My Activism: Mychal Denzel Smith
Illustration by Donte Neal
Interview by Myles Johnson
When cultural cleanses are under way, one of the first things burned to the ground are the libraries. It makes sense. In the library, the Gods, disillusionments, epiphanies, fantasies, and lessons of a people live; if you mean to convince the world that a people never existed, or that they existed insignificantly, destroy the library. When you understand that words hold power, writing can be understood as a form of activism.
You can craft resistance in phrases, and be radicalized in a corner, silently with no one being the wiser. Writing is revolutionary. The key to creating such revolutionary ink is when the writer marries a vicious idea with an understanding of both language and their voice. Writing is magical when that marriage meets a mind that is both willing and open. Writer, Mychal Denzel Smith, is a few-in-a-generation type of writer that articulates problems hidden behind the rib of a generation and uses those discoveries to birth not just truths, but bridges that make you feel closer in a world that can make you feel wildly isolated. Smith’s latest, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, sparks conversations that do the deep work of connecting truths about patriarchal and white supremacist domination and, most impressively, demonstrates that he is a great voice without insinuating that he is the great voice; which is a black male patriarchal tradition. Smith is powerful. But, he becomes radical by gracefully sharing that power through transparency about where that power is rooted and where it lives beyond himself.
Mychal Denzel Smith may rarely be seen with a protest sign in the street, but his activism is one that is just as rigorous and his frontlines are in your imagination. For Philadelphia Printworks’ ongoing #MYACTIVISM series, I was permitted to speak with Smith about his fears, his hopes, and his more revolutionary style choices he brings to his creative discipline.
PPW: In your book, you had a very profound observation about the deep contradiction of working at Wal-Mart while using that money to purchase Angela Davis’ autobiography. This battle is universal amongst all people that have a critical consciousness and also desire a way to survive this domination we are critical of. Is there advice you can give to people that might have to navigate domination (in this case, capitalism), but still desire to resist domination?
MDS: This is, perhaps, the biggest internal struggle I face. The ability to survive a capitalist system necessitates a level of compromise with that system, which necessarily puts one in the position of participating in a system of exploitation. But beyond that, there is real pleasure that is found in participation, as capitalist production of goods and services offer for us forms of entertainment and consumer products that appeal directly to our pleasure centers. How, in good conscious, can we allow ourselves that bit of pleasure, of joy, while knowing that it comes at the expense of someone else's exploited labor and/or health? I wish I had better answers here. What I can say is that the changing of individual behavior, while it may bring a personal sense of satisfaction, will not alter the system. We will need collective organizing efforts and macro shift in our economic system to free us from this particular bind.
PPW: From citing bell hooks and Assata Shakur to public dialogues with Janet Mock, you’ve seemed to consistently be inclusive to identities that are beyond cis-gender, heterosexual black men. How conscious is the effort? And how important do you think inclusivity is for people that are looking to create their own resistance work?
MDS: It was deliberate. We are at a point where cisgender, heterosexual-identified black men can no longer act as though we haven't been consistently challenged to de-center our identities, and also interrogate our complicity within patriarchal, homophobic systems. I wouldn't even say it's about "inclusivity," it's about justice. This is our duty, responsibility, and debt to those who we have rendered invisible by virtue of focusing on cisgender, heterosexual black men in our cultural and political work. Failing to live up to that responsibility can no longer be an option.
PPW: You’ve reached a certain amount of visibility that some may never acquire or have yet to acquire. What is one thing you would tell your less visible self about hyper-visibility, or fame, that you’ve learned through experience?
MDS: It's more exhausting than it looks.
PPW: “The struggle continues” is a common phrase. Since domination always exists, it becomes imperative to care for yourself and find delight and humor in life. What are ways you find delight and care for yourself even as the struggle continues?
MDS: Community. The existence of community is vital, for your sanity. To know there are people who see the world similarly and are willing to struggle alongside you is vital to finding joy in this work in order to keep going. Good food, good liquor, good sex. I love watching cartoons, specifically Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but all the stuff that was hot during my childhood.
PPW: Writing can function as activism and protest. Why did you choose writing as a way to resist and dissent?
MDS: It's where I found my talent lies. That's the important part, it's understanding what talents you have and how best to turn them toward resistance. Writing was always my thing, even when I didn't take it too seriously. And what our history has shown is that the written word has the ability to shape consciousness not just in its time but for generations. It is lasting, but also flexible. I want to argue, with myself and others, on the page, in hopes that we can imagine and build the new world from what we discover there.
PPW: Politically, a lot has changed (and a lot has stayed the same) since you’ve written your book. What are your thoughts on the current political climate?
MDS: I'm scared. I'm still working through my thoughts, but what I feel is scared.
PPW: Specifically talking to other writers that admire you and use you as a possibility model, what is advice you can give them on their journey?
MDS: The only advice to give to a writer (in my mind) is to keep writing. Keep struggling with the blank page, keep challenging yourself to do new, scary, exciting, innovative things. Keep pitching and being rejected. Keep searching for your voice. You are needed, no matter what messages you receive from the rest of the world. We have to keep pushing forward and the way we've chosen to do that, as writers, is to write. So keep writing.
PPW: Many feel hopeless and often many look toward the writer to reinvigorate the imagination. Can you give language towards what gives you hope?
MDS: I know it's hard to see, especially at a time like right now, but things do change for the better. The systems of oppression change, as well, and become more entrenched, as they learn our methods of resistance, or in response to our victories. But we do, sometimes, win. And that fact, that our victories, big and small, have so dramatically altered the course of human history tells me that we possess the will to persist, and that persistence will yield results. We may not see them in our lifetimes, but they can and will come.
PPW: There are accepted definitions of a word or a thing, and definitions that we personally conjure up; what is your definition of activism?
MDS: Activism is the work that recognizes the damage of the status quo and consciously attempts to undo it.
PPW: What is something an elder has said to you that has proven to be true?
MDS: I just turned 30, and I'm remembering all the times an elder has told me that I wasn't going to be young forever. That's not saying 30 is old, but what I'm realizing now is that they were telling me my identity couldn't depend on being young forever. You have to figure out who you are outside of your youth, because not only is it not going to last forever, but you're going to get to a point where you wouldn't want it to.
PPW: This can be as fun/silly or as serious as you desire for it to be! What have you done today to resist the powers that be?
MDS: Rocked one of my Philadelphia Printworks sweatshirts.