The Latest Wave of Black Genius

Erykah Badu's latest release puts her in the club. Who else makes the cut?

Erykah Badu
Erykah Badu

I was listening to Erykah Badu’s new CD, New AmErykah and I had one consistent thought, “This is genius.” Listening to New AmErykah, I was reminded of the powerful book, Black Genius edited by Walter Mosley, Manthia Diawara, Clyde Taylor and Regina Austin.

Published in 2000, on the brink of a new century, the book looked to thirteen visionaries to, as Mosley wrote in the introduction, “present the stories of women and men who had made it in spite of the system, those who had transcended the limitations of blind faith while at the same time refusing to accept the cynicism of race.” The original Black Genius book featured essays by Farai Chideya, Stanley Crouch, George Curry, Angela Davis,bell hooks, Dr. Jocelyn Elders,Spike Lee, Haki Madhubuti, Julianne Malveaux, Walter Mosely, Randall Robinson, Anna Deaveare Smith and Melvin Van Peebles.

Eight years later, my quest for black genius is much the same. As a literary writer trying to navigate a publishing world that seems most receptive to urban romance and street lit (for more on this particular quandary read Martha Southgate’s spot on essay in the New York Times Book Review) the issue of genius is both one of inspiration and sustenance. While it is true, I’m sure, that my white contemporaries write with the inspiration of Henry James, William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf, I am not sure that the inspiration feels so direct and personal. For me, black geniuses of yesteryear – Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, James Baldwin – do not feel like distant icons, they feel like family. In this way, black genius, as I define it, isn’t a question merely of phenomenal talent mixed in with a soupcon of luck. I look to genius as confirmation that if I study my cultural canon, work hard and apply both my intellect and imagination, I may one day write a book that is meaningful for my generation, and perhaps generations to follow.

So who are our contemporary black geniuses? As Keith Adkins wrote in his recent post about Daughters of the Dust and Rebecca Walker so powerfully seconded, there was a moment in black film, in the early to mid nineties, when we knew what we were seeing was groundbreaking: Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, John Singleton, Euzhan Palcy and in the next wave, Darnell Martin,Reggie Rock Bythewood, Gina Prince Bythewood and Kasi Lemmons. These filmmakers followed in the immediate footsteps of Spike Lee, our modern day Oscar Micheaux, by making films that spoke to not only our community but to the world. These were all part of what Trey Ellis so presciently called the N.B.A. – the New Black Aesthetic.

To that list of filmmakers, many of whom are working today, I’d like to echo the coterie of Black Geniuses gathered in Walter Mosley’s book, with a baker’s dozen of my own.

#1) Erykah Badu for never playing it safe.

Walt Whitman famously wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Well, over the last ten years, Erykah Badu has shown us that underneath her totemic headwrap, the songstress contains multitudes too. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the video for “Honey,” where she pays homage to a powerful spectrum of musical artists: Rufus and Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, Funkadelic,Eric B. and Rakim, the Ohio Players, Minnie Riperton, Patti Labelle, De La Soul, the Beatles,Nas, Olivia Newton John, Grace Jones, Outkast, Earth, Wind and Fire, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. All in a flawless five minute video that goes down as sweet as, well, honey. I’m still tracking down all those records, the ones I don’t know, the ones I used to know, in an effort to learn more about music, my culture, the world at large. It’s not often that you can watch a music video and consider yourself so thoroughly schooled. But that’s the genius of Badu.

As in her previous work, she’s at her best when she speaks personally. In the autobiographical, “Me,” she sings,