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Stakes Been High: Mychal Denzel Smith on Life After the American Dream


Reviewed by Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan |with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)



Friday, December 18, 2020.


When the group De La Soul released Stakes is High in 1996, it was the culmination, and thus the final break, with any claim they held to being stars. The trio was always ambivalent about their place in Hip-Hop’s hierarchy of fame – proclaiming six years earlier on their second outing, that De La Soul is Dead – but the stakes had changed for Hip-hop. It was no longer about party and bullshit or Assata and Malcolm for that matter, and its intimacy with mainstream capitalism was becoming more pronounced; Hip-Hop had become the American Dream. Stakes is High, released in July of 1996, philosophically anticipates the shooting deaths of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace in the eight months after its release, and the rise of the shiny suit-rappers who replaced them on the music charts and continue reside there in an endless cycle of Lil’ This and Lil’ That. De La Soul disappeared into Hip-Hop’s briar patch, as producer 9th Wonder might describe it, returning to the regularness of everyday life, to be found only if you worked to do so.


But Stakes is High was also preoccupied with a Hip-Hop that had become the representation of the very fictions of super predators that were circulating in the culture at the time.  The Crime Bill (The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994), authored by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), of which then President Bill Clinton, future New York Senator Hillary Clinton and future President Joseph Biden were prominent members, the Republican Party’s Contract with America (or “contract on America”, as some would say; and we see you Ice Cube), and the O.J. Simpson murder trial all factor into the worldview that informed Stakes is High.  


More than two decades later, similar tensions frame yet another iteration of Stakes Is High, writer Mychal Denzel Smith’s latest musing on “Life After the American Dream.”  Constructed around the themes of delusions, justice, accountability and finally freedom – all rendered amorphous in the contemporary moment – Smith pressure tests “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” ideals that are as fictionalized as the comic book hero for which such ideals were mantra. Smith is of a generation, or perhaps genre, of thinkers and writers in which there is a shared public intimacy associated with the failings of the State. A measure perhaps of the shifting terrain of punditry and the so-called democratization of opinion, if not expertise.  It’s not that Black writers of previous generations didn’t feel the same disappointment or witness the same structural malfeasance – the short difference between Trump and Reagan is largely in the competency, or lack of in the case of Trump, of those charged to follow their orders – but that for the reader, in this moment of memes and 200-plus-character assessments, such insights read more familiar, or even mundane, than extraordinary. 


Donald Trump is the book’s oft-cited whipping post, and deservedly so, though Smith comically recalls an early meeting with his editor, where they had “happily settled on an idea that would allow me an escape” -- from writing about Trump – yet “when I sat down to work on that book, the very first sentence I wrote had Trump’s name on it.” (181)  Smith laments Trump’s early gaffe about Fredrick Douglass “getting recognized more, more”, which dominated Twitter for a few more news cycles, than it deserved, yet admits that he would rather Trump not know who Douglass really was so as not to “weaponize Douglass in service of state violence.” Here Smith is referencing Douglass’s oft-cited quote “If there is no struggle there is no progress”, which also appears on a placard outside Harlem’s Douglass Houses, yet as Smith observes, the fuller quote is not just some uplift theory to be viewed at the entrance of a federally subsidized housing project, but a fully throated call to resistance, which closes with “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”  In this regard Trump is no better than most Americans as Smith writes, “the damage has already been done, the meaning of Douglass’s life and work already stripped away. He is as American as a Golden Retriever.” (31)


Smith is at his best highlighting the contradictions of White Liberals, comfortable with “rhetorical moves(s) with little consequence...that allows the speaker a perceived moral high ground.” (21) Smith is points at the “never-Trump” and “not-my-president” types who are, at best, the “good liberal white folks” who “got good and mad and they had no idea how to go about to go about being mad.” (8) At worst these are the White folk who can claim that “they are not responsible for the current state of affairs because the president does not belong to them.” (21) Smith’s observations set-up of his take on the vacuous investments we all make in the power of the presidency: “The president is meant to be a part of idealized nearly apolitical American nomenclature.” (23)  For Smith the morally bankrupt contradictions of White liberals are embedded in so many of the symbols of American life, observing that “Babe Ruth is as much a symbol for the possibilities of whiteness under system of segregation as he is some all-American beacon of greatness.”


In a thoughtful section of the book on the legacy of Shirley Chisholm and her more-than-symbolic presidential campaign in 1972, Smith is self-critical of his own investments in presidential politics. “The kind of country that would elect Shirley Chisholm as president would not need Shirley Chisholm to be president,” Smith writes, ultimately lamenting that “Shirley Chisholm was never going to be elected president. Donald Trump was inevitable.” (140-141) For Smith, Chisholm, who served New York's 12th congressional district for seven terms before stepping down in 1983, is a reminder that a “meaningful insurgency exists within us.”


Bill Cosby is also a target of Smith’s ire, and again rightfully so, though the former comic’s circumstances help frame a wide-ranging conversation about accountability that encapsulates observations about toxic masculinity (with all the obvious suspects), prison abolition, and violence against trans-women. Smith misreads the impetus for Cosby’s mythmaking in the creation of Cliff Huxtable (“it is the stuff of pure fantasy”). Cosby used the representational powers at hand to counter the myth-making – the pure fantasy – of White Supremacy that produced the Stepin’ Fetchits, George Jeffersons and Fred Sanfords. In some ways Lincoln Perry, Sherman Hemsley and Redd Foxx were no more complicit than Cosby was in creating Huxtable, but Smith is dead-on when he makes the finer point that Cosby deployed the conflation of Cosby and Huxtable to obscure, and thus further, his roles as sexual predator and race-traitor – if you consider the ideological pogrom he waged on the Black poor, both with the Cosby Show, and more alarmingly, when the show was no longer in production.


The chapter on accountability feels muddled or even constricted, as if it should have been the sole focus of the book itself, yet there are gems, like Smith’s observation that “there exist little of the cultural curiosity with regard to rapists as there is serial killers.” (118) Smith offers the latter point to make a larger one: “We have essentially conceded that rape, or at the very least the potential of rape, is part of our societal makeup,” explaining, in part, the ambivalence around celebrity predators in some sectors of American society (including MAGA hat wearers), even in the era of #MeToo. (119).


On the question of prison abolition, Smith writes “prison is not a means of preventing violence but shifting it out of sight from polite society.” (132) Smith is equally sharp when discussing violence against trans women, acknowledging that “I don’t believe it is any accident that in recent years, as gender constructs come under scrutiny and traditional masculinity in particular has been met with condemnation, that the homicide rates for trans women have reached record highs.” Smith illuminates the connection between the lives of trans women and abolition, asserting “Survival work, which is largely understood as sex work or the drug trade, is illegal work which then puts black trans women at greater risk of being targeted by law enforcement, its own form of violence.” (128) Arguing that the decriminalization of “survival work” would enhance the lives of trans women, Smith admits that such efforts would “leave one major threat unaddressed: the fragility of cis men.” (129)


Smith is more hopeful than many of his peers who are enthralled with Afropessimism, yet there is a ringing reservation in Smith’s words when he writes, “nothing will be resolved when Bill Cosby dies in jail. It will still take an hour to get from Bushwick to Crown Heights” – two neighborhoods in Brooklyn – “unless we set the intention to create a different path.” (135) I’ve often felt that Smith’s public writing only scratches the surface of all that he wants to say or can say, and I feel that way about Stakes is High. In that regard I’ll borrow a riff from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who in writing about the great Greg Tate almost thirty years ago, implored readers and critics to “keep this nigga boy writing”; I wish the same for Mychal Denzel Smith.




Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities and the forthcoming Black Ephemera: The Challenge and the Crisis of the Black Musical Archive.

Stakes Been High: Mychal Denzel Smith on Life After the American Dream

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