Genius and Theft


To start: if you haven’t looked into #ReclaimMLK, I urge you to do so. There, (and here, at the Movement for Black Lives action site), you’ll find ways to counter the “Santa-Clausified” narrative (per Cornel West) of King that overlooks or denies his radicalism, his critiques of capitalism, his disappointment with white moderates, and his refusal to welcome “peace” as the absence of tension instead of the presence of justice. 

In “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” Edward Baptist argues for the inextricable links between the expansion of slavery in the 19th century and the rise of the United States as a world economic power. It’s horrific, damning, lyrical, and beautifully constructed. How it’s told is key to what is told: Baptist is clear that he privileges the language enslaved people chose to describe their own experiences, and this runs through and animates the book, and makes it feel different from everything else I’ve ever read about slavery in the United States. Two words he uses thunder around for me: “stole,” and “genius.” 

Stole: Over and over, enslaved people said that then they were sold, or otherwise forced to move, they had been ‘stolen.'[…] When enslaved people said to each other, ‘We have been stolen,’ they were preparing a radical assault on enslavers implicit and explicit claims to legitimacy, one that would lay an axe to the intellectual root of every white excuse, even ones that hadn’t yet been dreamed up. For describing slavery and its expansion as stealing meant that slavery was not merely an awkward inconsistency in the American republican experiment, or even a source of discourse about sectional difference. Slavery was not, then, merely something that pained white people to see. Slavery was a crime.” There’s more–go read it here.

Genius: this appears in the chapter called “Breath,” (each chapter corresponds to part of the body) and primarily in reference to a Baltimore newspaper run first by Edward Lundy and later by William Lloyd Garrison called “The Genius of Universal Emancipation.” Baptist writes: “‘Genius’ meant ‘Spirit’– or ‘breath’, and Lundy’s paper was the first white-run abolitionist newspaper to keep breathing for more than a handful of issues.” This surprised me; I did not know this “breath” origin of the word. He doesn’t dwell on the word itself as he does “stole,” for it was not part of the language enslaved people chose for their experience, but it’s bound up in one of the more astonishing parts of the book: that in which he describes how the genius (as creativity) of enslaved people was itself stolen and bent, by torture, into “an amount of innovation virtually equal in numerical measure to all the mechanical ingenuity in all the textile mills of the Western world.” In short: mechanical innovations such as the cotton gin increased cotton production by x amount, before bumping up against the limits of how much cotton human beings could be forced to pick. And then enslavers used systematic violence to extract and steal genius from enslaved people, in the form of “new efficiencies [in picking cotton] that [enslavers] themselves could not imagine,” and the survival-driven improvements in their own production increased overall production as much that “x amount”: as much as all the mechanical innovations combined. He uses “creativity” in the book’s beginning as well, in a sentence I think captures the genius (Spirit–or breath) of the whole book: “Enslaved people’s creativity enabled their survival, but, stolen from them in the form of ever-growing cotton productivity, their creativity also expanded the slaveholding South at an unprecedented rate. Enslaved African Americans built the modern United States, and indeed the modern world, in ways for obvious and hidden.”

So: genius, and theft. And, always, but good and loud this week, calls for reclamation.

“Genius” is a word I actually think a lot about, which is why I was startled by the “Spirit–or breath” sentence. I think about it a lot because of a confluence of influences: 1) At some point, hearing the argument (by Jason Baskin) for the genius present or at least possible in work whose worth isn’t much heralded, i.e. dry-cleaning, such that a person with genius for dry-cleaning merits the word absolutely. 2) Ok…I don’t want to get in an argument about whether Einstein said everyone is a genius (seems not), and what feels more useful to me is to talk about having genius (Spirit–or breath) than binarily being-a or not-being-a. And one of my favorite things to do, especially when I encounter a person I don’t immediately enjoy,  to imagine what genius they may have. Since there are plenty of people I don’t immediately enjoy, I do this all the time! 3) one of my chosen sisters, Erin Forbes, is a 19th c. Americanist studying so much that matters for right now, and her work on David Walker includes the phrase “criminal genius” for reasons that I do not know enough to explain well, so she’ll start in “Notes.”*

So: genius, and theft. Here’s a phrase that gives life: black excellence (indeed).  In my day-to-day, I encounter this phrase most frequently via The Read; it’s the first section of every show. Kid Fury lets us know who we better celebrate, and it’s beautiful. I recommend The Read in about half my posts, but even if you aren’t up for the whole sacred-and-profane shebang, if you just listened to the first 10 minutes of every show, including Black Excellence, your life might change. The Read certainly changes my life; it’s part of the body of evidence that continually reveals the bath of bullshit about people of color in which this country mass-steeps us (which there are as many ways to talk about it as ways to perpetrate it, but lately I lean on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ language: as people living in imagined tangles of cultural pathology, instead of actual tangles of state-sanctioned peril.) And in this steeping, there is stealing: of genius (Spirit–or breath) from people of color, and, from white people, the stealing of an accurate sense of the genius present in the world (in a way that doesn’t affect our** actual safety and survival but does dehumanize and diminish, and thus makes it more likely that we will in turn, keep stealing).

“Spirit–or breath”–but nowadays, we mean a different thing by ‘genius,” and probably we even mean different things from each other when we say it, and here are 7 reasons why:


I think all of that is worth reading, but at least go back to 1, and marvel at it starting as “protecting companion,” check in at and perhaps mourn obsolete 4, and finally notice that only 6 (and not until 6, recalling that this isn’t in order of prominent usage but of chronology) is the “superiority” one (and even here, you might have it, or you might be it, though only if you are a man). The “Syn.” note just makes me nauseous: what use are these distinctions other than as mechanisms to affirm the inherence of the superiority of whatever we find superior? (More bullshit in the bathtub.)

Anyway, what’s not here: “breath.” “Spirit” itself does come etymologically from “breath,” so Baptist is right to write “Genius meant ‘spirit’–or ‘breath,’…” but the “or” is more tethered to “spirit” than I’d first interpreted; so genius meant spirit and spirit meant breath but genius never meant breath as in the air flowing into and out of a body.  Except: what better way to understand 1-7? What protects us, animates us, literally in-fluences us, and gives the lie to the bullshit of “Syn.”, because it’s companion to all of us?

So: what’s up for reclamation today is named as “the legacy,” as in “Reclaim MLK’s radical legacy,” and of course that is right. And: what I also hear is a call for retrieving specific stolen things: a protective companion (a name that confers legitimacy), a presiding spirit (of radicalism), disposition (for revolution), traditions, influence, and transcendent ability…so today, and from today, may we all participate in the taking–or giving–back of all that genius.


*  Erin Forbes, people: Though linked in important ways to circum-Atlantic iterations of Romanticism such as Transcendentalism, I demonstrate that antebellum criminal genius develops more specifically in relation to the struggle over slavery and penitentiary punishment. Practices common in both institutions were often decried as crimes against humanity, and both put cultural and legal definitions of crime in sharp tension. Thus, even as many were calling slavery a crime, enslaved people were only recognized as legal persons insofar as they could be held criminally liable. By attending to this complex material history I have discovered that many sui generis transgressive figures modified an extant discourse of exceptionality—genius—to draw out alternatives to the liberal conceptions of agency that were constitutively unavailable to them. African Americans both enslaved and free occupied the space of criminal genius to assert their social existence precisely where liberal subjectivity (and the laws of the U.S.) would most seem to exclude them. Simultaneously transgressive and brilliant, impenetrable yet enormously popular, the early American criminal genius undercut autonomous notions of agency in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.
Indeed, my research shows that agency was a vastly more open concept in the eighteenth- and nineteenth- century U.S. than has been generally assumed in the scholarship. In contrast to liberal humanism, the criminal genius is characterized by a mode of agency I term aesthetic. At play here is not an ahistorical, timeless idea of the aesthetic, but one grounded in the material world, deriving from the Greek aisthēta, perceptible things. Liberal agency is abstract, and seems “free” because it is superficially “universal” or unmoored from the particularities of lived experience (such as race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, etc.). Aesthetic agency, by contrast, is embodied, and constrained because it is deeply situated within the human and nonhuman environments that comprise the material world. The Criminal’s Genius is thus a literary study that uses powerful contemporary work in political theory on the distributed, non-rational bases of human and non-human agency (Jane Bennett, Diana Coole, Sharon Krause et al.) to revise our stagnant understandings of aesthetics in the early decades of the U.S. Constituting a powerful backlash against the paradoxes inherent in Enlightenment liberalism as it spread across Europe and the Americas, the dynamic criminal genius that had flourished by the middle decades of the nineteenth century finds itself buried in social-scientific discourse at the end of it, just at the time that late-nineteenth-century criminology first coined the term “criminal genius.” That’s RIGHT.

**On the use of “our” to refer to white people: I use this because I am a white person, but I also feel uncomfortable using it because English doesn’t have different first-person-plurals to denote “inclusive we” and “exclusive we”–meaning that you can’t tell from my “we” whether I mean “me and some others” or “me and YOU” or “me and you and some others.” (Other languages do have this). So on a “me and YOU” reading, this would mean I assume you, reader, are white: that would be problematic for lots of reasons, including that whiteness likes to invisible itself, assume itself as normal. So, please note: I mean “me and some others (which may or may not include you, dearest of readers).”



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