By Stephanie Harp
“Maine’s Black Future” is a new podcast from the multi-talented musician, photographer, music producer, and writer who goes by Genius Black. “It’s not about the past, it’s moving forward,” said the creator, whose given name is Jerry Edwards. The beginning of each episode describes a Black historical figure in Maine, and the second part is an interview with a current “changemaker” – a Black Mainer who is making a difference today.
The premiere featured 18th-century Machias resident London Atus, who purchased his freedom from enslavement, fought in the Revolutionary War, and helped start the nearby, now-lost settlement of Atusville. The contemporary interview was with Alfine Nathalie, a Portland holistic health provider who was born in Kenya and grew up in Maine. Nathalie was recognized by the Portland Press Herald as one of their 2022 “Mainers To Be Thankful For.”
Rather than producing episodes in batches to release sequentially, Black researches, writes, and records them one at a time. “I’ve learned to leave a little more room for me to be responsive,” he said. Recently, he was researching the life of Pedro Tovookan Parris, a young man who lived in Maine in the mid-1800s who will be the subject of Episode 2. While digging into the history, he found a deposition that described how Pedro was taken, at age 15, from Africa to Rio de Janeiro. The U.S. Congress outlawed transporting enslaved individuals into the country in 1808, but the practice remained legal in Brazil until 1850, and many people were smuggled to the U.S. through the Caribbean. “Right before the deposition, there was this account of one of the enslavement ships as they were coming across the ocean, traveling in a group of several boats,” Black said. “There was this man, who was stowed away as a crew member, telling … what it was like on these ships.” Some of the 500 enslaved people in the cargo hold of one boat had revolted, which the crew viciously and hideously put down.
“As I’m reading this, I was at the Portland Media Center and I looked down at this paper where I’m taking notes, and it was covered in tears,” Black said. So he went out for a walk to settle himself. Pedro was on one of the other ships and may or may not have witnessed the uprising, but he very well could have known about it before he eventually ended up in Maine. “People don’t know I’m walking around looking all emotional, with tears in my eyes. They’re just here in the city and I’m here in the city. The good, the bad, and the ugly – it really is our shared history. And it just hits you. The erasure, the actual depth of the depravity and the hatred, and the way it was played out in people’s lives, as you can see that nationally and culturally, we’re being pushed to let go of. It was an interesting moment of metabolizing what I was researching.” He is open to varied subject matter for the podcast, but he’s also mindful about his audience and what they’re expecting; he doesn’t want to dwell on things that are too dark or disturbing.
Pedro Tovookan Parris will be the historical figure in the second episode, which is almost finished, and there will be an interview with photographer, director, and video producer Junes Thete. The third podcast will feature John Brown Russworm, arguably the first Black man to graduate from a U.S. college – Bowdoin – which is also Black’s alma mater.
This podcast was originally produced for the Maine Monitor, a nonprofit news organization based in Maine. For more information, visit themainemonitor.org.
Maine’s Black Future is created through a partnership with the Maine Monitor and is available on their website. “The staff there has been supportive, helping with edits, specifically feedback. So I would just shout them out for supporting the actual production. I want it to be my thing, my voice. I’m telling these stories … and they give me feedback. They let me do my thing. It’s a good relationship,” Black said, adding that every creator needs someone with critical distance to ask, “What about this?” and similar questions. “People who follow the Maine Monitor know it’s about telling it like it is.”
The podcast is also broadcast on radio station WJPZ-107.9FM, which runs it a few times per month, and plans to keep it in the on-air rotation because its content connects with their audience. “It was very important for me to deliver it in more than one place,” Black said.
The first episode is embedded on the Amjambo Africa website and is available on apps like Spotify, iHeart Radio, and others. Black is currently looking for additional outlets where people can hear it or stream it.
Each episode contains a chime. “It draws people’s ears in and opens them up to hear the discussion,” Black said. Gem City, his production company, supplies the theme music, which he said is “fire.” With Ben Noyes on piano and Bill Giordano on bass, the music is designed to create a vibe that keeps people interested in the content.
So far, response has been positive, including requests for Black to facilitate ancillary conversations about the episodes. He’s currently seeking sponsorships that would enable him to hold those sorts of group events, and to promote the podcast beyond what he has done so far on social media.
“People have found the history section really enthralling,” he said. “I think it’s because once you start listening, you realize that you’re hearing about something that’s not a new piece of history, but for some reason they’ve never heard it before. It’s like hearing a good secret. It’s intriguing. ‘What? This is associated with Maine?’ People get drawn into those history stories, which is cool.” He especially liked hearing from students at the University of Maine School of Law. “Because young minds are needed to be involved in change,” he said. “I’m 41. Even people my age and older, we can be stuck and trying to change. When young people are around, it’s … transformative energy.”
Gathering this history has made Black feel more connected to Maine. “I really have so much respect for these Black historical figures,” he said. “It helps me. It makes me feel that taking up the space that I do, and I will, is even more of my right than I already knew. Quite frankly, Black people have been in Maine, have been influencing Maine, for hundreds of years. And it’s documented. It’s just not talked about and shared.”
The message of Maine’s Black Future is that there are Black folks in Maine. “Full stop. And they are doing amazing and brilliant things,” he said. “We are, of course, as complex as any people.” He enjoys having the conversations with today’s Black Mainers: “Being able to say, ‘I appreciate you. I love you.’ … I think it’s worth sharing those things. For me, I like providing this platform and moments to be highlighted and appreciated,” Black said. “There are lots of ways to fight racism and erasure, but it doesn’t always look like protesting in the streets or going to city council. Sometimes, it’s sharing that we are here and we are creating the future.”
Genius Black can be reached at [email protected] or on Instagram @realgeniusblack. See previous Amjambo profile, July 2022: www.amjamboafrica.com/genius-black-talks-about-maines-future/