Sight Unseen

A review of “Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching”

Trayvon Martin’s father Tracy Martin and mother Sybrina Fulton speak at a protest in New York City.
Photo Credit: David Shankbone

 

When George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, 2.7 million Americans had their eyes on LeBron James. It was the night of the NBA’s 2012 All-Star game. LeBron scored 36 points, with six rebounds and seven assists. Even so, he was losing; the Western Conference All-Stars were beating the Eastern Conference All-Stars 88-69. Trayvon Martin was on his way to watch LeBron James lose, but he too was being watched. George Zimmerman watched Trayvon, who wanted to be watching LeBron, and then he killed him before the game was over. 2.7 million Americans watched LeBron James lose; George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in the chest.

Mychal Denzel Smith doesn’t remember what he was doing when Trayvon Martin was shot. He was likely watching the All-Star game, tweeting, or reading Twitter. He was not, in his own words, “thinking about dead black boys.” But once Trayvon was dead, once George Zimmerman shot him and made him into a dead black boy, Denzel Smith, like many others, turned his gaze toward Trayvon’s lost body.

Nation Books 240 pages, $24.00
Nation Books
240 pages, $24

This is how his debut memoir, Invisible Man Got the Whole World Watching, begins. Denzel Smith, then 25, looked on at Trayvon’s disappearance, at “the face of a boy who became a symbol,” and then he looked at himself. “I could have been Trayvon,” he writes. “So many of us black boys trying to become black men in America could have been Trayvon.”

Black Americans like Denzel Smith are forced over and over again to align themselves with the dead. As a community, we bear each other’s wounds. But if blackness is metonymically linked with suffering, it is only because White America insists that black people suffer. “There are no traits that are inherent to blackness that then become the basis for oppression,” explains Denzel Smith. “It’s the other way around. The system of racism invented, and continually adjusts, the rubric to justify its existence.” To a country that demands black people adhere themselves to White America’s expectations, Denzel Smith offers a corrective in the form of a question addressed reflexively to himself: “How did you learn to be a black man?”

Mychal Denzel Smith, now 29, isn’t Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, or Eric Garner, but even so, he feels like he’s not supposed to be here. Invisible Man Got the Whole World Watching is a testament to all the things he wasn’t, as a black man, expected to be. Written in sharp, exacting prose, Denzel Smith’s memoir doubles as a work of incisive criticism, enmeshing personal narrative—tales of college life, adolescent alacrity, survivor’s guilt, and depression—with profiles of the black men White America encouraged him to mimic: Dave Chappelle, LeBron James, Kanye West, and Barack Obama, among others. This is a reading of masculinity that eyes the politics of visibility with skepticism, asking: who controls the terms of representation? And: to what end?

The memoir takes its name from Mos Def’s “Hip Hop” (blues got the blue chip stock option / invisible man, got the whole world watching), which in turn quotes Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” When White America turned its gaze toward Trayvon Martin, he had already lost his body. Without flesh, without bone, no fiber, no liquids, Trayvon was put on display.

In the summer of 2014, two years after Trayvon Martin’s murder and one year after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, I rented a bedroom in a New York apartment belonging to three white women. On their living room wall there hung a large yellowed portrait of Trayvon in his hoodie. Five words—written in thick, black typeface—were superimposed onto the image of his face: “We are all Trayvon Martin.” This was my first time living with white people, and I had no idea what they meant by that. If “We are all Trayvon Martin” is a haunting affirmation of life, a recognition of the ways in which Trayvon’s memory persists, “I could have been Trayvon” is its melancholic echo, meaning something like: I too am losing or have lost my body. I think these white women, alive and alone, meant something like: we see Trayvon Martin. Or, rather: in death he has become something for us to look at.

“The challenge of overcoming invisibility,” writes Denzel Smith, “is one that black men take up daily in the quest to live freely as ourselves.” In rare moments, White America pays attention: 2.7 million Americans watched LeBron James lose. But if invisibility is an infliction, a condition to overcome, then visibility is its mythic consolation. When visibility is determined, primarily, by a white viewership, the “challenge” to overcome is not some fact of being overlooked, but of convincing a hostile audience of its own myopic vision. Of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Toni Morrison famously asked “Invisible to whom? Not to me.”

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Being seen, writes Denzel Smith, comes at a price: “In some rare instances, we can make the world stand up and pay attention—to extend to us basic humanity for the price of either our sanity or integrity.” Barack Obama, for example, convinced White America to look at him by selling them hope. Obama spoke, and speaks still, in a rhetoric of perseverance, giving way to an optimism that threatens to erase anger from black politics altogether. Like Michael Jordan, he needed to be “amazing and black without reminding anyone he was black.”

Garnering respect is all too often a game of respectability, of positioning oneself in White America’s line of sight. But black folk have been looking at one another for a long while, and black women have been obscured by black men for far too long. This is a point that Denzel Smith touches on, but only fleetingly: “To my newly forming black radical mind, women—more specifically , black women—had a way of existing without being present.” This failure to recognize fully the intellectual, physical, and emotional labor done by women is, according to Denzel Smith, “a natural result of consuming history and culture through the fables of masculine triumph.” For a book that wrestles so convincingly with the myths of masculinity, this acquiescence to naturalism feels deceptively easy. Black women have always been present; making our apparition seem out of the ordinary requires work, not to mention deceit. Natural to whom? Not to me.

Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, and Oscar Grant, as well as many people like them, which is to say many other black men whose lives were taken and then publicly displayed, “didn’t choose their visibility—it was thrust upon them by the same system that made them invisible to begin with.” To this list I would add Sandra Bland, Tanisha Anderson, Shelly Frey, Maya Young, Reese Walker, as well as many women and trans women whose names I do not know. “In death, they came into full view,” writes Denzel Smith. “The price for their humanity was their lives.”

After the murder of three black men and six black women at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the poet Claudia Rankine wrote that “the condition of black life is one of mourning.” “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering,” she continued, “there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black.”

Invisible Man Got the Whole World Watchinglike Invisible Man, Dont Let Me Be Lonely, Between the World and Me, Song of Solomon, Kindred, and Evas Man to name a few of the countless books before it—archives our mourning. “To be a writer,” explains Denzel Smith, “is to bear witness; to be a black writer is to bear witness to tragedy.” But what he has written here—this account of men looked over, men who are losing or have lost their bodies, their integrity, the game—is not a eulogy. In the penultimate chapter, Mychal Denzel Smith notes that “Black people of all ages and genders are walking around with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and survivor’s guilt without anywhere to turn.” To a country that makes a spectacle of black death, this statement is cutting. This is our suffering, yes, but nevertheless here we are walking.

 

Maya Binyam is a writer living in New York.