldwin was a boy preacher. And we all know that his style of speaking and writing utilized the cadence and rhythm of the black sermons as well as Henry James’s more ornate rhetorical devices and styles.

When you look at that tradition, it’s clear that predecessors of the current black intellectual and cultural movement have had tremendous success with the sermonic ambition, if not the sermonic form. I think that some of the people who might be initially turned off because the book has a religious sheen or patina will see very quickly that this is a secular sermon. This is a sermon directed toward people whose ambitions lie outside of traditional theology and who will not be hemmed in by overuse of religious terminology, because there’s little of that in this book. The form is there, but not the jargon or the language.

And to the second part you laid out, it is true that some of what’s contained in the book is tethered to my own particular racial and revolutionary philosophy and that certainly could be off-putting to people who would otherwise be drawn to that sermonic form. But I’ve been delivering sermons for the last thirty-seven years, and from the very beginning, my sermons have been laced with and profoundly rooted in a political theology that places a priority on black freedom, black humanity, and black intelligence. My witness to the world is rooted in that. So I have every bit of confidence that either side will understand what I’m up to. The religious people will see that I’m profoundly religious to the point that I can’t engage in a serious and hopefully intelligent and illuminated conversation about race that has a religious backdrop without being smothered by it. And those who might be turned off who are secular understand that many of the values they share, I share too. I often say that I’m in bed, so to speak, more with those people who consider themselves atheists but who are concerned about the same things, ideas, and politics I’m concerned with than those who claim to be religious in the same way that I am but have no interest in the political reorganization of society, which needs to be talked about from the pulpit. In that sense, from the very beginning, right from the get-go, I’ve been a social gospel-er and a person who sees politics as a central dynamic to the encoding of religious rhetoric. And I’ve been doing that relatively successfully over these last thirty-seven years, so I had little fear that I would not be able to achieve something similar here.

Guernica: You did an interview for Mother Jones recently. You were talking about this idea of white people and peer learning, peer teaching, and peer evaluation—that there are certain messages that white people are going to refuse to hear from a person like you. And you say, in relation to white people, “I hope they read this book and engage with it. But other white people have a better chance of speaking directly to the white people they know about these issues because they’re less likely to be subject to ridicule.” I think I agree with the principle laid out here that people of privilege, people of power, the oppressors, are going to be more likely to hear critique from people who occupy their same identity position. What I’m curious about is what you see as the role of the black writer, you, in the position of this interlocutor, this explainer of black culture, black pain, black politics to white people. I’m wondering, how do you see that position being defined at this point, when we already have a tradition of the kind of literature that white people could mine for these answers? If they were of the heart and good nature to go and take and spread this message among other white people, and challenge other white people, what then becomes of the black writer attempting to do that work?

Michael Eric Dyson: Yeah, that’s a great, great point. There are enough literary resources that explore the template of blackness, the paradigms of liberation and emancipation as we’ve articulated them in the past, and that arc—that archives and curates a tremendous amount of intelligent resolution. The issues that white folk, if they had the inclination, could go dig up and take advantage of. And in my book, I talk about people like you and other young writers whose writings are central to that prospect in a nouveau black incarnation, if you will. And I point to older books by black people, white people, Latino people, and I think some First Nation people, as a resource for those people who are curious enough to investigate them. But I’m in an interesting position in this sense, because one of the consequences—and you could’ve taken a less charitable turn in your question—would be Negroes who stand up and say that we’re intellectually dancing for whites. Some of my students might say to white folks, “Hey, you know, I’m not here to educate you. I’m trying to get an education like you.” But I can’t say that. I’m literally a professor, so I can’t say, “I’m not here to teach you.” That’s literally my job. My job is to explain stuff you don’t know or already know and have to unlearn. My job is to teach you stuff you don’t know that you need to know, stuff you should know. I’m going to take what you already know and re-describe it.

In one sense, all of us are intellectually playing off of, riffing off of, the same thematics that have occupied the great jazz tradition of intellectual evolution over the last couple of centuries. We’re all playing a different grace note. You know, Louis Armstrong and, say, maybe, Duke Ellington or Billy Strayhorn or Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan—we’re all riffing off of those things, adding on our intellectual reflection, our social consciousness, our conscientiousness, our philosophy, poetry, and revelations. We’re all trying to grapple with that. And even though that great body, that great ocean, of literature and literary art exists, it is constantly being added to. I mean, was Claudine Rankine’s book, Citizen, necessary? Of course it was, because she added new dimensions to the discourse. Was it said before by Robert Hayden? Maybe, but in a different way.

It’s about the literary intensity that we generate to throw up against the bulwark of white supremacy. The poetic resistance to forms of oppression that we can generate in order to bear witness to that truth. I don’t mind the job of saying to white people, “Yes, this is what I think you need to know, this is what I think you’ve been missing.” And it’s my job to educate white folks every day. I teach at the well-known African-American school called Georgetown, so I’m just around white folk every day. I’m just challenging white supremacy at its intellectual heart every day. It’s a pedagogy that I deploy against some of the most vicious resistance to blackness that whiteness is able to throw up. I engage in a lot of intellectual combat with supremacists and with the predicate of white supremacy and white indifference to black identity, and brown and red and yellow identity too, for that matter. That is my job as an intellectual, as an extension of my vocation: to engage in a serious reckoning with the present manifestation of both white supremacy, white refusal to acknowledge culpability, and the attempts of black people to re-describe the harm and trauma we’ve endured, as well as to say afresh what it is that must be done if we are to be conscientious.

We have to explain to each other again why what we do is important. We have to understand and explain to each other what blackness is. For instance, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know the story of Hidden Figures [three mathematicians who overcame discrimination, as women and as African Americans, while working at NASA in the early 1960s]. That ain’t nothing I knew. And I’ve been studying for a long time, bruh. And you’re a very bright guy, and I’m a relatively bright guy. That’s not a story I knew. So the more I learn, the more I learn what I don’t know. Blackness is an ocean, a universe, a possibility that can never be exhausted. And so we have to constantly reaffirm the necessity of excavation, of archiving and curating, but also exploring, and understanding afresh and learning for the first time what it is that we need to know, and what the limits and boundaries are, and what the themes and preoccupations should be, and what the redemptive character of that erudition is. I find myself in the exciting position of doing all that, and at the same time having the obligation to explain to white people what the deal is.

In one sense, I’m a delayed response from Malcolm X to the young white girl who approached him asking what could be done. He said, “Nothing.” I love Malcolm X, he’s one of my heroes. He later admitted that that was not the right approach and he should’ve given an answer. I’m trying to give answers. If curious white people want to know what they can do, many of them write me. And they have, long before this book, when I wrote the op-ed that this book is based on. We had 2,500 responses on the Internet, because people were either furious or taken with the argument or wondering what might be done. I got so many emails from white people asking what they could do. And I knew that they didn’t know how to necessarily think about these issues. How to frame them. Originality doesn’t consist of saying it first, originality consists of saying it in a way that is specifically tailored to the moment in which you are addressing—and at the moment when the complications arise, challenging the logic of what you’re doing. The heartbeat of your originality is deep within a body of thought that continually wrestles with the contradictions and limitations that we’re constantly trying to overcome, the curiosities and the ignorances of the people we seek to help. And so I think if we’re going to ask for white people to be accountable, we also have to demand a certain kind of engagement with these truths. Should they have studied them before? You dern right they should have. But at the same time, I wanted to have an intellectual entrée into this universe of thinking that updates the best reflections on these issues that I am able to muster while also challenging white brothers and sisters to be responsible for obtaining that knowledge, too.

Guernica: Well put. Can you explain a little bit more of what you mean when you use the phrase “innocent whiteness”?

Michael Eric Dyson: I’m talking about the addiction of white people to not knowing. Forever not growing up. I mean, see for reference, Donald Trump. Here’s a guy who is addicted to not knowing. A lethal ignorance is manifest in him. And there is also this innocence of  “I’m not guilty, but I’m innocent.” Innocence in that way, and innocence in “I don’t yet know all of the vicious consequences of the world around me, so I stay stuck in this innocent cocoon that doesn’t expose me to learning brutal, traumatizing knowledge that would deprive me of my innocence outright.” I’m trying to play off of innocence, in at least those two ways, and many other ways. James Baldwin talked about the fact that people who invest in innocence at a certain level will die. The culture will not be able to persist in light of the rigid systems of its own innocence. And I want to ask white people to unveil it, think about it, let me help you rip that mask off, let me help you understand and peer beneath the surface and behind the curtain to see how that white innocence has been constructed on the backs of black people who could not help but know the horrors and traumas of white supremacy that were posed upon them—the pervasions and depredations that were imposed on them, that were the result of a culture that refused to acknowledge our humanity, our fundamental intelligence, our worth and value.

I wanted to challenge that white innocence, to look at what it might mean to white people to maintain their insistence on that innocence, and to show white brothers and sisters how the preservation of such innocence is antithetical to the relevant evolution and maturing of American democracy and culture.

Guernica: What I’m concerned about is that I feel like we— black writers, myself included in this—have a tendency sometimes to coddle white audiences, to tell them that they don’t know, as opposed to approaching them as active participants within the system of white supremacy who have a vested interest in the state of it.

Michael Eric Dyson: That’s a great point, and when they read the book, they’ll see that I’m digging deep to the recess of that innocence and challenging from within and without. The very distinctions you make are critical—not to see the legitimacy of certain innocences as a naïveté. A kind of racial naïveté that refuses to be grown. That has its grown pants on, so to speak, and refuses to walk down the lane of enlightenment and knowledge. So in that sense, yeah, you would be absolutely right. But what I’m saying is that there’s a kind of recalcitrance, an arthritic refusal to open the mind and to receive. A deliberate unknowing that blocks out the very knowledge that one doesn’t want to assess in order to be responsible. I’ve taught with the Catholics for a while, and they don’t own this particular phrase, but they certainly have made use of it: culpable ignorance. That means even when you don’t know, you’re supposed to know. Police got you, and they say, “Look, you’re going fifty miles an hour in a sixty-five-mile-per-hour zone, and you might say, “Well, hey, I didn’t even know that, officer.” And they say, “Well, when you took the test, that sign over there suggested to you that that’s what the deal was.” You are responsible for what you don’t know and were supposed to know. You’re driving the car. So Americans who contend that they are ill-informed, and that they’re waiting for a magic bullet of enlightenment to penetrate their flesh, or that they’re waiting for somebody to yank them from the cocoon of innocence, in that sense, no, I give no quarters.

In the book, there’s a relentless interrogation of the practices and presumptions that prevent white brothers and sisters from knowing, from being culpable, from being held to account. And some of the responses to my book have focused on how it’s relentless in its interrogation of that, and very discomfiting for people to read. And I know what they mean. They mean that I’m not holding back. I’m not trying to be complicit in the creation of innocence as I seek to deconstruct it. So there’s certainly no coddling in that chapter on white innocence and it goes to the depth and the heart of what it means to be a constructed, artificial, fictional white person in America. Whiteness itself is artifice, is fiction, is a construction, is narrative, is myth. And I seek to deconstruct all of that, to challenge the accretion, the intellectual accretion, the philosophical secretion that generates within the edifice of white supremacy that allows people easy escape, and egress. And I’m saying, “No, you can’t leave now. You cannot afford to not know what I’m talking about, because you gotta be held accountable.”

It’s similar to the way in which men often think about gender. They think women, they don’t think men. They don’t think toxic masculinity. Your book has brilliantly deconstructed that. Well, I’m saying the same thing goes for white people who think about race as black, brown, red, and yellow—no, it’s you, and your ignorance has to be challenged fundamentally. What I’m trying to do in my book is to highlight the necessity not only of understanding it as a historical construction and an artifice, a myth, but also of understanding that to release it is to claim your humanity. And the only way for white folks to reclaim the full arc of their humanity, the full trajectory of their ethical content, of their ethical identity, is to surrender the white innocence that prevents them from being fully mature.

Guernica: The part of the book that I think has provoked the most heated debate is your idea of individual reparations—that white people should simply pay the black people in their lives more than they normally would for services and set aside funds for helping out with educational costs. You caught criticism on a number of different levels there. Part of what, I think, the resistance to this notion stems from is not even the specific idea of white people giving black people money but simply the oppressive group, the privileged group, feeling that they actually don’t have to do anything to end the oppression of the oppressed. And this isn’t just for white people. This is for cisgender men. This is for hetero people. This is for anyone in a position of privilege feeling as though what we’re asking for is not a radical restructuring of our systems of government and the economic and the social order, but just that they be nicer.

Michael Eric Dyson: Right, right, right, right… You know, I tell people that I have nineteen albums [laughs]. This is one of my albums, and on my other album, in my other book, I’ve articulated that, right? I’ve talked about every possibility of the intimate reconstruction of the social and political order that permits the thriving and the flourishing of white supremacy and the complicity in a culture that refuses to be culpable, responsible, to name itself, as one of the pillars of injustice that needs to be knocked down—and the refusal to acknowledge one’s own role in that. There’s no doubt that I have argued tirelessly, nearly endlessly, in so many books, about the need for the very thing you’re speaking about: the social, the economic reconstruction of society. The demand that people be present themselves, that they contribute to the reorganization of society, that they own up to their own complicity in a system from which they derive benefit and advantage, often without acknowledgement, and the discomfort, the uncomfortable way in which that must be acknowledged.

So everything you said and more I tried to talk about and deal with. This thing was very laser-focused. There is a chapter in my book called “Responsive,” which is about the ten things that white people can do, and the reparations thing is just one of those. The logic of reparations is writ large in our culture. My own Georgetown is trying to come to grips because it rests upon the unpaid labor of the enslaved. So you’re absolutely right in terms of the demand for all of these actors and participants in the drama and pageantry of democracy to be held to account and to understand their individual responsibility as an agent of their own destiny.

Now, having said that, this book here is directed at those white people who say, “Yeah, that’s a great idea, the reorganization of the logic of American capital, toward the end of allowing us to identify our complicity in an evil system that’s real—but what could I do as Joe White Guy or Jill White Woman on the average day to make a difference? And I’m saying on the real tip, on the local level, you could do a bunch of stuff. You could mentor young kids. You could buy them computers. You could discern the needs of local schools that your particular corporation can help. It’s not simply about a transfer of money, but that is symbolically important—the transfer of wealth in an ethic of restoration and repair. It’s critical, but more broadly, and more important, I think, is the notion that there is a consciousness as an agent of one’s own destiny as a person in America, that there are things that can be done, that there are advantages and benefits which exist that are directly related to—and even rest upon— white privilege.

The issue of redistribution of resources and wealth needs to resolved systemically, but in the meantime but there are individual spots you can occupy. There are things that you can do on a daily basis that will make a difference in moving the needle in individual lives. When we look at the mentoring of young black kids, for instance, the number-one mentor group is white women. I think after that maybe it’s black women, and then white men, and then black men. We can make all kinds of arguments about that. White privilege allows a certain kind of leisure that can be deployed by white people of advantage toward our restoration. That’s all true and good. But it also suggests that there is an individual approach to the issues that many of these white people have taken up as a recognition of their tie to and responsibility for some of the inequities that exist. And I don’t think it has to be an either-or. I think it has to be a bifocal approach, where you can both focus on issues that have to be talked about in the broader culture, as well as need-fully addressing those that have to be reorganized to reflect a greater degree of justice on a particular issue on a local level. So I’m saying to white brothers and sisters that it can be done in ways that are practical, logical, pragmatic, that are within your grasp, that no government has to give you support for, that no legislature can bring into existence—there are things that you can do on an individual level, even as you continue to fight oppression systemically, that make things a little bit better for an identifiable group.

Guernica: I have just one more question ‘cause I know you got, like, five more interviews, a lecture to deliver, and a book to write tonight—

Michael Eric Dyson: [laughs] I’m trying to be like you when I grow up. C’mon.

Guernica: First, thank you for the shout in the book. I really appreciate that. What do you feel distinguishes this newer generation of black writers from your generational cohort?

Michael Eric Dyson: Well, first of all, my pleasure, friend, because your work has been seminal and significant. When you write in The Nation, the essays that I read—every one of yours. You had a fresh approach, your relationship to a historic legacy that you were accessing and acknowledging while also pushing the conversation forward. And you’re on the younger cohort of even the younger cohort.

So there are multiple generations within hip-hop. For instance, Chuck D’s generation ain’t Future’s generation [laughs]. One is trying to deal with the mummification of black consciousness and another one is mumbling in the face of opposition. And I think that one of the beautiful things that I love about younger people like you, Jamilah Lemieux, Rembert Browne, and that cohort of artists, activists, writers who are thinking critically about social injustice is that you’re using the pen as a stream of conscience to articulate the ideas that should be taken up; you think critically about these issues, and about the actions and gestures that should be adopted in order to change stuff. I think you all are the first really full-blown generation in the digital era that uses all of the media that is available to you that was not available to us.

We had to go to the “lie-bury,” the library, in order to find out where the lies were buried. We had to go 185.7, which wasn’t WDLX, it was some other radio station. And that’s where we had to go. And the Reader’s Periodical, the card catalogue. You could do that in a minute on Twitter—find your way to the archives of thousands upon thousands upon millions of articles that can be shared and celebrated and accessed. But there’s a temptation to believe immediately that what we see produced on that page, on social media, is sufficient. So people will ask me some deep questions, and I’ll say, “Look, I done wrote like five books on that, homie.” I can’t answer in 140 characters. I can point, in 140 characters, to what I’m talking about and I can put the link on there for you to read. “I wrote a ten-thousand-word essay.” “Oh my god, that’s too long.” “Well, my Lord.” We’ve got to be able to grapple with serious ideas and even though social media presents, in a more condensed fashion, an opportunity to access the archives, we still demand a serious engagement with the intellectual and scholarly ambitions that at our best mark us as intellectuals and thinkers.

Your generation has been able to present us with the cutting-edge paradigm of a digital intelligentsia, while at the same time trying to grapple with the traditional issues that have come about. And there’s pros and cons on both sides. Because I think sometimes younger people—not necessarily thinkers and intellectuals and the like, but people who are on social media and who are not as informed as journalists or professional thinkers—may get a bit, you know, impatient with the necessity of sustained thinking, sustained argumentation, sustained dialogue. When it’s being chopped up, you could be Teju Cole and write a whole darn essay on Twitter. That is remarkable. But most of us ain’t gonna do that or read that on a certain level. Although it’s an incredible exercise, and it was a rebuke against those traditional literacies that happen to disdain younger people. I never engage in that practice, but at the same time, there’s something to be said for the long run, for the journey of thinking deeply and diving deeply. My generation was forced to do that in a certain way, while your generation has been able to access the information more immediately, but some of the skills and the habits of that long view may have been lost.

For my generation, it took a long time. A response to an issue wouldn’t come out in a magazine for four months. And now, if you’re blogging or writing an op-ed, that will be available immediately or in the next five hours or the next day. That pace is astonishing, and it allows younger thinkers and writers and intellectuals to weigh in on a particular issue. If journalism is the first draft of history, then digital literacy is the first blush of the first page of history. And when you change the metaphor—because you’re dealing in gigabytes, and focusing on how much concentrated attention is paid to a particular issue on your blog or in your op-ed—it changes our perceptual capacity to think about these issues. Because now, we’ve got the immediate take, the weeklong take, and then the six-month take, and then we’ve got the year-or-two-later take. And I think that the cadence and the pace and the consumption of that knowledge has been altered by digital media in profoundly positive ways but, again, it mitigates against a kind of longer view that allows you to say, “Let me take a little time on this, to think about what this might mean and respond.” I see both of them as strengths, but there are also weaknesses in both that have to be acknowledged.

What I like most, of course, is the velocity of change you younger intellectuals have to contend with. You know, five years ago, we didn’t know what cisgender meant. Nobody was using that. No one had to be arrogant about it: “Oh my god, you mean you’re not up on…” Dude, slow down. You ain’t even know that word three years ago. So be cool on that. But the thing is, while we’re engaging in the acknowledgment of new knowledge and organizing under new rubrics, new terms, it’s so important to try to translate that jargon, too. You gotta make it sing among the ordinary people who don’t know what cisgender or heterosexism or heteropatriarchy or the paradigmatic move toward a more inclusive future means.

Jesse Jackson once said something that I think bears repeating: “If you say something I can’t understand, that’s a failure of your education, not mine.” So when you’re really in touch with a subject, you can break it down six ways from Sunday. You know, when I read your writing, and look at your book, the clarity of your prose, the way you grapple with complicated ideas, expressing them in such a way that ordinary people can understand the stakes—it’s not just that they understand the words, that’s important, but what your book does is make us understand what’s truly at stake. That’s the kind of moral lucidity and ethical clarity that has to be concomitant with a clarity of literary expression, and when you get both those on the same page, that makes a huge difference. So those are some of the things that I think I admire, that young intellectuals like Marc Lamont Hill, James Braxton Peterson, Salamishah Tillet are doing. I mean, those three happen to be my former students, so I’m sorry—those are my mentees and I brag different. I’m like Hov.

Mychal Denzel Smith

Mychal Denzel Smith is a contributing writer at The Nation, a blogger at, and an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, published in 2016 by Nation Books. He is also a freelance writer and social commentator. His work on race, politics, social justice, pop culture, hip-hop, mental health, feminism, and black male identity has appeared in various publications, including The Guardian, Ebony, theGrio, The Root, The Huffington Post, and GOOD magazine.

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