Stakes Is High

Life After the American Dream


By Mychal Denzel Smith

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Winner of the 2020 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction

Brave, clear-eyed, and passionate, Stakes Is High is the book we need to guide us past crisis mode and through an uncertain future.

The events of the past decade have forced us to reckon with who we are and who we want to be. We have been invested in a set of beliefs about our American identity: our exceptionalism, the inevitable rightness of our path, the promise that hard work and determination will carry us to freedom. But in Stakes Is High, Mychal Denzel Smith confronts the shortcomings of these stories — and with the American Dream itself — and calls on us to live up to the principles we profess but fail to realize.
In a series of incisive essays, Smith exposes the stark contradictions at the heart of American life, holding all of us, individually and as a nation, to account. We've gotten used to looking away, but the fissures and casual violence of institutional oppression are ever-present.
There is a future that is not as grim as our past. In this profound work, Smith helps us envision it with care, honesty, and imagination.



I keep thinking/the only city left/is outer space.


What I was prepared to say the night of November 8, 2016—I’d been asked to appear as part of Democracy Now!’s election night coverage—was that the election of Hillary Clinton should be celebrated for what it is and acknowledged for what it isn’t. We had eight years of the first black president to learn that representational progress, while important, does not necessarily translate to material progress, and it is that experience that should guide us in assessing the meaning of Clinton’s triumph in becoming the first woman elected president of the United States, as well as how we strategize for pushing her administration moving forward. It is imperative—again, this is all what I had planned to say that night—to acknowledge that the rise of movements such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and the Dreamers illuminated the need to organize around the ongoing, structural problems that persist regardless of the political party in power at any given moment, but especially when it is the party trading on a message of progressivism. It must be possible to note a welcome change in the possibilities for marginalized people while also remaining skeptical of a system of governance that creates and maintains the conditions for their marginalization.

As you well know, reader, I didn’t have the opportunity to say any of this. I can only present these thoughts to you now as things I once felt applied to a future I assumed would come to pass. I didn’t plan for any other outcome, as I rehearsed these thoughts in my head over the course of the six-hour flight from New York City to San Francisco. I would be in town for a few days touring with Pop-Up Magazine, a “live magazine created for a stage, a screen, and a live audience,” as its website puts it. I would be reading a short essay I wrote about sneakers, style, resistance, and activism. I had agonized over it for a few weeks, and now it feels too small to even mention.

The vibe on Twitter when my plane landed, at around 11:00 p.m. East Coast time, was markedly different from earlier in the day before I took off, when it seemed that thousands of liberal white women were posting selfies sporting Clinton-esque pantsuits at the polls. Fear had not yet settled in, but doubt was creeping. On the way to my hotel, assured optimism turned toward desperate pleading. By the time I was at the studio, it was full-on dread. The black woman who drove me there, with the radio feeding us real-time results, said all she could do was pray. She let me out of the car and hoped for my safety. I returned the wish.

When it was time for me to go on air, no networks could call it, but we all knew, even if some of us were refusing to be honest with ourselves.

What I ended up saying to Amy Goodman when she asked my thoughts about what we were seeing unfold that night was: “After eight years of the first black president… we have now elected a man who ran an explicitly racist campaign. That is not accidental. This is American history playing out before us. Whatever moments there are of progress, there is a backlash, there is a retrenchment, and white supremacy does what it can to protect itself. This is like the end of Reconstruction.… What we are witnessing is not some abnormality.”

I was wearing a sweatshirt with the words “Catalyst for Change Shirley Chisholm for President ’72” on it. I wondered to myself how things were going in the timeline in which Chisholm had won that election. I spent the rest of the night drinking with a friend, both of us sobbing as it was called in Wisconsin.

Two days after Trump won, I was in Oakland and found myself standing across the street from the building that was meant to be the next Uber headquarters (supposedly a sign of progress and revitalization), watching as images of the president-elect were projected onto its unfinished white siding. If I were a different kind of writer, this might be the point where my dystopian novel begins. But I’ve never had a flair for fiction and can only say to you, forlorn, that this dystopian vision was all too real.

Three days later, in a hotel room in Chicago, I was alone and listening to A Tribe Called Quest’s new, and last, album, saddened again as I thought about the passing of Phife Dawg, hype to hear what hip-hop’s greatest group would provide as its final offering. I was ready to declare it a classic as soon as I heard the hook for the first track, “The Space Program,” which goes: There ain’t a space program for niggas/yeah, you stuck here, nigga. Now, when my mind calls up the memory from Oakland, it fills in the silence left between police sirens with these lyrics. Because “here” is wherever I am—wherever we are.

Whether we are talking about Oakland, where forty years apart the police killed Lil’ Bobby Hutton and Oscar Grant with plenty more in between, or Chicago, where they closed forty-nine public schools in one cruel swoop, or New York City, where I now call home and where, for the first few years I lived there, I perhaps knew best from the vantage point of a protest, we are always “here” because there is no “there” where our destruction has not been carefully planned. There is no place where we have not been marked as other, where our otherness has not been used to justify our exploitation, and where our lives have not been defined by the limitations placed on them by whiteness.

You stuck here, nigga.

In the run-up to November 8, 2016, I heard good liberal white folks promise (or maybe they thought of it as a threat?) to move to Canada in the event that Trump won. I would nod politely and think to myself, How quaint, yet another move they plan to hijack from black people. But it must be nice to know there is a place you can go where you will be free. The police create niggers in Canada the same as they do here. I wonder if any of the good liberal white folks thought of any ideas for where we could go to escape.

Of course not. It has never truly been their concern. The good liberal white folks hardly even acknowledge that we have any cause for concern until one of us throws a trash can through a window, or flips over a car, or lights a gas station on fire. Only then do they seem to care, but not so much about us or the conditions that produced such anger, but more so about chastising our inability to be civil. The good liberal white folks tell us there is a resolution to our grievances that can only be achieved if we are willing to put aside our anger, frustration, pain, grief, and despair, and trade them for… what, exactly, isn’t clear. Neither the emotions nor the facts of our condition persuade many of them that our lives are worth saving, so I remain unsure, and increasingly uninterested, in determining what will. No matter the method we choose to fight back, they are ready to chastise us. Our op-eds are too angry, our organizations too militant, our political demands too divisive, our votes wasted. Then they call our rebellions “riots” and ask why we tear down our own neighborhoods and I think what they really mean to say is don’t mess it up any further before we have a chance to take it from you.

The irony is that after November 8, 2016, the good liberal white folks got good and mad and they had no idea how to go about being mad. Their “resistance” marches have proudly boasted their lack of disruption, while any conservative with even a tepid critique of the Trump administration has been branded a hero. They are, these resistance liberals, for the first time legitimately frightened of what the present and future hold for them, and they are not sure where to turn. They have since been in mourning for the loss of their America, where it was promised that hard work and determination would grant upon anyone who desired it the opportunity for a better life. This America has always been a fiction, and had they bothered to listen to us, to the pain they have always readily dismissed as misplaced rage, they would have known this was coming. Trump was inevitable and the evidence of his rise was sitting right there.

I don’t intend to be a hypocrite and pretend I had this insight before the election. Sure, I read Trump as a backlash to the movements that threatened to push the country’s aggrieved white men from their self-constructed pedestals. He spoke the language they had longed for—no longer coded in its hostility, but forthright in its provocation. I knew they were swinging desperately, hoping to land one last blow to keep them in a fight that they felt slipping away from them.

What I chose to believe, however, is that this is a nation so committed to its self-delusion that it wouldn’t dare, in 2016, elect a true representative of its underlying ideology to its most cherished ceremonial perch. The days of acceptable public bigotry were supposed to be over.

I find myself, and many others, saying things like this from time to time, indignant over the fact that something objectionable from the past persists in the present, as if there had been some previously agreed-upon expiration date on injustice. But what it reveals is that even those of us with a healthy understanding of what created this nation also share in shaping its fiction. There is a part of us that wants to believe the good of America can outlast the bad.

If I am being more honest than this country has taught me to be, that is precisely why I moved to New York City. I was raised in Virginia, below the Mason-Dixon Line, which has always lived in the American imagination as the line of demarcation between the civilized and the non. I wanted out for fear of suffocation, that the ghosts of that land would swallow my dreams. From my youth I bought into the notion of the backward South, and so I romanticized New York as a place where creative minds flourish with relatively little interference from the history I hoped to escape. New York City would be the place where I would find like-minded rebels, sophisticated thinkers, off-kilter but fascinating weirdos, and the thing I sorely lacked my whole life in Virginia: belonging.

“It can destroy an individual,” E. B. White wrote of New York, “or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

I have been lucky enough. In New York City I have found community, friendship, and love in abundance. But I have also found in this place a home where every day I am terrified. I am constantly on guard because I know my survival depends on such vigilance. If I were to fully relax, I fear, I would leave myself vulnerable to the destruction New York can so breezily ignite.

It’s the kind of place that turns standing outside the building where you live into forty-one shots from police, as happened to Amadou Diallo in 1999 (nineteen of those hit him). That history is never idle; it pulses through every interaction I have here, as it did when I saw a “Make America Great Again” hat in the wild for the first and, to date, only time. It was the day after the Electoral College officially made Donald Trump the forty-fifth president of the United States. The unsightly red hats aren’t a staple of New York City’s ostensibly liberal streetwear—primarily feminist T-shirts and New Yorker tote bags. But there are pockets of Trump supporters, mostly concentrated in Staten Island, Queens, and parts of Brooklyn I never visit.

When I first moved to New York, I lived in Bushwick, a neighborhood largely populated by working-class Puerto Ricans and Dominicans whose accents range from first-generation immigrant to native New Yorker. There is, also, a creeping white hipster presence that was priced out of its former playground, Williamsburg. Now, I live in Flatbush—or at least you call it Flatbush if you’ve lived there since it was known as “The Jungle.” These days you may call it Prospect Lefferts Gardens, as that name finds itself covering more and more territory beyond its original scope, a bit of real-estate trickery meant to dissociate a place from its reputation and assuage the fears of prospective residents. My new neighbors are still working-class people, still immigrants, but here they come from Jamaica and Trinidad. It is a neighborhood in the early stages of gentrification. The barbershops, nail salons, sneaker stores, and jerk-chicken spots haven’t disappeared, but more than a handful of bars have cropped up, anticipating the demographic shift. The longtime residents are not oblivious to what is happening. No new construction goes unremarked upon, as luxury apartments are fully constructed almost overnight, right next to subsidized housing. I overheard a conversation between two people in the lobby of my building on my way out one day. They were having trouble renewing their leases. “They tryna push all the niggas out,” one said to the other.

And yet, not one of the new residents is made to feel unwelcome. The mail lady greets the new white tenants the same as she does the more familiar black ones. The kids on the stoop across the street hold the door open for white dudes in cargo shorts carrying moving boxes. The brothers playing chess and politicking outside the laundromat greet white joggers with a healthy “Good morning.” White people with only two items at the grocery store are instructed to jump in front of the woman with a cart full of groceries. Black and white addicts are served by the dope boys with the same standard of customer service. The black homeless beg black and white passersby alike for change and then apologize for their presence.

There is an abundance of evidence of black people’s humanity here, and no one who matters is around to record it. Watching black folks perform daily kindnesses for the people meant to replace them is difficult to stomach.

For now, Flatbush a.k.a. Prospect Lefferts Gardens is a place that this white woman wearing the “Make America Great Again” hat will pass through. The Q train we shared took her, in all likelihood, to one of those neighborhoods where her red hat serves as a victory flag. She never had to consider what effect the message it carries might have on her neighbors directly north of her. She, perhaps, has never considered them as neighbors.

At the time, I was reading John Edgar Wideman’s latest book, Writing to Save a Life, about the life and death of Louis Till, the father of Emmett Till. I wondered if, for her, the America that hat was referring to is the same America that, as punishment for charges of domestic violence, gave Till the choice between serving time in prison or time in the military during World War II, and when he chose the latter, sent him off to Italy, where he was convicted of raping and murdering two Italian women based on little to no evidence (a crime he didn’t need to travel all the way to Italy to be accused of in 1940s America), and then hanged him. Or perhaps her red hat wants to take us back to the America of the younger Till, lynched in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 after being accused of whistling at and making sexual advances toward a white woman, who only recently admitted to fabricating parts of the story that led to Till’s brutal death.

She did not, to my eyes, look old enough to remember either of these Americas, so perhaps she was pining for the days of the previous presidential candidate whose campaign slogan promised, “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Perhaps she was nostalgic for the nation of Yusef Hawkins, the sixteen-year-old black teenager killed by a mob of white teens in Bensonhurst in 1989. I never asked. Forgetting which America I live in is not a luxury that I can afford—it has always been the one where it is unsafe to exist in a black body and to challenge white authority, real or imagined.

And what a luxury it must be for this woman to be able to retreat to another America. Preserved in her mind is a country, one of prosperity and promise, where she feels protected. Her pristine America is under attack—by Mexicans, terrorists, takers of every hue—and her faith in the old America can only be restored via the bombast of an aging celebrity millionaire.

This is what her hat said to me, and she seemed not to care. She never looked my way, never looked beyond herself. She took her defiant victory lap through the other America, filled with people who have struggled mightily to realize the promise of this country. By rent or by force, landlords or ICE, their removal will mean that this woman can have the America tucked away in her mind returned to her.

It’s not that I envy her vision of America. I would never hope to be so deluded. I envy the power of her narrative imagination. She has conjured an America, someplace in history, that is “great,” and so many people are convinced of its existence that they create greater suffering in the present for people who stand to gain nothing from this imaginary restoration.

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule,” philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote in On the Concept of History in 1940, and it endures. The nation finds itself in crisis, fretting over what comes next, debating what temporary measures can be taken to bring back normality even as it slips further away. But normal is no solution for those who never existed in normal’s good graces. There are those of us who can retreat to a fantastical America, and those of us who are always here—stuck.


  • "Slim, impactful....Stakes Is High is a polemic in the best sense of the word, holding up a mirror to America in the hope that a clear-eyed glimpse of its failings will assist in the never-ending struggle to bring about the righteous nation it has always aspired to be."—Booklist, starred
  • "[Smith] is sharply self-aware, and he would seem to expect his reader to approach his fine-honed argument with the same seriousness. Doing so is well worth the effort. An urgent and provocative work that deserves the broadest possible audience."
    Kirkus Reviews, starred
  • “Smith’s book is about these damaging fantasies. But it is also about remembering and achieving more productive and revolutionary exercises of the imagination. It begins in dismay and grapples with fear. But it engages this moment with intelligence and courage, and invites its readers to do the same.”—Washington Post
  • "A clear-eyed and down-to-earth analysis of the broken foundation of the American Dream and how our culture can move past it....As the book's title and its author suggest: the stakes are high."
  • "Smith's galvanizing rhetoric implores a commitment to honesty.... This passionate book is a plea for the U.S. to recognize the delusions casting it as an equal, just country and to see revolution as necessary."—Shelf Awareness
  • “A masterful work that calls into question the dissonance of The American Dream and the reality that is The United States. Smith asks for reflection and reimagining in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Abolition, justice, reform, and redistribution are all on the table in this brutal and searing call to action.”—Stacks Podcast
  • "[Stakes Is High] 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."—Electric Literature
  • "Stakes Is High is Mychal Denzel Smith's gift to us. With compassion and intelligence, he shows us what justice is meant to be in America."—Common
  • "With searing vision and unwavering clarity, Mychal Denzel Smith dismantles our most enduring myths and dangerous national illusions. His argument is personal, intimate. It calls on us, line by line, to do the hard work of truthful living: to hold past and present, love and criticism, up in equal measure. Stakes Is High will undoubtedly prove to be one of the most important works of the decade; as social critique, as personal essay, as a master class in language. Keep it within arm's length; you'll be reaching for it long after you've read the last line."—Téa Obreht, author of Inland
  • "Mychal Denzel Smith has written an emotional break-up letter with hope. In his meditations on the pillars of American life, Smith challenges us to accept our complicity in the systems that link our fortunes to our oppressions. It is elegantly written and lovingly argued."—Tressie McMillan Cottom, author of Thick: And Other Essays
  • "I want this book in the hands of everyone it would affect, which is to say, those with power and those lacking power; those of every race and ethnicity who are affected by the United States government; those who have hope, those who do not, and those who are somewhere in between. Smith writes with urgency and brilliance, honing prose to a fine glimmer as he demonstrates, again and again, life after the American Dream."—Esmé Weijun Wang, author of The Collected Schizophrenias
  • "Mychal Denzel Smith's Stakes is High is the book we need. It dismantles American lies and instead offers a truth that feels like fire. Smith moves from point to point with a brilliant agility founded on a deep understanding of our history. A truly spectacular book."—Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of Friday Black
  • "Stakes Is High is that rare book written before the pandemic that predicts the American response to the pandemic and also provides a soulful, rigorous way out of the destruction. Mychal Denzel Smith is the rarest of tenacious writers who remind us that the only way into a dignified free future is backwards. And our refusal to go walk back together makes the stakes highest for the most vulnerable children of tomorrow."—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy: An American Memoir
  • "Nuanced, intimate, and sharp in its view of America's history and present, Mychal Denzel Smith's Stakes Is High offers a clear-eyed view of this nation's inequities, shortcomings, and self-deceptions. It's a beautifully written, timely and illuminating book."—Rebecca Traister, author of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger
  • "Stakes Is High is a passionate, urgent book, a personal account of a contemporary New York political education, and a call to confront the emergency with clarity and truthfulness about the history that brought us here."—Hari Kunzru, author of White Tears
  • "From one of our country's clearest truth-tellers comes this collection detailing why we've arrived at this current moment and how we can move beyond it. Stakes Is High confronts the inherent failures of the American dream, the dangers and delusions of American empire, and helps us imagine ourselves into a more just future."—Lisa Ko, author of The Leavers
  • "A fresh, modern, thrilling call for humanity to come together as well as a brilliant investigation into what it means to be an American. Stakes Is High is required reading."—Jami Attenberg, author of All This Could Be Yours
  • "Stakes is High is a marvel, and each page shines with miraculously unfailing clarity and grace. I want this radiant book to be a common read for our entire troubled country."—R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries

On Sale
Sep 15, 2020
Page Count
208 pages
Bold Type Books

Mychal Denzel Smith

About the Author

Mychal Denzel Smith is the author of the New York Times bestseller Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching (2016) and Stakes Is High (2020). His work has appeared, online and print, in the New York Times,Washington Post, Harper’s, Artforum, Oxford American, New Republic, GQ, Complex, Esquire, Playboy, Bleacher Report, the Nation, the Atlantic, Pitchfork, Bookforum, and a number of other publications. He has appeared on the Daily Show, PBS Newshour, Democracy NOW!, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, MSNBC, CNN, NPR, and more national and local radio/television programs.

He is featured in and was a consulting producer for “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story,” the Paramount Network docuseries executive produced by Jay-Z. In 2014 and 2016, named him one of the 100 Most Influential African Americans in their annual The Root 100 list. He was also a 2017 NAACP Image Award Nominee. He is a fellow at Type Media Center. You can follow him on Twitter at @mychalsmith.

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