Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream

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, in particular the election of Donald Trump, have forced us to reckon with who we are as a country 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, and 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.

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 incarceration, poverty, misogyny, and racism-are ever-present.

But 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.
Book Details
Mychal Denzel Smith
Book Format:
Publication Date:
15 Sep 2020
  • B Corp
  • Black Owned
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  • Veteran Owned
This young man has a talent for hitting home on some of the important issues our country struggles with today. Race and poverty are looked at through a clever and thought-provoking lens, and I found myself having to ask some uncomfortable but necessary questions about my own biases. I learned that I have a lot to learn. I highly recommend this book.
Mychal Denzel Smith’s new work “Stakes is High: Life After The American Dream” is a pivotal work as timely as anything I’ve read heading into the culmination of this election. Much like his debut work “The Invisible Man Got The Whole World Watching” it will leave you thinking of what America is as a construct as well as literally. A must read!
Let's just stipulate right away that this brother can write- some of Smith's sentences are as hard as diamonds and, if you're a white guy like me, will hit you right between the eyes. Over and over I found myself thinking, "I never thought about it like that before, but danged if he isn't right." The author makes a particularly strong case that a Donald Trump presidency is not at all an aberration given American history and the white supremacy that undergirds our institutions.
This short, well-argued and heady collection of essays (the title will be recognized by fans of 1990s hip hop) considers familiar topics like capitalism, racism, justice and accountability with a bracing clarity of moral vision that ultimately reckons with the viability of the American Dream itself. Smith views the recent challenges and upheavals of American political life not as aberrations but as inherent and shares an abolitionist philosophy designed to point the way forward. Recommended for fans of Ta-nehisi Coates and readers inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement not to indulge in inward navel-gazing but instead to consider societal change.
"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.
In Stakes is High, Mychael 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.
"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.
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.
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.

(I read a review copy via NetGalley)
Wow, this was fantastic! A slim, but potent volume of essays covering a variety of difficult subjects, including race, policing, rape culture, etc. Smith has a way of writing eloquent prose that is direct and thought-provoking, making it both incredibly effective and readable. I found myself re-reading and highlighting so many lines so I could adequately absorb them. His writing has me questioning my preconceived notions about a lot of things. Smith is an idealist proposes some pretty controversial ideas, like abolishing the police for instance. There are so many things we accept as part of society that really should be questioned. If a flawed system is in place, making slight changes to that system won’t fix it. These essays will stay with me and I plan to pick up Smith’s previous book!

Thank you to NetGalley and Bold Type Books for providing a copy of this ARC.
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