This. Is. America.
Whether you love it or hate it or are somewhere in between, Donald Glover’s newest music video, juxtaposing black joy and pain, has folks thinking. Somewhere in between “This is a masterpiece” and “This is blasphemy” are screams from some of the largest (social) media platforms throwing out that ever trite and oh-so-dangerous label of “genius.” And while some may be able to make valiant arguments about why Glover’s art has reached that level, the fact remains that black art and creativity are primarily seen at that level when the messenger of that content is cisgender and male.
Janelle Monáe just released one of the most brilliant music and visual projects many of us have seen from a black artist. Black, a woman and queer, she reinvented herself by yet again pushing the boundaries of her creativity past sex and gender. The queer community felt loved. Black women went AWF! However, many black men opted to stream Post Malone’s newest project that day, in record numbers. The term “genius” never crossed the timeline.
Just a week prior, Beyoncé set the world ablaze with her all-black-everything set at Coachella, paying homage to blackness in a performance unlike anything we had ever seen. We have, over the past 10 years, watched Beyoncé elevate the bar of audio and visual standards, setting her apart from every other contemporary artist. Her name comes up in conversations alongside those of the legends, with many arguing that she has eclipsed Michael Jackson—another musical genius—as the greatest entertainer of all time.
However, she has not been and probably will not ever be considered a genius. Despite the black art she continues to create and elevate, the notion of genius is often tied to who has the power to lead the masses—which patriarchy dictates can only be led by a man.
And only by a particular type of man. James Baldwin is considered one of the greats. Many use his quotes as daily mantras despite his queer identity. Yet Baldwin’s greatness is often suppressed because of his queerness. There is this unwillingness to accept that his words could be right—or “genius,” in many instances—for straight black men because that would be aligning with a person whose lived experience is often lauded as emasculating for a black man. Queer people like Audre Lorde and Angela Davis are never considered to be genius—too woman or too queer for that type of pedestal, despite their life’s work being staples in the lexicon of black history.
Genius sets men up on glass pedestals that are eventually shattered by stones of anti-blackness, misogyny and homophobia. The worship of false idols often comes with this genius label, which in turn makes these individuals people they were never meant to be. It’s like someone who goes viral because of a single tweet on something “woke” and gains thousands of followers with the expectation that their lens is framed through a “woke” moment. Once these followers begin seeing the totality of the person, that genius becomes questionable, oftentimes debated by those who require another genius for their own learning.
Kanye West was once considered a genius, and by many still is. He was afforded that right because he was, at one point in his life, bold enough to say all the things we wish we could. We watched a black man tell a white president on national TV that he “doesn’t care about black people,” only to watch him, a decade later, normalize the oppression of his own with “love for his brother” Donald Trump. What once was called “genius” is now labeled as crazy—a line that many say “geniuses” tiptoe along.
Our community has often been taught to look for leaders of social consciousness who drive the thought of all who exist below. There is a reason that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were considered leaders that Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ida B. Wells never were. There is a reason that folks say they would have been more Nat Turner than Harriet Tubman, but also say that Korryn Gaines—who was much more like Turner—brought her own death upon herself.
The “unraveling” of Kanye almost opened the door for black men who needed something to latch on to that would fill the void. J. Cole’s newest project is heralded by many who feel in some ways that he and Kendrick Lamar are geniuses—despite the misogyny and homophobia that ain’t gonna free a soul. The title of genius is often given very quickly to black men who, at a minimum, exude some type of social consciousness around race and politics, which is often wrapped in ideals of protecting patriarchy and cisheteronormative values. The whole “Killmonger was right” thing?
We do a disservice to blackness when we are unable to see creative genius outside of the black male gaze. Even when genius is seen in the likes of Eartha Kitt, Grace Jones and Nina Simone, it is usually met with sexism and misogyny—seen as a threat to patriarchy rather than as the necessary learning our community needs to break the conditioning of colonization. The conditioning that taught us to live in a hierarchy where cishet black men sit at the top, and all others within our community fall below.
Black genius exists in black women and in black subcultures, and the inability to receive that message from them continues the erasure of our own, while dismissing the notion that thought can be taught and led by others.
It may be time to give the whole “genius” thing a rest if we are unable to afford that privilege to those who are not the ideal male. Genius is transgender women at Stonewall. Genius is black women trying to save us all. Genius is queer people consistently going to bat for folk who never come to bat for them. It’s time we stop giving that term to folk so quickly and start giving it to all who truly deserve it.