Reviewed by Dr. Patricia Reid-Merritt
When you mention the name of novelist Walter Mosley, Easy Rawlins comes to mind. In Easy Rawlins, Mosley has given us a slick, street-wise, homeboy detective we proudly embrace as one of our fictitious heroes. In Black Genius, the make-believe world disappears and it is the real-life, day-to-day struggles of Black folks that take center stage.Black Genius is a collection of 13 essays addressing contemporary issues of concern to the African American community. It was Mosley who first conceived of the idea to bring together some of the nation’s leading Black achievers for an open conversation on the Black experience. The book owes its genesis to a series of community conversations that were sponsored by the New York University Africana Studies Program and the Institute for African American Affairs. Professors Manthia Diawara, Clyde Taylor, and Regina Austin joined Mosley as editors in helping turn these conversations into the provocative literary assemble that is Black Genius.The title of the book is deceptively accurate. Geniuses are often perceived as those individuals engaged in high-level gray matter work much too difficult for the average person to comprehend. The aforementioned description is not an accurate reflection of those who contributed to this volume, and several of the authors spend time disavowing themselves of the genius title. Yet, their brilliance and their genius continues to shine through.Mosley speaks to the purpose of this worthy project in his introduction: “The intent of Black Genius was to assemble a group of Black intellectuals, artists, political activists, and economists who have broken the visor and seen beyond the fallacies of race and nationalism.… We wanted to present the stories of women and men who had made it in spite of the system, those who have transcended the limitations of blind faith while at the same time refusing to accept the cynicism of racism.”He concludes the essay by asking us to reconsider our definition of genius to one that emphasizes that “quality which crystallizes the hopes and talents and character of a people.”Mosley’s geniuses are outstanding African American achievers from different walks of life. They include filmmakers Spike Lee and Melvin Van Peeples; journalists Farai Chideya and George Curry; former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders; and social critics extraordinaire bell hooks and Stanley Crouch. It’s an eclectic mix of socially progressive voices, providing the work with its greatest strength and weakness. As is probably true of any collection of essays from such disperse social locations, the results are bound to be uneven. However, the spirit of commitment and dedication to community resonates throughout.Those who most frequently utilize the written word as the medium to express their creativity fare the best in Black Genius. Haki Madhubuti’s “As Serious as First Love” blends personal history with poetic expressions to make a passionate plea for Black folks to develop and support independent Black institutions. Chideya’s “Making the Media Accountable” provides a stripped-down-to-the-bone analysis of racism in the media and offers an action agenda for Black folks willing to engage the beast.In “Wall Street, Main Street, and the Side Street,” Julianne Malveaux mixes humor with political analysis and provides insight into the far-reaching impact that uninformed public policy-makers have on an unsuspecting African American community. And Crouch is, perhaps, at his best in “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” as he takes on irresponsible, socially denigrating behavior of athletes, gangsta rappers, criminals, and their “nappy-headed academic supporters.”Other contributors — including Randall Robinson and Anna Deavere Smith — discuss various social challenges to the Black community and offer some simple, straight-forward solutions for self-determination and self-sufficiency. However, it is Angela Davis, an outspoken advocate of “Prison Abolition,” who offers the most frightening essay and solution to the problems associated with America’s escalating prison population.The editors of Black Genius succeed in providing the underlying thread that ties this volume together. The brief but richly detailed biographical statements accompanying each chapter offer a rationale for the inclusion of the author. For those unfamiliar with their accomplishments, the biographical sketches provide an additional incentive to seek out their works.Black Genius is an informative, uplifting, and empowering book. It is highly recommended as a supplemental text for all undergraduates, and for those wishing to nurture and develop a higher level of social consciousness. It was Mosley’s hope that the sharing of the true-life stories, so integral to the Black Genius project, would provide the community with the opportunity “to look into their hearts and to see a life worth living.” The message and the meaning have been delivered — and therein lies the genius of the work.
—Dr. Patricia Reid-Merritt is a professor of social work and African American studies at Richard Stockton College.
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