In her first essay collection, 2009’s Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith made an art of ambivalence. In essays whose subtlety of thinking evoked the work of Henry James, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Virginia Woolf, Smith squirmed out of given categories in search of something to accommodate the multiplicity that she takes to be every person’s basic state. Although the collection dealt only sparingly with politics, it was telling that among the procession of figures she examined as exemplars of this art, she included Barack Obama. Her essay “Speaking in Tongues,” adapted from a talk that she gave shortly after Obama’s election in 2008, revels in the emergence of a president for whom “cross[ing] borders and speak[ing] in tongues” was a necessity for expressing the multiplicity of his experience.
For Smith, Obama’s most important attribute as a historical figure wasn’t necessarily his blackness, but his status as a man who must negotiate allegiances to different worlds—for example, those of his white Midwestern mother and black African father, or of black America and a broader national audience. With Obama, the fact of human multifariousness had migrated from the realm of art into the halls of power. A representative of what Smith calls “Dream City”—a heterogeneous world of overlapping and slippery identities—had taken over the White House.
Obama’s ascent also seemed like the validation of an idea that Smith has spent her entire career as a fiction writer mining. In White Teeth, On Beauty, and Swing Time, she has dedicated herself to describing the constant, churning exchange of cultures that renders any concept of identity ultimately unstable. To Smith, identity will always lapse into the impurity of cultural exchange. The hard work is to construct meaning out of that disorder once you realize that the myth of cohesive identities is a crutch. “You can’t live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés, or national flags,” she wrote in 2005’s On Beauty. “Finding an identity is easy. It’s the easy way out.” “Speaking in Tongues,” then, read like a victory lap: With Obama, the in-between space that Smith had previously been able to envision only in fiction had migrated from the margins to the center of political culture.
It was a nice dream while it lasted. Smith’s new collection, Feel Free, arrives amid a reactionary upheaval whose explicit goal is to uproot this vision. Though the assumptions that Smith took to be true are under assault, she’s responded with a collection that reiterates her belief in what she calls life’s “radical contingency.” In part, this is because most of these essays appeared over the course of Obama’s tenure, and the world they take for granted is very different from the one we live in. Smith’s consistency is also a testament to the strength of her intellectual commitments: For her, the one given in our world is that human beings and the world we live in are constantly shifting, forever subject to change.
Because of its timing, the result is a book that is intriguingly out of step with contemporary cultural criticism, a collection whose value lies in its belatedness. “I realize,” Smith admits in the book’s mock-sheepish foreword, “my somewhat ambivalent view of human selves is wholly out of fashion. These essays you have in your hands were written…during the eight years of the Obama presidency and so are the product of a bygone world.” Feel Free offers us an anachronistic provocation. In a moment when ideological surety is the order of the day, it asks us to remember that another mode of thought is possible.
Loosely divided into sections on politics, film, art, reading, and philosophy, Feel Free finds Smith applying her skills as a literary critic to a variety of cultural objects. Whether she’s writing on her students’ obsession with Facebook, the disconcerting experience of time in Christian Marclay’s art film The Clock, the black queer camp of Mark Bradford’s video installation Niagara, or the creative process behind the sketch-comedy show Key and Peele, the diverse sweep of Smith’s interests and knowledge is never less than riveting. She ranges across cultures, histories, genres, and media without regard to the boundaries that partition them. In “Mark Bradford’s Niagara,” she turns her eye to the artist’s 2005 installation, pondering what it might mean to watch a black man swishing down a South Los Angeles street, his hips swaying back and forth—but she can’t look at Bradford’s subject without taking a detour into a brief discussion of Frank O’Hara. Meanwhile, her essay “Meet Justin Bieber!” sits the Canadian pop star down for a meeting with the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.
And why not make such connections? For Smith, anything is a potential text that she can subject to her talent for keen observation. She homes in on her subject’s most minute details, unspooling layers of meaning in a way that perhaps only a literary critic can do. Sometimes this means her essays are prone to thinking about vernacular language and pop culture in terms of literature: In one essay, she compares the euphemisms we deploy to talk about climate change (“the new normal” being the most egregious) to elegies; in another, hip-hop’s tendency to fixate on material goods becomes a formal condition akin to ekphrasis in epic poetry. But thinking about the world in literary terms also allows Smith to treat her subjects with an intricacy and intensity that we normally reserve for literature alone.
In “The House That Hova Built,” her 2012 profile of the hip-hop elder statesman Jay-Z, Smith contemplates the mechanics of the cipher, a practice in which two or more rappers trade improvised verses. Before long, she’s fixated on the word “cipher,” reveling in how much grist it provides for interpretation—in particular, when it comes to understanding Jay-Z’s collaborative 2011 album with Kanye West, Watch the Throne. “What a word!” she exclaims before enumerating its meanings, moving from its literal definitions—a secret code, the key to that code, an individual of no consequence—to a reading of how the cipher in hip-hop endows its black practitioners with a sense of collaborative agency in a society that tells them they’re worthless. “Watch the Throne celebrates two men’s escape from that circle of negation,” she argues; blackness is “no longer the shadow or the reverse or the opposite of something but now the thing itself.”
When it comes to politics and identity, Smith uses close observation to contrast her preference for contingency to ideological thinking’s tendency to reduce the world’s complexity. Speaking of her white British father in “On Optimism and Despair”—an essay adapted from a speech she gave after Donald Trump’s election—Smith presents us with the case study of a man who operates with an open-ended view of life, which she notes is the near-antithesis of the current political climate. “He was, I realize now, one of the least ideological people I ever met,” she remarks. “Everything that happened to him he took as a particular case, unable or unwilling to generalize from it.” For Smith, her father’s resistance to systemic thought, and the cultivation of a sensitivity to the world’s specifics, is a way of thinking that resists dogmatism’s dangers. The desire to preserve this sensitivity is as close to a mission statement as Smith comes. Her commitment to contingency is as much political as it is aesthetic: If humans are capable of intellectual suppleness as well as dogmatism, one of a writer’s duties is to model what it’s like to linger on the ambiguity of a particular case.
Smith’s 2017 essay “Getting In and Out” is perhaps her most direct challenge to what she believes is dogmatic thinking. Weaving together a discussion of Jordan Peele’s race-horror film Get Out, Dana Schutz’s controversial 2016 painting of Emmett Till’s corpse, and the British artist Hannah Black’s criticism of it on the grounds of cultural appropriation, Smith’s essay is a risky exploration of racial proprietorship, as well as an attempt to figure out what belongs to one racial group or another. Smith finds Black’s argument about the ownership of black suffering by black people to be insufficient. She demands that we leave aside our predeterminations and actually look at the artwork—no matter how painful this act may be—in order to account for its intricacies, rather than thinking about blackness and Schutz’s painting in the simplistic terms of identity and appropriation.
“Each individual example of appropriation has to be thought through,” Smith insists, and so she casts her eye over Schutz’s canvas and sees a work guilty of the same mistake that Black makes: not fully reckoning with black life’s considerable nuance. In the end, Smith also dismisses Schutz’s painting, not because of Black’s arguments but rather because she believes that the painting is an aesthetic failure, an “abstraction without much intensity” that doesn’t grapple fully with the racist violence that claimed Till’s life. In the end, Smith agrees with Black that the painting doesn’t effectively engage with black suffering; but unlike Black, she chooses to withhold judgment until she’s had time to parse the image—and her own feelings. “When I look at Open Casket,” Smith confesses, “the truth is I don’t feel very much.”
Feel Free’s chief (if unstated) concern is that the kind of intellectual rigidity that lacks interest in aesthetic detail translates easily into intolerance and disregard for human complexity. To guard against such sloppiness, Smith guides her readers through a dizzying array of perspectives. But for all her concern with illustrating what this intellectual approach might look like, one wonders if Smith’s insistence on contingency might also rise to the level of ideology. Her call to dwell in ambiguity assumes a certain kind of individual: one with the luxury of detaching herself from the world’s flux in order to better observe its dynamics. It also assumes a certain freedom to feel, think, and express oneself that is not hemmed in by structures of power and economy.
This is a stance perhaps more readily available to a person like Smith, who splits her time between two countries, studied at Cambridge, and is currently a professor at a private university in the United States. As much as she rails against generalization, these essays are sometimes guilty of generalizing her own context—a multiracial woman of privilege—as the essential condition of human life. While she can look upon Schutz’s abstracted image of Till’s mutilated face and feel unmoved, perhaps a poor black American more ensnared in oppression’s web cannot. While her white British father might be able to resist generalization, perhaps this is not a luxury that a South Asian British citizen can afford in contemporary England. While we may all be sympathetic to Smith’s desire for us to be comfortable with ambiguity, there are obstacles to achieving the kind of openness that she champions. These essays occasionally leave one wishing she’d consider these hindrances. How do poverty, racism, misogyny, and homophobia structure our thought? How can we work around them, if at all? The point is that not all of us can, from our current vantage point, feel free.
But perhaps our limitations are exactly why Feel Free is an important contribution to contemporary conversations around culture and identity. It’s an invitation to join Smith as she does what many of us cannot: meander through the world, subjecting it to rigorous examination. That a black woman is insisting on casting her eye upon whatever she wants in itself represents defiance, a reckless eyeballing that was once unavailable to black people. More importantly, though, Feel Free reminds us that freedom isn’t something to be foisted upon or taken away from us by whoever happens to hold the reins of power; it is something that we can and must take on our own. Freedom, Smith seems to tell us, is first and foremost a practice that we craft in conjunction with one another, through intellectual and cultural back-and-forths as dynamic as a rap cipher. If we refuse such exchange, then our freedom has already been lost.