Black Genius

In September 2009, I received this Email from a friend, a published poet who lives in Italy. She writes so eloquently, and her words touched me so much, that I wanted to share it with others. – Dick Russell

Hi DickI am learning/have learnt so much from your wonderful book… and the knowledge has a particular emotional resonance. Let me try and explain–

I am fairly well read in African American literature, but when I read Obama’s Dreams it felt like he kicked open doors and windows onto things I’d barely intuited, or had no idea were there. He made me understand the African American experience better than anyone I had read to date. Why? (After all, Zora Neale Hurston, T Morrison, F Douglass etc are no amateurs!) I concluded that part of it was to due to Obama’s immense literary gift, but the decisive factor (coupled with that) had to be that he is half white, and so could lead me through this partially darkened house I was in and knew which doors to open to let in the light. He knew the layout of this ancient house I inhabited, a house with secrets and vanishings and concealed doorways– the layout of ‘my’ mind, as well as the African American perspective (which must surely be aching to find and light these barely lit places).

What I get from Black Genius is, absolutely, an extension and broadening of this luminous experience of being guided (Obama’s book is personal, of course, though it has huge resonance. Yours is a tome– it’s breathtaking in it’s breadth, and weighty, it seeks to capture a world, and it does– it has authority.). I feel like you’re with me in this house of the mind saying “Look over your head– there’s a skylight there!” and opening it to let in brilliant sunshine. Or “Behind you there’s a door bricked in” and you take an axe to it and show me another view on a garden. It’s exhilarating, it’s wonderful, it’s informative, but most of all I feel something is restored to me– to us– and I must thank you for that. This is, of course, reclaimed history. It reads, also, like a kind of war/resistance piece–how the figures connected and communicated is a fascinating underworld, an almost conscious resistance to the ongoing white ‘supremacism’ mentality in our culture.

I must get to work. Thanks so much Dick. You’ve given me such treasures. My words don’t do justice to the book which is a ‘capo lavoro’.


Illuminating the colorblind beauty of genius

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

By Michael Kenney, Globe Staff
Boston Globe, Living Arts section, March 24, 1998

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…

Read the full review here

In this collection of essays and interviews journalist Dick Russell examines the role of African Americans through two centuries of American history. He focuses primarily on the role of blacks in the cultural life of the United States. Russell writes about notable figures such as educator Mary McLeod Bethune, speaks with Harvard professor Cornel West about W. E. B. Du Bois, and discusses Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin in an essay titled “Timeless Voices, Parallel Realities.” Black Genius and the American Experience, with an introduction by Alvin F. Poussaint, takes a thoughtful and fascinating look at the contributions to U.S. history made by Americans of African descent.


“What is passed from one generation to the next” is the organizing principle of this study of several dozen African Americans in a wide range of fields. Russell supplements solid research with interviews of his living subjects (and friends and descendants of other twentieth-century subjects), which gives many of the chapters the tone of a memoir. But connections are the key to Russell’s analysis; his text and photographs trace Duke Ellington’s debt to Will Marion Cook, the line from Ellington and Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis, what Marsalis learned from Albert Murray, and Murray’s friendships with Ralph Ellison and artist Romare Bearden (and that’s just part 1). Part 2 consists of a look at creative ancestors and heirs in art, education, theater, philosophy, and literature; part 3 holds studies of cross-generational genius in science, invention, mathematics, and architecture; and part 4 focuses on healers (physicians and health activists as well as visionary leaders of the civil rights struggle). Valuable for its oral-history component and for celebrating the communal contribution to the achievements of even the most independent geniuses.

Mary Carroll

Paperback: 497 pages / Carroll & Graf Publishers (February 1, 1999)