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Stakes Is High

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The six essays that comprise Stakes is High are insightful and thought-provoking. Smith takes a brutally honest look at the myth of the ‘American dream’ and how the Trump presidency is not an anomaly, but the end result of years of inequality and unjust policies.

Brilliantly written pieces with lots of history and diverse voices woven in. If you have liberal progressive politics—and if you have read widely about antiracism—it’s not likely that you will get a lot of new information from these essays, and it’s very likely that you will agree with much of Smith’s arguments and with his call to action. Still, everyone should read it for the powerful introspection and intelligent analysis of racism, sexism, poverty, and the lie of the American dream:

“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.”

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my copy in exchange for this honest review.

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Thank you to @netgalley @perseus_books and @boldtypebooks for the free review ARC of Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream by Mychal Denzel Smith. This book is a must read for anyone who still has questions about prison reform, defunding the police, and what the implications of “the American Dream” really are. While this book was not written for me as a white woman, it is still so important to read, learn, understand, change, act, and speak up. This is the second book I have read by Mychal Denzel Smith, and I am again so grateful for his eloquent words and profound insight into who we are as a nation and what has to change.


Synopsis from the publisher: 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.
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Mychal is brilliant, engaging, and a very refreshing transparent Black man. I really enjoyed his second book, which asks us to examine past myths which have taken on dangerous new lives. He gives us hope and ideas on how to live in a better America.

Mychal asks, “Is the potential for the American Dream worth enduring the brutality of American Life?”

My answer is a hard NO. I appreciate that Mychal reminds us that we can persevere and fight off various evils, together. 5 solid stars. I will continue to read his works.

I finished this book during the completely embarrassing first Presidential debate 2020. Mychal’s words are the only thing holding me right now. Thank you.
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I knew this would be a rough read. I knew it woulds hake me to my core and force me
To confront so many of the emotions I’ve been going through in the last four years. Those moments when I’ve screamed into nothing “I hate it here” or cried in frustration at the world my son was being raised in. Is there another America, one that I simply haven't discovered. No. This is what the United States has always been and the last four years has torn the sheet off of those with blinded eyes that thought the years of having a Black president meant the world had changed

What Smith does with this book is explore a brief history of the U.S. through his lens so that everyone can see what this country looks like without rose colored glasses. It’s honest but not confrontational, challenging but not abrasive. The stakes are high right now and Smith does a damn good job explaining why and also discussing how we got her, how the history of the United States led us here. 

Smith is a talented writer and through this book I could feel his pain. I feel like I’m not the only one looking at this country wanting to make a change while realizing how far we have to go.
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Absolutely a must read for anyone interested in sociology or the current state of business going on in our country.  Mr Smith has a way with words about politics, capitalism, racism, sexism, more, a veritable melting pot of perspective.
An example to ponder,  " Poverty is a capitalist's main resource as it ensures there will always be a class of people to exploit. Boom!

My favorite, " The Dream Tells us we can achieve whatever we desire through hard work, but in reality we have financed that dream through massive amounts of debt because there is no level of hard work that can purchase what the Dream has promised."

For me, this book articulates what is wrong with is currently, in a way when most of us cannot.  The American Dream is in limbo and maybe even a permanent vacation. I agree about the depression, I sincerely think many are suffering with it since that fateful day in 2016.

Thank you to NetGalley for an ARC to review as my own thoughts and opinions.
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"Stakes is High: Life after the American Dream" is a short compilation of essays about The American Dream, Trump, and what it means to be an American at this time. Smith is brilliant and unflinching in his critique, but he refuses to distance himself from America's history and present story of white supremacy, individualism, and self-aggrandizement. Smith writes with precision, clarity, and passion, and his sentences cut though arguments for civility and incremental change with persuasive urgency. 

This is a short book, but it deserves a careful read. There are few books I've read in 2020 that speak so directly to this moment that we are in-- this moment we have brought ourselves to. We know that systemic social change cannot happen without honest reckoning. "Stakes is High" can help us take that look in the mirror. 

#NetGalley, #StakesisHigh
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They book is a cynical look into the myths and legends the are created in the sense of the American Identity and the American Dream. If you took a raft down the river of this book it would sometimes be smooth and calm, but other times it would be level 4 rapids, forcing you to face the harsh realities undermining the truth of the American psyche. It sometimes like splashing cold water on your face, a wake up call. Other times it is the ice bucket challenge or like being plunged into polar water. It demands you look, listen, and act to change the narrative and to find and face the truth. While he calls for revolution, its not the kind you typically think and overall Denzel Smith wants us to believe, hope, imagine, and create a world where we all have access to and are protected from the inequalities, hurt, and pain that gets pushed aside and hidden as cling to myths and a “reality” that does not exist and, in fact, never has.
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Mychal Denzel Smith's Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream is an eye-opening look at America and the American dream through the eyes of someone who, because of his race, often feels not fully American. Like there are parts of the American dream that are not within his reach, like he doesn't embody what it is to be "American" even though this is the country where he was born. I wonder what group of people could have made him feel that way, hmmm?

It was really interesting to read Smith's perspective of Donald Trump's election and the history of America leading up to it, a history that made Trump's presidency inevitable.

So where do we go from here? Smith lays out a plan to go forward and not look back. I loved how he wrote that this country always thinks it has to "go back" to when things were better. But when we go back, the country literally just goes backwards or, at the very least, stays stagnant. What America needs to do is move forward, to pave a new path that will truly make this country what it should be for ALL Americans. We need to shed our old story to make a new one.

I think one of my favorite passages from the book is this one:

"...those who champion the lies are called patriots, while anyone who takes actual American history as its history is deemed a radical."

I know a lot of white people are trying to read more books from African-American writers. Well, this book would be a good place to start, especially with the upcoming election.

Stakes Is High is published by Bold Type Books and will be on bookstore shelves tomorrow. I received a free e-ARC in exchange for my review.
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In Stakes is High, Mychal Denzel Smith challenges us to wrestle with what it means to be an "American" as well as the concept of American exceptionalism. In the backdrop are analyses of racism, misogyny, capitalism, and poverty. Smith also prompts us to expand our imagination of what our society could be in his discussion what is needed for a world without police or prisons. 

One thing I appreciated in particular was how much historical context is a part of Smith analysis. Not only is there history, but there are the voices of many groundbreaking theorists, political figures, artists, and activists echoed throughout this book from Shirley Chisolm and Angela Davis to Gil Scott Herron and Ralph Ellison. It's also a highlight in the sense that the current moment of Trump and vocal white supremacist sentiment isn't discussed as existing in a sociopolitical vacuum or as an aberration, but rather, an inevitability. In discussing Trump, Smith says:

"America always returns to itself... Trump secured the nomination because at least one major American political party has always explicitly or implicitly endorsed white supremacy as the ruling ideology... An institution created for the protection of white supremacy installed that white supremacist into the nation’s highest office. The system worked precisely as it was intended to."

A brilliant, truthful and timely read that helps to make sense of our seemingly senseless times and leads us to interrogate our view of society as it is while opening up our political and social imaginations to work toward what it could be.
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An infinitely more honest State of the Union discussion than any given by the current White House occupant, Stakes is High offers an intelligent dissection of the myth of the American dream. Especially relevant in the wake of Black Lives Matter transgressions, demonstrations and attempts at improvement, it will find a readership in those seeking insight into the problems and perspectives facing our country’s citizens today.
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This should be on every American's to be read list. The author wrote such a timely and much needed portrait of what the American experience has been and still is.  The author does not pick just one topic, but touches on many areas where we need to come together and improve, such as with the justice system, endemic racism and much more.  Not only did the author support his argument with extensive data, but the book is extremely well written.
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An incredibly cogent call to revolution. The author is perhaps a cynic at heart (like me), but makes a great case that no matter how messed up this country is, it's not too late to change if everyone digs in and does the work of facing and dismantling our systems of oppression. The so-called American Dream is something that has never really been available to anyone. Mychal Denzel Smith eloquently explain how the American Dream is just a myth told as history, and why that is so dangerous. It's what made Trumpism inevitable, and why we have to reverse course as fast as we can.
A timely book that I hope will be widely read.
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Challenge yourself to think critically about all you've heard, read about, or learned in the past. Author Mychal Denzel Smith provides a path for you on this reflective journey about the myth of the American Dream. The book is divided into four parts: Delusions, Justice, Accountability, and Freedom, which drive the narrative about the American Dream as myth and continued belief in oneself above the belief in people as a community. 

This is a perfect book for racial justice book clubs, as I was wishing to discuss this book along with others as I read it. I also may download this as an audiobook, because I see it is performed by the author, and hearing an author speak their own words can be even more powerful than reading them in your head. Overall, this concise book is one to keep and re-read, share with others, and discuss widely. Many thanks to Netgalley for this advanced read, as we head into election season.
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This is a short book of just a few long essays that have a powerful punch. The book is sharp, intelligent, and well reasoned, as a statement about the most powerful issues the American people are grappling with today, and in the past. Smith covers race, policing, prisons, power men hold over women, the current presidency, and more.

Smith covers Shirley Chisholm, which I had very little knowledge about her, being the first black person to run for presidential nomination of a major party, and the first black woman elected to Congress. He imagines, briefly what might have been if she won the 1972 election and became president. 

There is the part that strikes home, how when we say “American” we mean the people living in the United States, when it discounts all those people living in the continent of America, more North and South of us. How the United States is an Empire, with colonies such as Puerto Rico. 

There is so much more here. The book is densely packed. A book that is part of the conversation that is not to be missed.
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In Stakes is High, Michael Denzel Smith states that he intended to write a book without mentioning Trump but that he was unable to get past the first sentence without doing so. He argues that Trump is not an aberration in the system but the end result of years of systemic racism, misogyny, inequality, and beliefs and policies that have led the country here:

<i>Donald Trump is the inevitable result of holding tight to the American Dream. He was inevitable in 2016 and, barring a revolutionary turn...he will be inevitable in our future. He is the end result of allowing the delusion about our history, of making freedom synonymous with capitalist accumulation, of unearned arrogance and untempered individual ambition...he is all the things that create American culture, whether they are acknowledged or not.</i> 

Using history as well as an unflinchingly clear analysis, Stake is High is, in fact, a call to arms. He looks at the roots of racism by showing the many small indignities in Black neighbourhoods, including the lack of garbage bins on corners compared to white neighbourhoods, that add up to huge inequalities. He also talks about his own ancestor born into slavery and denied the right to learn to read and write meaning that he left no record of his life. 

He examines systemic racism as well as misogyny and toxic masculinity; the failures of the justice and political system; police brutality and how the purpose of the police has, from its inception, been to protect private property; and he lays out the lie behind  the myth of the 'American Dream'. 

He argues that it is all inextricably tethered to 'white supremacist patriarchal capitalism", that he once believed that, although he would not see its end in his lifetime, his friends' children might live in a world without it. But that belief changed on November 8, 2016 and that is why he wrote this book:

<i>I hope you already know, already feel, or if you don't, I hope I can convince you to feel along side me: stakes is high. Our very survival is on the line....[b]ut that something can be done about it. Revolution must be swift and uncompromising; it will be scary and potentially violent. Before it can be any of these things, it must be thought of as possible</I>

This was not always an easy book. Many, no doubt, will agree with his analysis of the causes of the state of the nation but reject his conclusion. But, given what is happening right now in the United States, it is an important book and I recommend it highly.

<i>Thanks to Netgalley and Perseus Books for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review</i>
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What we ignored or believed to get where we are as a nation today.

I don’t actually know what put Smith on my radar, but I’m so glad I grabbed this book.  This is a short collection of powerful linked essays on the delusions of America and how it affects everything. His observations are passionate, personal, and reflective and should be required reading. He looks at the “America’s Dad” mask of Bill Cosby or the white-washed legacy of Martin Luther King, the difference between Justice and accountability, and ultimately the illusion of the “American Dream”.
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An frank and intimate contemporary dissection of the violence perpetuated through the delusion, discrimination and disillusionment upon which the American Empire has forever thrived. An essential document of the current moment in the United States. RIYL: "We Were Eight Years In Power" by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
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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.
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A very good call to arms and critique of the state of the nation. It's not pretty, but Smith's wide-lens view is smart and lays out the root of American problems succinctly, shining a hard light on endemic racism, toxic masculinity, capitalism, the justice system, politics, and the longstanding delusion labeled the American dream. There are no easy answers or binary rhetoric, which makes this a good book to read right now. How we got to this place—or the place we were at when Smith wrote the book, which is just short of this even harsher point in time—is not easily answerable, but it is understandable, and he does a good job of making the case for a broad and deep revolution.
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"Stakes is High" falls into the category of books that everyone should read. As a self-identifying liberal, this book puts into perspective how even if Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, while it would have been better than the current presidency, the reality is that the inequality that has existed in this country since its founding will continue without a complete overhaul of our systems. I appreciation Smith's discussion on how, as liberals, especially white liberals, we can't put blame on the groups of people who voted for Trump unless we look at our long history that has allowed white supremacy, misogyny, transphobia/homophobia, discrimination against immigrants, and economic privilege by only certain groups of people to perpetuate. Many of the ideals that Americans profess that make us a united country, like the ability to live the American Dream, are a myth to those who work low wage jobs, graduate from schools without receiving a solid education, or face other daily (and lifelong) injustices. Overall, this book will raise awareness about the true history and current state of America, as well as lead you to think about how you can contribute to making this a better country for everyone.
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