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Tokenized Genius in the #MeToo Moment

Ta-Nehisi Coates did it again last week. In a practice part prose and part alchemy, he distilled a series of “dragon energy” tweets and a 1980s moonwalk into a complex brew of racial reflection, cultural critique, searing memoir, and political analysis. Reading his “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye,” I found myself pausing intermittently and turning each sentence over until its layers of meaning and weight came undone. Similar to the way I’d felt reading Between the World and Me and “The First White President.” Every turn of phrase is a reminder of the writer’s genius, of his capacity to find just the right words for a world that resists any form of emotional translation.

What struck me most about “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye” was Coates’ admission to balking at that very genius ascribed to him and his work. “There’s ample evidence,” he writes, “that humans were not built to withstand the weight of celebrity.” But for Coates, the weight is less so that of celebrity writ large, and more of black celebrity in particular. “For black artists who rise to the heights of [Michael] Jackson and [Kanye] West, the weight is more because they come from communities in desperate need of champions.”

Coates’ essay speaks to the ubiquity with which mainstream culture stubbornly persists in defining the genius as a white male. Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso — names almost synonymous with the word. In her essay “The World Still Spins Around Male Genius,” Megan Garber notes the Oxford English Dictionary etymology for the word, imported from Latin roots that refer to the “male spirit of a family.” The genius is male, almost always. The genius is white, almost always, by virtue of access to capital and platforms and influence. Mainstream culture embraces a select number of non-white artists and writers as signals of some surface-level wokeness, as exceptions to the rule. Coates’ We Were Eight Years; Kanye’s “I am a God”. Similarly, we sprinkle our classroom syllabi with the occasional Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, as if these two names can counter-balance the remaining wash of white and male. The permitted XX chromosomes that excuse an otherwise testosterone-driven and powder white canon.

The #MeToo movement offers a moment ripe for disruption. It’s a moment of reckoning. A moment that demands our culture redefine our conception of genius, not as some divine birthright but as an amalgam of talent, work ethic, education, mentorship, money, and access. On top of all this, genius demands some luck and free time, sometimes 10,000 hours of it. In other words, what our society so often celebrates as genius is what has been cultivated by people who haven’t had to fight daily for their right to survive.

Virginia Woolf said this best in A Room of One’s Own, when she points out that William Shakespeare’s imagined sister Judith might also have been hailed as England’s bard had she been given an education and even the physical space to write. “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” Woolf writes. Footnote some additional needs: food, time, safety from harassment and abuse. Woolf wrote these words in 1929, almost 90 years before women like Salma Hayek and Gabrielle Union and Mary Karr would come forward to tell their stories of how systemic and individual abuses obstructed their access to the space and safety they needed to develop their artistic works. Maybe we should have listened to Woolf’s words earlier, but as usual our societal ears were turned toward other voices. (If only A Room of One’s Own had been written by a man!)

The danger of defining the genius as a white male is multi-fold. First, as Coates writes, the tokenizing of a select group of geniuses like himself and Kanye puts crippling pressure on non-white and non-male artists to serve as the spokespeople for entire communities, for impossibly broad demographics. T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner were never asked to be the representative of every white male. “What Kanye West seeks is what Michael Jackson sought,” Coates argues. “Liberation from the dictates of that we.” Kanye’s is an impossible situation manufactured by a white mainstream that chooses to tokenize, rather than to open up our artistic canon and fold in a multiplicity of voices, backgrounds, experiences. If our canon were broader, if our curricula were more balanced, we wouldn’t act as though Junot Diaz’s behavior spoke for every Dominican man. As though Aziz Ansari’s comedy represents every individual of South Asian descent.

What happens when we limit the genius club to a small, select group? When our idols are torn down — by their own foul behavior — we act as though it were some irreconcilable loss. Who will we watch if not Woody Allen? What will we read if not David Foster-Wallace’s Infinite Jest? Our mainstream artistic canon could be recreated ten-fold with the works of non-white, non-male artists who didn’t have the access to capital and platforms through which to share their work.

Judith Shakespeare never had the room to pen her counterweight to “The Taming of the Shrew” (and if she had, it likely would have produced some comedy far less misogynist). There are countless more female and non-white voices whose works have been left off syllabi to make space for the “genius” of Wallace, J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, Leon Wieseltier. In this #MeToo moment, when artistic titans are being called to account, it’s time to redefine the classics. It’s time to make space for a new era of emergent genius — one defined more by artistry, originality, values, and voice, and less by race and sex.

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