Mychal Denzel Smith isn’t operating a branch of Niketown from his tiny bedroom in Brooklyn. It only looks that way.
There are two over-the-door shoe organizers full of sneakers, and a metal retail display rack against the wall can’t fit another pair. A column of unopened Nike shoe boxes teeters over the bed, reaching nearly as high as the bookshelf next to it that is crammed with classics of black literature past and present, like “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin, and “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” by Kiese Laymon.
A few pairs of high-top basketball shoes rest on a plastic container at the foot of the bed, the first thing Smith sees when he wakes in this apartment he shares with three roommates.
Man, this is a lot of sneakers, you say, taking it all in.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
There are more under the bed, Smith pointed out, trying to telegraph that he isn’t a hoarder, just a sneakerhead. “What do I spend my money on?” he said. “I spend it on what you see: books and shoes.”
Smith, a contributing writer at The Nation and an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Nation Institute, didn’t always have so many sneakers, upward of 200 pairs by last rough count. For a while, he mostly wore Converse Chuck Taylors.
“When I moved to New York, I was a broke, broke freelancer,” he said, standing amid his collection. “Shoes were not in the budget.”
But Smith, 29, soon began appearing on TV as a commentator and signed a deal for his first book, “Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching,” an impassioned memoir that will be published June 14 and aims to capture what it’s like to be young, black and male in America today. And with success came sneakers.
In fact, one can chart Smith’s last few years in New York through the kicks he bought to mark big events. A life story told in shoes, if you will. Let’s start with the Nike Air Jordan 3 Retro “Infrared 23” pair.
Smith bought them after he earned a raise from his employer.
“I’d never had a pair of Air Jordan 3s before,” he said. “They’re the first shoe that Jordan did with Tinker Hatfield, who is Nike’s golden god in terms of design. They have a huge place in the Jordan legacy.”
The shoes — white-and-black high-tops, with the gray above-sole pattern known to aficionados as “elephant print” — were “heavy in the rotation” after Smith got them. So much so that the toe crease is no longer fresh and he is thinking about donating them.
These days, he is more enamored by another pair of Nikes, the Air Jordan 11, which he calls “the greatest sneaker of all time.” They were worn by Michael Jordan during the 1995-96 season when the Chicago Bulls went 72-10, then a record, and won the championship. (This season, the Golden State Warriors bettered that record by a game, at 73-9.)
But perhaps the shoes are meaningful because Smith’s parents refused to buy them for him as a child.
“I remember them saying, ‘We’re not buying an 11-year-old child patent-leather sneakers,'” Smith said with a laugh.
So after he signed his book deal in 2014, he bought a reissued pair. He called the patent-leather design “forward thinking,” adding that it was meant as a dress-up sneaker.
Lifting his foot to show the shoes he was wearing ( Air Jordan 1s in a white, orange and black colorway known as the “shattered backboard”), Smith explained that he wore them to a debate at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in New York, to “shatter” expectations of respectability.
“I kind of throw it in people’s faces a little bit,” he said. “Because I know there’s an association people make with sneakers with a lack of intelligence, a lack of engagement with the world, with black youth, with wayward black youth.”
Marc Lamont Hill, 37, an author and distinguished professor of African American studies at Morehouse College and a mentor to Smith, said Smith brings hip-hop attitude and style to the role of public intellectual.
“Typically the price of entry to be on TV is you have to put on the suit, you have to put on the tie,” Hill said. “Hip-hop is about interrupting spaces. Mychal really likes to dress like that. It’s quintessentially hip-hop.”
Smith said: “I need to wear my sneakers. That’s when I feel most myself.”
Given the love of sneakers and hip-hop, one might assume he owns a pair or two of Yeezy Boosts, the fashion sneakers Kanye West designs for Adidas.
In “Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching,” which takes its title from a line in the 1999 Mos Def song “Hip Hop,” Smith professes his admiration for West’s music, and describes the moment in 2005 when the rapper called out President George W. Bush during a telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims as spurring a political awakening in him.
But Smith doesn’t own a pair of Yeezys. “I don’t like the look of them,” he said. “Kanye is meaningful to me. I just don’t like his sneakers.”
With a few exceptions, what Smith likes are high-top Nike basketball shoes, particularly Jordans. More than a decade after the player retired from the game, he still holds tremendous appeal in the sneaker world, even among young black men like Smith, who wasn’t born when Jordan debuted in the National Basketball Association in 1984.
In his book, Smith criticizes Jordan for not being an outspoken political athlete in the way Muhammad Ali was.
But Smith also thinks that by his “bodily genius” on the court, the basketball star represented something important to black men. “He embodied a certain black cool, a black masculine cool that everyone wanted to emulate,” Smith said during the interview in his apartment.
Buying and wearing big, bold, brightly colored sneakers is a way to be associated with Jordan’s cool factor and worldwide visibility.
“When I’m wearing a pair of Jordans, I feel more confident,” Smith said. “I walk taller. I walk straighter.”
He opened a shoe box at the foot of his bed and pulled out a pair of Air Jordan 1s in the classic red-white-and-black colorway, a 30th anniversary reissue of the 1985 high-top that started it all.
He bought them after he finished the manuscript for his book, and got a second pair for his editor as a gift, for seeing him through the writing process.
“I knew exactly what I wanted,” Smith said. “I finished my first book, I’m buying the first Air Jordans.”
He still hasn’t worn them. He is saving them for the first promotional event for his book, a June 9 reading at Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side.
Smith laid them back into the box. Got to keep the toes fresh.