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,
"Had two babies different dudes/And for them both my love was true/This is my last interview/hey, that's me
This year I turned 36/damn it seems it came so quick/my ass and legs have gotten thick/it's all me."
Lorraine Hansberry once said, to achieve the universal, you must pay close attention to the specific. Anyone who's ever grooved to Badu's "Tyrone," knows just how specific sister girl can be:
"Now every time, I ask you for a little cash. You say no, turn round and ask me for some ass."
And then of course, there's the infamous chorus:
I think ya better call Tyrone/And tell him come on/And help you get your shit."
She is a shining example of what is really a generation of singer-songwriters: Jill Scott, Angie Stone, Goapele, Alicia Keys, Martha Redbone, Amel Larrieux and even though her tracks are so commercial they are easy to dismiss, Missy Elliot is such an artist that she could've rolled with Picasso and Braque, Basquiat and Haring, Rothko and Pollock.
#2) Thelma Golden for being a curator of vision.
As director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, she transformed the institution into a powerful New York cultural destination and now her museum is a cornerstone of the modern day renaissance in Harlem. But what really makes Ms. Golden so golden is that in the space of what is still a very young career as a curator she has nurtured and championed so many important artists: Lorna Simpson, Gary Simmons, Chris Offili,Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker and the list goes on.
While she has said that it would be impossible for her, as one woman, to right 220 years of exclusion in the art world, you look at the sheer impact that her artists and exhibits have had globally and you remember the change one strong spirit can wrought in this world.
#3) Marcus Samuelsson and Govind Armstrong for their exquisite tastebuds.
Marcus Samuelsson Govind Armstrong
As a dedicated home cook, I know that making truly beautiful food is an art and when you eat a dish that has been imbued with creativity, you feel as lifted as you do by a great journey, a great song or a great film. For the culinary black genius spot, I nominate two chefs. Representing the East Coast, Marcus Samuelsson of New York's Aquavit and Merkato 55. At the latter, Samuelsson has taken on the task of bringing African flavor to the small plates revolution in American dining. Repping the West Coast, Govind Armstrong of Table 8 (which also has a branch in Miami.) Armstrong's menu is market driven, constantly changing and exquisitely well-edited with a menu of eight appetizers and eight entrees.
#4) Colson Whitehead for his incomparable imagination.
The first time I read The Intuitionist, I knew I was in the throes of a world I'd never experienced and would never forget. The book evoked 1940's films with shady men and fast-talking dames; early comic books like noir era Batman, and sci-fi novels like Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials. And at the center of all this beautiful drama was a black woman elevator inspector. Colson Whitehead has gone on to flex his considerable literary muscle with books like John Henry Days and Apex Hides the Hurt. But I remain partial to the Intuitionist. Will someone make a movie of this book please? I'd write the script for free.
#5) Suzan-Lori Parks and Elizabeth Alexander for being modern day myth-makers.
Suzan-Lori Parks Elizabeth Alexander
The playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (left) and the poet Elizabeth Alexander (pictured at right) both evoke the tradition of Greek mythology in the way that their stories map the gap between heaven and earth. Little wonder then that both of their prominent early works feature the Hottentot Venus, aka Saartjie "Sarah" Bartman, a Khoikhoi woman and Dutch slave whose curvaceous booty and other exaggerated sexual features made her a popular exhibit in 19th century European sideshows. Since then, Parks has gone on to retell the Cain and Abel story in the Pulitzer Prize winning Top Dog, Underdog and Elizabeth Alexander has most recently published the Pulitzer Prize finalist, American Sublime.
#6) Marguerite Abouet for drawing a beautiful black girl into comic book history.
In her graphic novel, Aya, Abouet tells the funny, smart, sweet tale of life growing up in the Ivory Coast. Inspired by Persepolis author Marjane Satrapi, Abouet has said, "I feel like girls were not really involved in comics, and comics were not really for girls. I hated when I was young to read superheroes. Except for Spider-Man. He was a normal guy — he was having affairs with girls. He had complicated stories with girls and his aunt and everything, so I felt he was closer to me. And he was beautiful also. I was in love with Spider-Man. But otherwise I didn't feel close to the superheroes. I wasn't concerned with them." Now because of Abouet, girls of color can not only fall in love with Spider Man, they can imagine themselves of heroines of comic books as well.
#7) Dave Chappelle for being a truth teller.
Do you remember that line in Janet Jackson's song, "Got Till It's Gone" when Q-Tip says, "Joni Mitchell never lied." That's how I feel about Dave Chappelle. From the racial draft to "When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong," the Chappelle show spoke truth to power for three amazing seasons. Yes, Chappelle rides on the shoulders of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, even Chris Rock, but he learned his lessons well and took the game to another level. Turns out that Janet was right, you don't know what you've got till it's gone.
#8) Savion Glover for keeping alive an art form.
Tap dancing could've gone the way of vaudeville were it not for the work of Gregory Hines. In the early 90's, George Wolfe brought Hines together with a young Savion Glover in Jelly's Last Jam. In his own Tony award winning Broadway show, Glover vowed to keep tap alive "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk." He's been making good on that promise, ever since. In 2007, he performed his "Invitation to a Dancer" at the Joyce Theater. This year, he'll launch a national Tap Teaching Workshop Tour. As Glover told the New York Times, tap is "homage. It's respect and prayer every time I hit the floor."
#9) Sarah Jones for being the consummate chameleon.
Playwright, actor and poet Sarah Jones is the heir apparent to Anna Deveare Smith. Her Tony award winning play, "Bridge and Tunnel" was produced by Meryl Streep, who called it "one of the best performances I've ever seen." Jones is a master of disguises and a virtuoso of accents, but it's what she does offstage that makes her truly genius. She listens, really listens, to those whose voices are muted and then speaks their words out loud.
#10) Majora Carter for integrating the green movement.
Environmental activist Majora Carter, raised 1.2 million dollars to bring the first open waterfront park the south Bronx has seen in more than sixty years. Then she upped the ante by creating "green-collar" jobs to the residents of the neighborhood where she grew up and still lives. At a recent TED conference (an invitation only gathering of creative and public intellectuals ranging from Bill Clinton to Bono), Carter approached Al Gore about her strategy for environmental justice. His response was to brusquely offer to help her find a grant. As she later told the TED crowd, "I don't think he understood. I wasn't asking him for funding – I was making him an offer. Grassroots groups are needed at the table during the decision making." For demanding a seat for us and ours at the green movement's table, Majora Carter has more than earned her place at this circle of geniuses.
#11) The British Black Pack for enlightening and entertaining.
Adrian Lester Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Sophie Okonedo Chiwetel Ejiofor
We look to our great actors for range, but these four black Brits swing between parts and projects with the finesse and grace of trapeze artists. Hence Adrian Lester can play a charming grifter in the BBC series "Hustle" but also win an Olivier award for his work on the London stage. Marianne Jean-Baptiste was nominated for an Oscar for the arty "Secrets and Lies" then took it to primetime on "Without A Trace." Chiwetel Ejiofor can go from the frothy pleasures of "Kinky Boots" to gripping dramas like "Children of Men" and in films ranging from "Hotel Rwanda" to "Dirty Pretty Things," Sophie Okonedo is the very definition of a quiet storm.
#12) David Adjaye for making art with light and steel.
Architect David Adjaye was recently named an Order of the British Empire by the queen for his services to architecture. Meaning that he's now Sir David to the likes of you and me. He has said, "You've got to be a showman. You can't just do your work. You've got to put it out there. Nobody's going to give you ten million pounds (20 million dollars) if you can't demonstrate your ability." In private homes for luminaries like Ewan McGregor and in public spaces like the "Idea Stores" libraries and the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Adjaye shows that he's more than up to the job.
#13) Joe Wood for the gift of intellectual curiosity. At the age of 34, the writer Joe Wood passed away before finishing his first book, but not before writing dozens of powerful articles and serving as the glue to those of us who hit the cultural scene in the early nineties. He taught me to be curious, to be intellectually rigorous and that was no place in my blackness, in my femaleness, that I did not belong. Joe was our generation's Baldwin. I had the good fortune of publishing one of his best essays while I was an editor at the New York Times Magazine. It's called "What I Learned from the Jews" and you can find it in this Paul Berman anthology.
So now it's your turn, who inspires you to genius? What do you think of those that I've named and claimed, missed and dissed?
Veronica Chambers is a writer based in Philadelphia.