“Smiling is a black man’s telekinesis.”
Despite its comedic undertones, the chorus of Open Mike Eagle’s “Smiling” hits like a sledgehammer. “Nobody smiles at me ’cause I’m a black man,” he croons, the line a plea, an accusation, and an observation all at once, social commentary mixed with personal revelation. Because the song is ostensibly about Open Mike Eagle not getting recognized at his own shows, the song is easy to write off as clever tragicomedy. But as I’ve relistened, sadly singing along, I’ve become struck by the force of the claim, the way that the conviction carried by that unambiguous conjunction—’cause—transforms Open Mike Eagle’s observation into truth, lived blues.
That pain resonates with me because, growing up, I was always defined by my smile. Since childhood, teachers, barbers, relatives, dentists, bullies, friends, lovers, and strangers have regularly concluded that my smile, and its frequency—I smile a lot—convey something fundamental about who I am. When I was a teenager, I spent a few summers working in the games department at Six Flags Over Georgia. On paper, my job was to stand in the sun and convince park visitors to play overpriced games. In reality, all I did was stand in place in the shade and calmly smile, bolting to attention only when managers were near or when patrons shoved money into my sweaty hands.
For me, my mediocrity was obvious, but for the secret shoppers who described their interactions with me, I was a model employee, a nice guy, a fine young man—all of their inferences stemming from my smile, which they always noted. In church, where I spent Sunday after Sunday in stifling Southern Baptist church heat, stewing in silent skepticism, my smile played the same role. Elders would predict a lifetime of blessings for me after a single handshake. Whenever someone needed a quick and easy character sketch of me, my smile was always there to guide the pencil.
I’ve tended to learn more about others than myself from these snapshot impressions, but the most enduring lesson has been just how little control I have over my public image. For as long as I’ve been smiling, I’ve also been frowning and grimacing and balking, sometimes simultaneously, but these other expressions have never stuck. There are certainly worse things to be defined by than a smile, but it’s hard not to see this lack of control in continuity with other things that are largely beyond my reach, like whether wearing a hoodie will strike fear into my neighbors or whether having an afro will complicate my job search.
As a black man, this sense of heightened uncertainty is my general experience. Trivial decisions—like wearing a hat or the volume of the music in my car—feel like mission statements. And the mission is always grossly basic—I’m either endorsing or resisting some static, stereotypical image, squirming into or out of a rigid, stifling mold. In “Smiling,” Open Mike Eagle mentions the “sex-craved rapists” and “white person stranglers” that haunt the American psyche. Whether he was referring to Native Son or suggesting that black stranglers and rapists are really out here preying on white folks, there’s something chilling about the fact that the only way to deny these mythic ghouls is to imply that they might be real.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon likened this unfair shuffle between denial and embrace to a play, concluding that the only escape was not to oppose or accept the role, but to leave the stage altogether. “Skim over this absurd drama that others have staged around me; rule out these two elements that are equally unacceptable; and through the particular, reach out for the universal,” he wrote, pointing forcefully at the theater’s exit sign.
Smiling often seems to offer that escape. Thanks to somewhat elastic eyebrows, I’ve got a smile for every situation. Effortlessly, I can comfort, conspire, assuage, or flatter in one expression, transforming an encounter with me on an empty sidewalk or train car into just another forgettable moment, two ships passing in the night. Repeatedly, I’ve seen this magical social lubricant at work, loosening grips on purses, relaxing tensed shoulders in elevators, slackening the glares of cashiers. Smiling is a black man’s telekinesis.
Or so I once thought. At my college in middle Georgia, it seemed to work during late-night strolls past staggering white sorority girls and barfing white fraternity dudes. When I moved to New York City, coming into contact with streams of strangers every day, things became more complex. Public space was transit space, people shuttling from chamber to chamber and pod to pod, all the faces wearing a uniform scowl. The smiles that I did see were inward: public, but only obliquely, like an outdoor concert viewed from behind the perimeter fence.
Most people didn’t seem to need a smile in order to feel safe in New York. People didn’t even seem to look directly at each other, which was okay with me. It felt good to return to smiling on my own terms, without the reputation of my race on the line. No longer weaponized, my smile regained its triviality, a single still on an infinite reel of possible expressions. Instantly, the anonymity that the city promised was finally available. I could walk around carefree, lost in my own individual thoughts and concerns rather than the fears of others. It was exhilarating: The Invisible Man’s resuscitative underground could be the city itself, I realized. I still believed that if I had to mollify some shook stranger, a smile would be the best solution, but that belief no longer defined how I roamed the city. I could look at people and they saw me.
But as night descends in New York, people become less discerning. Even under beaming streetlights, gleaming ads, and shockingly bright subway lights, they begin to see nothing but silhouettes and phantasms. As people crossed streets without making eye contact, held each other closer as I approached, and spontaneously speed-walked away in my presence, I realized how much smiling depends on a mutual gaze, an attentive audience. By smiling I wasn’t escaping the theater, I was just redefining the stage. Smiling isn’t a black man’s telekinesis; it’s a black man’s illusionism.
In this context, the magic hour takes on a new meaning. Once, sometime around sunset, I left my Brooklyn apartment to go to a concert in Manhattan. On my way to the subway, I passed by the owner of the bakery where I worked. He was standing outside. I smiled, he nodded, and I continued walking. Later that night, around 2 a.m., I reemerged from the subway. The sun was gone, but my boss was still there, inexplicably chilling in his van. Making eye contact with him, I smiled again. No reaction. I waved. He ice-grilled me. I went home.
A few weeks later, during an awful conversation about why I could no longer wear a yellow hat to work, my boss brought up this encounter. If he had been a woman, he told me, seeing me in that hat would have scared him. I didn’t understand his logic then and I don’t understand it now, especially since he was also a black man and he frequently wore a Rasta cap. He was easy to shrug off though. He didn’t like me so he wouldn’t have smiled anyway, I reasoned. Telekinesis is hard to give up.
It took a bad experience at a birthday party for me to retire my telekinetic smile for good. The party was pretty standard: young people, music, alcohol, and inertia. I arrived and was unsurprised when, out of twenty-five or so people, I was the only black person at the party. I’d been to this kind of party before. Slowly, I made my rounds—chatting, listening, talking, refilling my red cup. I wasn’t gelling with anyone, which happens, but as I slinked from group to group, the lack of rapport felt less and less coincidental. I wasn’t creeping on anyone and I wasn’t interrupting any conversations but people just seemed uncomfortable. Backs would turn, boxing me out of conversations; conversants would make a beeline for other people mid-speech; my smiles were met with deep suspicion. I’d been taught to guard my drinks, but these people were guarding their party jabber. Was I that threatening?
Even though I didn’t know or care about anyone other than the birthday girl, I still felt diminished, insignificant. It wasn’t even a matter of select individuals being rude or disinterested, or me being hurt or needy. It just felt like it had been collectively decided that I was unwanted, that I didn’t belong, existentially. I would have liked to participate in that decision-making, to have been cast out because I had earned it through some faux pas or awful facial expression, something I did rather than something I am. I left the party early, unsure of what exactly had gone wrong and not even entirely confident that racism was a factor, but certain that there was nothing I could have done to fix it.
This sense of resignation is what Open Mike Eagle is hinting at on “Smiling.” It’s not clear whether he smiled first before being denied a smile, but I like that ambiguity. Even if he hadn’t smiled first, there’s something innately troubling about the reflex of signaling that you’re “safe.” It’s taxing to have to manage other people’s preconceptions about you, to have to prove that you’re “one of the good ones,” as if there is such a thing, as if other people’s fears and anxieties have anything to do with you and not their own toxic pathologies. The game is rigged.
Smiling isn’t “shucking and jiving” or pandering. Smiling isn’t a moral compromise or even an ideological confrontation. It’s a social microloan, the tiniest attempt to help people out of their world of outsized fears and into a mundane land of common decency. This triviality is what makes an unreturned smile so tragic; it is one of the smallest offerings imaginable, a gesture as inconsequential as a single shed hair. But when it comes from or is for a black man like me, amazingly it’s just too much. I don’t know if I’ll ever find Fanon’s exit sign, but if I do, I won’t smile until I’m completely through the door. Because what lies on the other side of that door, away from scripts and stages and illusions, is everything a smile is supposed to be—warmth, recognition, spontaneity. Beyond that threshold, nobody smiles at me ’cause I’m a black man smiling at them. They smile just ’cause.
Stephen Kearse is a freelance writer and critic. He's previously written for Slate, The Toast, Seven Scribes, and Paste Magazine, among other outlets. He frowns when he writes.