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Erin Forbes, Criminal Genius in African American and US Literature, 1793-1845

Jeannine DeLombard
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Erin Forbes, Criminal Genius in African American and US Literature, 1793-1845, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2024, ISBN 978-1-4214-4376-8, $34.95 paperback, $94.95 hardcover, $34.95 e-book.

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1Darnella Frazier received the 2021 Pulitzer Prize Citation and Award for “courageously recording the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.” With this short statement, the Pulitzer Board recognized the “active, material, and distributed” (153) but also “voluntarist” (18) agency that Erin Forbes identifies as “criminal genius” in her new book of that title. Criminal Genius examines how the racialization of crime and the criminalization of race have opened a space for political-cum-artistic interventions in US print culture that invite alternative visions of being human. Before turning to Forbes’ readings of early national and antebellum literature, I want to consider the broader reach of her analysis by considering how Frazier’s video exemplifies the concept of “criminal genius.”

2Notably, Frazier was one of the few involved in the creation of her video not caught in the web of criminality. On the evening of May 25, 2020, Minneapolis Police Officers Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng arrived at 38th and Chicago after a Cup Foods employee complained that Floyd had used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Officer Chauvin and his colleagues seized that allegation and Floyd’s subsequent reluctance to enter a police car as a pretext to restrain and kill the unarmed Black man. To understand Frazier’s videography as an act of “criminal genius,” one needs to join Forbes in adapting Lisa Cacho’s concept of “criminalization,” which characterizes “populations” that are “excluded from law’s protection” but “not excluded from law’s discipline, punishment, and regulation” (Cacho 5). On the first anniversary of Floyd’s death, Frazier articulated this sense of criminalization when she recalled how “just a normal day for me, walking my 9-year-old cousin to the corner store,” transformed her understanding of her life by making her “realize how dangerous it is to be Black in America” as a result of being “looked at as thugs, animals, and criminals, all because of the color of our skin” (Frazier).

3We also need to adjust our assumptions about genius, especially in conjunction with criminality. Forbes shares the first part of her title with James C. Oleson’s Criminal Genius: A Portrait of High I.Q. Offenders (2016). In that context, the phrase evokes late nineteenth-century criminology and that era’s identification of genius with exceptional intellectual power. Forbes, however, emphasizes the prior association of genius with “supreme artistry” and Romantic creativity (5). Whereas both understandings of genius presuppose liberal humanism’s “exceptional individual,” Forbes also revives the lingering early modern sense of the term as denoting a larger, collective spirit. We can see this usage in Benjamin Lundy’s Genius of Universal Emancipation (1821-1839) whose “one great object” was “that the individuals in favour of the work of emancipation, throughout the great American family, may be brought to operate together” by their collective, dispersed reading of a national abolitionist newspaper (Lundy 2). As Forbes points out, “crime likewise involves collectivities because an act is ‘criminal’ insofar as its harm implicates society: in the world of jurisprudence, criminal matters involve shared public harm, a violation of social standards even in cases where there is only one ‘criminal’ and one ‘victim’” (6).

4Like Frazier’s, many of the videos that have galvanized the Movement for Black Lives depict instances when criminalization in Cacho’s sense provides the pretext for crime by police officers or, indeed, private entities (Walmart, Starbucks) or individuals (“Karens”). The videos often capture the moment when the perceived threat to public welfare and social standards shifts from the target of policing to its perpetrators. The conflict staged by these videos presses a mass viewership to question just which characters represents the common good: everyday citizens going about their business or irrationally violent law enforcement officers. The videos’ didactic and political impact derives, in part, from urging viewers to redefine the collectivity or the public with which they identify.

5Frazier reactivated what Forbes describes as criminal genius’ “volatile minoritarian formation of aesthetic and political power” (25) when, having sent her adolescent cousin into the safety of the store, she returned to the sidewalk and began filming. Frazier’s defiant filming of police misconduct evinces the transgressive quality that, Forbes notes, characterizes both genius and criminalization. Indeed, another less steady bystander video trails shakily off as the witness reluctantly complies with Officer Lane’s instruction to walk away and, thus, to stop filming (Hill). On the first anniversary of Floyd’s murder, Frazier responded to those who call her a “hero” by insisting that she “was just at the right place at the right time,” while proudly “own[ing] that “if it weren’t for my video, the world wouldn’t have known the truth” (Frazier).

6If Frazier’s video serves as a reminder that, in her words, “we are all human,” the racist injustice and shared outrage it documents urge us to realize alternative modes of realizing our human potential (Frazier). “Criminal genius,” Forbes explains, “does not open onto claims for recognition or incorporation but offers instead a radical praxis for reimagining and remaking the world” (18). Frazier’s video—filmed by a teenager who cares for her younger cousin even as she documents the dying man’s cries for his mother—upholds the tradition of “criminal genius” as “a conjuncture of Blackness, crime, and genius that was collective, often feminized, and oriented toward an ethical horizon, albeit with frequently violent framings” (18).

7In their very virality, these videos illustrate the combination of human initiative and material distribution that characterizes Forbes’ criminal genius. Created by victims, friends, loved ones, neighbors, and other witnesses of police brutality, these documentary videos rapidly spread through often anonymous views, clicks, likes, dislikes, and forwards, which algorithmically spur further distribution, yielding still more engagement, whether in the ether, in print, or in the streets. Thus, in a Black Lives Matter Movement that urges us to “Say Their Names,” the identities of videographers George Holliday, Ramsey Orta, Feidin Santana, Abdullah Muflahi, Diamond Reynolds, and Darnella Frazier are far less well known than those of their subjects: Rodney King, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and George Floyd.

8In their activation of the aesthetic and the political, the individual and the collective, the human and the ahuman, the spiritual and the material, today’s viral videos might be seen as continuing the tradition of criminal genius that Forbes traces back to early republic, from gallows literature attributed to Samuel Frost, Abraham Johnstone, and Nat Turner, to David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829) and poetry by Edgar Allan Poe.

9Criminal Genius begins, appropriately, with a viral outbreak: Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic of 1793. As much of the city’s white population fled for the countryside, African American volunteers and inmates from Walnut Street Jail (including incarcerated fugitives from slavery) served as nurses. After Irish publisher Matthew Carey accused Black Philadelphians of theft and extortion in his Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia (1793), the Reverends Absalom Jones and Richard Allen published their Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People during the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, in the Year 1793: and a Refutation of Some Censures Thrown upon Them in Some Late Publications (1794). Jones and Allen rejected Carey’s effort to single them out as exceptions that proved the rule of Black criminality. As their title proclaims, the clergymen spoke on behalf of, and to correct the record regarding, “the Black People.” Forbes argues that these and other texts reveal how the rapidly spreading disease and growing body count ensured that “the epidemic posed a crisis for the formations of liberal agency that were at the heart of developing conceptions of citizenship in the young polity and highlighted the potentiality of an alternative, collectivist agency that exceeded its racist, settler-colonialist origins” (32). In similar fashion, Chapters Four and Five examine how print portrayals of the Southampton Insurrection of 1831 and the broader, related phenomenon of marronage in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp contest an autonomous liberal humanist subjectivity with insurgent and/or fugitive collective action toward alternative visions of human community.

10The competing print efforts to portray Jones and Allen as either exceptional or typical Black Philadelphians raise the question of how Forbes’ criminal genius intersects with the politics of representative identity explored by Robert S. Levine in his influential study of Martin R. Delany and Frederick Douglass. In one sense, of course, Douglass and Delany would appear to be avatars of the possessive individualist, masculinist, “liberal agency” against which Forbes defines criminal genius (21). Arguably, however, the print and organizational activism of both leaders relied on the same combination of voluntary, individual, literary initiative and anonymous, collective, material, distributed agency. This question resurfaces in discussions of David Walker and Nat Turner in Chapters Three and Four, respectively.

11Forbes offers a refreshingly original Cartesian reading of Walker’s Appeal that centers on two passages that interrogate existence itself. In the first, Walker prophesies a moment when people of “my colour will root some of them [‘the whites’] out of the very face of the earth,” which, he anticipates, will mark whites’ satiety with “making slaves of, and butchering, and murdering us” (23). Walker continues: “If these things do not occur in their proper time, it is because the world in which we live does not exist, and we are deceived with regard to its existence” (23). Positioning Walker as “the first Afrofuturist” (127), Forbes argues that “Walker’s skepticism is unbelief in the unthinkable […]. The possibility of the world’s nonexistence is not terrifying, but tantalizing, as it makes possible another world in which Black humanity can flourish” (127). In a cognate passage, Walker addresses a potentially hostile global readership:

If any are anxious to ascertain who I am, know the world, that I am one of the oppressed, degraded and wretched sons of Africa, rendered so by the avaricious and unmerciful, among the whites.—If any wish to plunge me into the wretched incapacity of a slave, or murder me for the truth, know ye, that I am in the hand of God, and at your disposal. I count my life not dear unto me, but I am ready to be offered at any moment. For what is the use of living, when in fact I am dead. (Walker 81)

12Here again, we would seem to have a radical questioning of existence itself. Presented as a statement rather than a question, Walker’s stark interrogative solicits no answer. But even as Walker suggests, according to Forbes, that “existence is not the basis of reality, and justice, not life itself, is the supreme good” (Forbes 108), he does so while asserting an irrepressible authorial self. While speaking as only “one of” an “oppressed, degraded and wretched” African diaspora who is “in the hand of God […] ready to be offered at any moment,” Walker nevertheless deploys nine first-person pronouns in four sentences. Exceptionality and typicality, individuality and collectivity: where does criminal genius end and representative identity begin?

13The critical conundrum posed by representative identity is particularly apparent in Chapter Three’s analysis of Thomas Grey’s Confessions of Nat Turner and other print accounts of the Southampton Insurgency, in which enslaved Virginians organized to kill dozens of their enslavers. Forbes’ exhaustive critique of previous scholarship challenges the tendency to isolate Turner as individual, masculinist agent and seeks, rather, to demonstrate how the “insurgency enlisted and developed relatively new formulations of the criminal as a genius whose agency is common and widely distributed across a network of people, places, and objects” (163). Ironically, however, the chapter overwhelmingly focuses on Turner as an individual rather than analyzing in detail the collective agency of the insurgents themselves or, indeed, white fears of a much larger conspiracy. The chapter’s opening page, for example, states that Nat Turner’s mother, Nancy, “attempted infanticide” after his birth, “an expression of her consuming hatred for life in Virginia’s plantocracy” (131). Here Forbes presents as biographical fact the rumor recounted in white Southern apologist William Sidney Drewry’s Southampton Insurrection (1900). Turner’s “mother is said to have been imported directly from Africa,” Drewry reports, “and to have been so wild that at Nat’s birth she had to be tied to prevent her from murdering him” (27). He concludes this maternal profile by assuring his readers that “she later developed into a faithful and useful servant” (27). Even if we disregard the story’s dubious provenance and its racist implication of a savage, hereditary propensity for lethal violence, the anecdote has the effect of substantiating rather than “decenter[ing] an authentic, historical Nat Turner” (Forbes 132). Elsewhere, combing through the various print portrayals of the insurgency, Forbes emphasizes “the radical potential that aesthetic objectification enables” by envisioning “a more capacious humanism” (157). Here, though, the rumor provides a biographical backstory for the “legacy of insurgence” inherited by Turner (131). With its portrayal of Turner’s strategic disappearances and distance from “the work of death” (14), Gray’s Confessions lends itself to a reading that emphasizes collective, networked action over individual charismatic leadership. Unfortunately, however, this chapter devotes so much space to arguing for such a reading that it leaves little room for developing that analysis.

14To refer to the “criminal genius” of Nat Turner and his fellow insurgents is to appropriate and redeploy the terminology that a white supremacist legal system imposed upon the revolutionary actions of the Southampton insurgents. But what of communities that, like Jones and Allen’s Black Philadelphians, David Walker’s “Colored Citizens of the World” or, for that matter, Darnella Frazier’s global viewership, generated and distributed activist texts that gave the lie to allegations of Black criminality while exposing racism as itself criminogenic? Does the inaptness of the modifier “criminal” matter? Like many of the literary scholars she cites—Lisa Cacho, Saidiya Hartman, and Alexander Wehiliye—Forbes uses terms such as “outlaw,” “person,” “criminal” in ways that are untethered to their contemporaneous legal meanings. This approach often has the effect of reinforcing an oppositionist narrative that portrays African Americans primarily as the targets and victims of an abstract, oppressive legal order. For example, Forbes draws on historian Terri Snyder’s brief discussion of colonial outlawry statutes in The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America (2015) to assert that “like outlaws, free Black people” such as the antebellum Boston homeowner, used-clothes seller, and pamphleteer, David Walker, “remained subject to arbitrary violence and ever proximate to social, civil, and indeed biological death” (100). Such a broad comparison ignores the ways in which, as historians such as Martha Jones, Kimberly Welch, and Dylan Penningroth have shown, both free and enslaved Black people routinely activated the legal system to pursue their own interests: filing title deeds as well as birth and marriage certificates; enforcing contracts and debt payments; suing for freedom; pursuing redress for criminal or civil wrongs; defending their actions in civil or criminal proceedings; and asserting their equal right to education and other public accommodations. By definition, outlaws did not have the legal standing to engage in the everyday legal activities pursued by Walker and other free (and some enslaved) Black people throughout the U.S. Then as now, perhaps the most powerful example of the dynamic interplay of voluntarist individual action and material, distributed agency is that of the everyday African Americans who gradually transformed American law and culture as they tirelessly asserted—and thus defined—their rights while enforcing others’ duties. After all, Darnella Frazier’s video did more than spark global outrage against racist policing; it secured the conviction and incarceration of four Minneapolis Police officers.

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CACHO, Lisa Marie. Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected. New York: New York University Press, 2012.

DREWRY, William Sidney. The Southampton Insurrection. Washington, D.C., Neal Company, 1900. Google Books Accessed 13 May 2024.

FRAZIER, Darnella. “1 Year Anniversary.” darnella_frazier03 Instagram. 24 May 2021. Accessed 11 May 2024.

GRAY, Thomas R. The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va.: Electronic Edition. Documenting the American South. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999. Accessed 11 May 2024.

HILL, Evan, et al. “How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody.” New York Times. Video. Published May 31, 2020; updated Jan. 24, 2022

LEVINE, Robert S. Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

LUNDY, Benjamin. “Address to the Public.” Genius of Universal Emancipation. vol. 1, no. 1, 1821, p. 1-3. Internet Archive. 28 April 2021. Accessed 12 May 2024.

WALKER, David. Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to those of the United States of America. 3rd ed. Boston, 1830.

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Jeannine DeLombard, « Erin Forbes, Criminal Genius in African American and US Literature, 1793-1845 »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 13 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Jeannine DeLombard

University of California, Santa Barbara

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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