Black Genius

For personal reasons (his),
using personal accounts (others’),
author profiles black achievers

When Dick Russell started researching his new book, “Black Genius,” intended as a celebration of African-American achievements in fields ranging from the arts to science, the prospect of poring over biographies of his subjects and digging out secondhand interviews made it seem, he acknowledged, “like a pretty dry project.”

“Finally,” Russell said, “I decided I had to go out and meet people and do interviews.” And that’s when the project started to come alive.

The result was that instead of a secondhand account of the life of actor Paul Robeson, the book became, in part, a personal account. By coincidence, Russell came to know Robeson’s son and discovered that as a child the son had known Russell’s father.

And instead of reworking stale impressions of the writer James Baldwin, Russell became close friends with Michael Thelwell, the University of Massachasetts at Amherst professor who, Russell says, was “among Baldwin’s closest spiritual companions in the last years of his life.”

Thus by the time the book was finished – it was published in February by Carrroll & Graf – Russell found that he had brought the achievements of black men and women to life.

Russell, 50, is a member of the Fort Hill Community, a thriving 1960s experiment in communal living with houses in Roxbury, Martha’s Vineyard, Kansas, and several other locations. He became acquainted with the group in the 1970s and as a freelance writer thought of writing a book about it. “I never wrote the book,” he says. “but I’ve been living as part of this family ever since.”

Since 1980, he has been living in one of the community’s grandly restored Victorian mansions atop Fort Hill in Roxbury. About 20 people live there, including Russell’s son, Franklin, for whom, he says, he wrote the book.

Although the Fort Hill Community is predominantly white, its Boston houses are in predominantly black Roxbury, and Franklin himself is racially mixed – “of both worlds,” Russell says.

“It was in part, for what I might be able to learn and pass along to him,” Russell says, “that I made the remarkable journey that became this book.”

Franklin, 18, accompanied his father on several of the interviews, as did his mother, from whom Russell is separated – but whom he credits with the decision to include Boston cultural legend Elma Lewis. Now in her mid-70s, she remains, Russell writes, “a powerful, no-nonsense person.”

Lewis’s National Center of Afro-American Artists on Elm Hill Avenue is not far from Fort Hill. His awareness of her, Russell writes, began in 1993 when Franklin performed in her production of Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity.”

Sitting in on an evening rehearsal, Russell recalls, “I first witnessed the tough love of the woman the children reverentially called ‘Miss Lewis’ as she firmly conjured intelligent performances out of youthful confusion.”

“It was not as a mere disciplinarian that Miss Lewis came across,” Russell writes, “but rather as someone seeking to teach the children how to take charge of their lives.”

In “Black Genius,” Lewis shares Russell’s stage with photographer and artist Gordon Parks, author Albert Murray, jazz great Louis Armstrong, and architect Charles McAfee and his architect daughters. In all of them, Russell finds the mark of genius.

In Russell’s view, “Neither race nor class limits the potential of an individual. People who are gifted with unusual intellectual ability or creativity – and who work diligently to make those talents a reality – we often call geniuses.”

And that quality of genius, Russell says, must be acknowledged, “beyond the artificial barriers of race and ethnicity.”

Even for a freelance writer – for whom, by definition, no subject is .too unusual – a book celebrating the achievements of black artists and musicians, architects and inventors (but no politicians), is a big leap from Russell’s previous projects.

He started at Sports Illustrated right out of the University of Kansas, but quit to spend a year traveling in Africa and the Mideast. Returning, he freelanced, then became a feature writer for TV Guide, based in Los Angeles.

In LA, Russell got to know a retired CIA agent who claimed to have knowledge of a Soviet plot to kill Lee Harvey Oswald to prevent him from assassinating President Kennedy.

“From flying around with Bob Hope for TV Guide,” Russell said, “I went to sitting around with this guy. I kept hoping he’d tell me all he knew, but he didn’t.” But Russell wrote a book, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” from what he learned. In the best assassination-conspiracy fashion, his source died, apparently of a heart attack, shortly after being subpoenaed in a Kennedy assassination investigation.

But “Black Genius” is an even bigger leap from Russell’s continuing passion – saving the striped bass.

Russell got hooked on that mission while living at one of the Fort Hill Community’s houses on’ Martha’s Vineyard. (The commune also owns a farm in Kansas and is building a house in Mexico.) “I did a lot of fishing there,” he said, “and I saw that the striped bass were on the edge [of extinction].”

Through his writing and by organizing other fishermen, Russell played a key role in securing a five-year moratorium on fishing for striped bass in Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, the main spawning “area. Coupled with a near-shutdown of commercial fishing and strict limits on recreational fishing, the survival of the striped bass is “now considered a great success story,” Russell said.

“It may seem like a big jump from saving the striped bass to writing this book,” Russell said, “but both were very personal things.”

The writer’s next project is likely to be about crises facing the world’s fisheries – in personal terms- the saving of the striped bass, the disappearance of the marlin from New England waters, and the devastation of the tuna. Russell is also concerned about the fate of the gray whale, whose spawning grounds are off Baja California.

“I’m a reporter,” Russell said, “but I take on subjects that are near to my heart. I try to follow subjects that touch me.”

Dick Russell (back), surrounded by (from left) Albert Murray, Paul Robeson Jr., and Gordon Parks last month at a book party.