The American Dream Is Dead, What Do We Do?
Mychal Denzel Smith, author of "Stakes is High," on why we have to be ready to take to the streets
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In Mychal Denzel Smith’s latest book, Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream, he writes of America at a reckoning point, one where we as a country will either choose freedom, or where we will allow Donald Trump to stay in power despite enacting openly racist and violent policies on Black, Brown, Indigenous people, targeting LGBQTIA individuals and women, and daily legislations that continue to assault the climate.
In Stakes Is High, Smith challenges us to recognize that the American dream is a fiction which never existed, to acknowledge that America has always implicitly or explicitly endorsed white supremacy, and asks white liberals to openly recognize the pain, frustration, and grief experienced by non-white communities. It’s a book that is beautiful, grim, yet hopeful of a future in which we choose to act collectively and work together to create a new narrative of America, one which provides for all of her people, but to act quickly, because climate change is imminent.
Smith is the author of the New York Times bestseller Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Harper’s, The Nation, and more.
Smith and I spoke by Zoom about facing American mythology, coming to an abolitionist position, the need for imagination, and readying ourselves for revolution.
Deirdre Sugiuchi: You describe Trump’s rise as a backlash, akin to what happened after Reconstruction. How does Donald Trump connect to past figures, especially in this present moment?
Mychal Denzel Smith: If you were in charge of writing a Hollywood script in which (Trump) was a villain, they would send this script back to you and be like, “You are making him too evil.” This is like Andrew Jackson rolled up with Nixon, the complete racism of both, but Andrew Jackson ascends as this figure in the protection of white supremacy that speaks to this populist idea. Trump is doing the same, but doesn’t actually care. At the same time he is a complete antagonist of Black and indigenuous individuals and is enacting violence on them, but with the obvious corruption of the Nixon administration, rhetoric of law and order, and in a way that speaks to people in coded racist language, but then he strips all that bare.
We can talk all day about the limitations of representational politics, and all my issues with Barack Obama during and after his presidency, but even given all that, what (Obama) did represent for a section of this country was that the American identity was changing and that they would no longer have claim to all the things that American empire bestows upon those who have been traditionally in power. That riled them up. They didn’t want anymore to be fed the code language and Donald Trump nakedly said all the quiet parts loud. He started his campaign talking about Mexico sending rapists to this county. That’s not anywhere even close to the rhetoric in the years preceding.
DS: He erased the facade. Our policies aren’t any different.
MDS: Not even close. There are particular cruelties to the Trump administration that we can point to, but it’s just accelerated on the Trump timeline. People want to say there wasn’t a policy of family separation under the Obama years. They floated it! The Muslim ban, suddenly people were pulling up old George Bush quotes because he said “we respect Islam as a religion.” He respected it so much that he bombed the shit out of all Muslim-led countries!
All Trump did was say, “Yes we don’t want those people” but it’s a continuation. If we are making our history much shorter and we only view Trump violence as its own set, and not indicative American violence as it has expressed itself throughout history, then it’s going to look worse.
DS: Right Because we’ve never admitted what America’s history is.
MDS: The entirety of American history that I learned in school was built on alternative facts from the jump. To not contend with that means that you’ll always be surprised when someone starts lying to you within the state, within positions of power, because you’ve been trained to believe that there is an American story that is true.
DS: That ties into a major theme of your book, America’s unwillingness to admit that racism and poverty exist. Can you expound upon that?
MDS: We have this idea that America is the land of opportunity, but the existence of various forms of oppression are evidence to the contrary. (People only admit) they exist to the extent of personal failures or personal bigotry. “People are poor because they don’t work hard. Racism exists but it’s not the obstacle it once was. There are fewer racist people or the racists will die out. This person isn’t sexist, they come from a different era.” That’s just a continuance of a form of oppression that allows you to continue with the myth that one can overcome those obstacles and that America offers the opportunity to do so.
That calls into question the premise of the American dream, not that there aren’t obstacles, but that America offers you the opportunity to overcome them. But why does that need to be the case? That people are deprived and must overcome these things not in the pursuit of extravagant wealth but of a decent life, just the basics one would need in order to survive. It doesn’t account for the machinations of those systems that continue to exacerbate the disparate material conditions that we continue to see in the context of this pandemic. Billionaires are literally making billions more dollars as more and more people file for unemployment, and we are saying that’s supposed to be the natural course of things. It’s not right for this group to exist in the first place whose wealth is drawn from all these different systems of oppression and can deny other people of the right to life.
DS: Or just the right to water. In Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born,you can’t even drink the water.
MDS: We are talking about the basics here. The most essential elements of human life. Water you cannot drink, and if you don’t have enough money to get enough water you will die. We are saying that sending people $600 a week is too much. We’re saying you have to pay for the water but we’re not going to give you money to pay for it. What is that but a death sentence?
DS: The other evening Kiese Laymon was reading about Mississippi governor Tate Reeves blocking a bill to give people free water during the pandemic. Why is that acceptable?
MDS: I would put the question to Tate Reeves, to anybody who agrees with denying these people water, what does a person have to do to prove themselves worthy of water? Are we willing to say that it’s moral, ethical, just to deny people water on the basis of their race or economic status? What have they done to prove they are not worthy and what do they have to do to prove that they are worthy? If we are saying that’s okay, what does immoral look like? Does immoral only look like you take out a gun and shoot people? Is that the only way to be immoral? If you can deny them water, just shoot them.
DS: And that’s one thing that’s happening. Currently there is unrest on the streets which directly results from violence caused by racist police forces. Can you outline historically how the police have always served the wealthy and why this has led to a call for abolition?
MDS: From their inception in England, the police were a chief alternative to the army to squash insurrection in Ireland. That got imported into the states. In southern cities the slave patroller’s job was to serve wealthy landowners and protect their property, enslaved people. In Nnorthern cities they had labor uprisings, so they established police units to break up labor strikes. The core functions never change. All that happens is that police get more duties.
They continued the criminalization of Blackness and Black people by increasing the laws on the books based on moral crimes. You just keep having different iterations. The drug war has been transformed now into a hyper-militarized function because you have the advent of SWAT in the 1960s and the use of more military equipment, because when things get called wars, you call in soldiers. You see increased surveillance after 9/11 on Muslim communities.
Policing has never changed from its primary function which just establishes who falls on the dividing line of first class and second class citizens. Wealthy white people fall on the line of first class citizens, and everyone else falls on the lines of second class citizens. Whiteness offers some protection, but poor white people are subjected to policing as well. It’s funny, when you point out the number of Black people who are killed by police, and someone says more white people are killed, and it’s like “No shit, maybe you want to get in on this fight to end police violence.”
The point of coming to an abolitionist position is to say if police and policing have only preserved this function, in a just society in which people’s needs are taken care of, where there’s a prodigious welfare state that provides all the things one needs—﹘ water, healthy foods, clean air, adequate shelter, good homes, income, meaningful work, access to recreation arts, everything that allows for the full expression of humanity—﹘ what do you need police for? If you want to actually root out the violent behavior, you address the root cause. It’s not police that are going to solve this for you because all they can do and have ever done is protect property and establish who sits on the line of first- class and second- class citizenship, and they do this by violent means.
DS: How can we fix this? How can we invest in collective power?
MDS: Part of this is believing that collective power is meaningful. Those of us who are U.S. Americans are raised in an individualistic society that says that you accumulate wealth that you need, that you want by any means, and you exercise your power over other people, and that is what freedom looks like, essentially. That’s exactly what you are teaching in American schools right now, the idea that there is a single winner and that your destiny is tied up in winning by any means. It’s a scarcity model, the idea that there are only so many good lives to go around, that only so many people are going to be able to have a home, to care for their family, to live into old age, and be healthy and happy and have recreation.
It’s not true. We’ve got resources to make that possible for everyone. We have the technological know how. We are able, if we are committed to the idea that we are responsible for other people. for our community, in the broad sense that we all need each other.
I think about that in the context of what we have been going through in regards to the pandemic and our physical distance from one another, and the impact that is having on people, because we do need each other, but then there’s the sense that you alone can do it for yourself, and that’s never been true from the beginning of humanity. When you are building the sense of collectivity, you have to build responsibility for each other and draw power from each other to do the things that we do.
So much of how we define power now is about domination, is about coercion, and violence. It is just wrapped up in toxic ideas of masculinity. When you’re forming those bonds of power, in which you’re building bonds of compassion as opposed to dominance, it’s a different but stronger form of power, one which offers a greater future for greater numbers of people, as opposed to our individualistic ideas around power through domination.
DS: Can you discuss the importance of imagination, especially at this moment in time? How does this connect to getting rid of the American myth and choosing to tell a new story of America?
MDS: We don’t have that much time left. By virtue of human hubris and complete disregard for our planet, if we don’t get it together in the next ten years, we may just not have any time to be able to do the things that are necessary to make the planet inhabitable for us as a species. When I’m saying revolution and it must be swift, it’s because we don’t have time. If people cannot see the need to act in a collective manner right now, as we face human extinction, and I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic when I say that, then there is no hope. My appeal in this book is saying, how badly do you want to survive? Are you content with this narrative? Or will you choose truth and survival?
DS: I keep thinking back to 2018, here in Georgia when Brian Kemp stole the election, how I kept thinking we should be revolting, but didn’t do anything. The right is obviously setting the November election up to steal it. Are we all just going to sit and watch?
MDS: It feels like for so many white liberals that the strategy has been we either impeach him or we vote him out. Now they are planning on stealing the election, and I don’t think (white liberals) have the stomach for what has to be done. There is no sitting around another four years with this election.We can’t afford four years of a Biden presidency. We definitely can’t afford four years of a Trump presidency, and the daylight between those is not enough for what we need done. But even still, people have to be ready to hit the streets. People have to be ready to burn some things. To be honest, if we get a couple of years of Biden and there’s no movement, we have to be ready to hit the streets too, because we just don’t have time.