Review: Stakes is High by Mychal Denzel Smith

I read this book as part of my continuing efforts to be antiracist, and while I didn’t necessarily learn a lot of new information, Smith’s voice and personal insight were incredibly affecting.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads blurb:

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.

My thoughts

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.”

You should read this book, and read it soon.

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

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

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