Nobody loves a genius child


Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lonesome Flyboy in the '80s Art Boom Buttermilk


I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension... I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness... The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion. - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself, 1845.


In these scant lines, Frederick Douglass succinctly describes the ongoing crisis of the Black intellectual, that star-crossed figure on the American scene forever charged with explaining Black folks to white folks and with explaining Black people to themselves-often from the perspectives of a distance refracted by double alienation. If you want to hide something from a negro put it in a book. Douglass knew from experience the compound oppression of being poorly fed and poorly read, but also of having to stand Black and proud in isolated situations where nobody else Black was around to have your back. When the windchill factor plummets that low, all that can steady you is the spine of cultural confidence and personal integrity.


This business of speaking for Black culture and your own Black ass from the outside the culture's communal surrounds and the comforting consensus of what critic Lisa Kennedy once described as 'the Black familiar' has taken many a brilliant Black mind down to the crossroads and left it quite beside itself, undecided between suicide, sticking it to the man, or selling its soul to the devil. The ones who keep up the good fight with a scintilla of sanity are the ones who know how to beat the devil out of a dollar while maintaining a Black agenda and to keep an ear out for the next dope house party set to go down in Brooklyn, Sugar Hill, or in the Boogie-Down Bronx.