Mychal Denzel Smith crafted a group of stunning essays in his new book, Stakes is High: Life After the American Dream. These essays are so spot on and relevant to current events as to be fully prescient. When in fact, they’re discussing complex conditions that have existed for a ridiculously long time.

Smith’s first book shares the internal journey of a young black man. And now he’s turned the same insightful eye outwards to the U.S. and its myth of the American Dream. He takes on issues that affect all of us, most especially people of color.

Raised in Virginia, Smith moved to New York City as a young man. Much of his essays are NYC-centric, simply because he lives there. It’s his frame of thought, but in no way a “coastal elite” perspective. And there are plenty of moments that encompass issues people in all areas will relate to.

The myth of the American Dream

Like so many essays published recently, this book starts with Smith’s reaction to the 2016 election results. So naturally he analyzes our current president and administration. But rather than addressing specific political actions, he considers how the 2016 election was a function of the myth of the American Dream.

Smith posits that the idea of our country as a merit-based American Dream has always been B.S. Collectively, we suffer from the long-term personal and political effects of this myth. We’re taught that all you have to do is work hard and you can attain that dream. And people of color are taught how much harder they must work to reach those goals. Personally, Smith discusses what happens when people get demoralized by the myth. Then politically, he reminds us that expecting politicians to solve problems and deliver on the myth will never happen.

This essay is the most political, although the myth threads its way throughout the book. Smith discusses the way we elect presidents (hello Electoral College), and why we put so much stake in who that one person in our government is. When in fact, the government is so much more. Adding the story of Shirley Chisholm’s political career to the mix here brings weight to Smith’s conclusions.

Here’s also where a lot of his Trump commentary comes in, because Trump is an example of one man creating an American Dream myth about his life. When, contrary to the myth, his money and success depended on a huge inheritance and possibly shady financing. And the average person, particularly a person of color, never would have that opportunity because of centuries of systemic racism and oppression.

A variety of topics

In 6 short essays, Smith hits hard, over and over. He discusses Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy. He illuminates what it is, but more importantly, what it isn’t. And in one related section, Smith reminds us that uprisings led by oppressed people are not new. But they aren’t taught in most history lessons. Or they’re taught with a unbalanced perspective. We think they’re happening for the first time, but that’s not so.

Smith essays are wide ranging as well. Yes, he addresses justice versus patriotism. For example, the seemingly simple question of why there are few publicly-available trash cans in his Brooklyn neighborhood, but plenty of police presence. Smith then extends this and questions the concept of “protect and serve” versus police as soldiers in battle.

Again using his city as an example, Smith considers the effect of a primarily cashless society on the homeless. When we carry no cash to give to that person living on our corner. Or what happens when the homeless person scrounges a few bills, and can’t use them to buy a few things at the corner bodega because it takes only plastic.

Jumping into gender and its fluid possibilities, Smith talks about the cis gender, heteronormative culture of the American Dream myth. He discusses its negative effects on trans people, and especially trans women of color.

My conclusions

I’ll just leave you with one quote from my heavily-highlighted copy, although I’d love to share many more. This may change in all or part in the book when it’s released.

“Where America has fucked up is by telling the myth as history—pretending that who we want to be is who we have always been—then building a proud and belligerent national identity out of the myth. American myths obscure a shameful past and protect the powerful.”

Smith covers so much ground. From poverty and homelessness to racism, classism, and how all of these things play into the rise of Donald Trump. His retelling is honest, radical, and necessary. Not just for this moment in time, but in all moments in time. Smith does not shout, but it would be okay if he did. He ponders, analyzes, and connects events to emotion. And then he uses his writing to shout—or as the saying goes, “speak truth to power.”

It is precisely because the stakes are so high that we need to slough off this American dream myth, deal with the brutal realities of our culture, and do what is necessary to make change. For me in my fifties, I’m not protesting for myself. I do it for my multiracial kids and grandkids, and for the world they are inheriting.

If reading diverse voices with social justice content matters to you, please support this author and pre-order his book now. It publishes in September 2020.


Many thanks to NetGalley, Perseus Books, Public Affairs / Bold Type Books, and the author for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review.