MacArthur Foundation Announces 2021 Genius Grant Recipients

Historian and social critic Ibram X. Kendi is used to receiving hate mail. And sometimes, contempt for him and his work takes the form of a phone call. So when he doesn’t recognize the number, he doesn’t answer often.

This was the case a recent day when Dr. Kendi, who wrote the best-selling book, “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” ignored a call from Chicago. It would take an SMS exchange with the caller and some online sleuthing, but he eventually found out that the caller was from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He was puzzled: were they calling to talk about a possible research collaboration – or was it something else?

Dr. Kendi let them call again. And when he dropped out, he would learn that the foundation was calling with happy news – the other thing he had allowed as a possibility: he had been awarded a prestigious (and lucrative) MacArthur Fellowship.

“My first words were ‘Are you serious?’ He remembers. Indeed, they were.

“It’s very meaningful – I think of anyone who studies a subject where there is a lot of acrimony and a lot of pain – to be recognized and to receive messages of love sometimes,” he said. “And this is one of the greatest forms of what I have ever received.”

Perhaps the best known of the 25 people in this year’s class of MacArthur Fellows is Dr Kendi, 39. His 2019 book, “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” has sold 2 million copies and has established him as one of the country’s leading race commentators since the George Floyd protests last year.

But the MacArthur Scholarship is not just a love mail. It is accompanied by an unconditional grant of $ 625,000, to be awarded over five years. And it’s known colloquially as the “genius” award, much to the foundation’s chagrin.

Cecilia Conrad, executive director of the program, said the aim of the awards is to recognize “exceptional creativity”, as well as future potential, in the arts, sciences, humanities, advocacy and others. areas.

“We want to have a share in people who are at a crossroads, where fellowship could accelerate what their future might look like,” she said.

Most of the 2021 fellows, though esteemed in their fields, have yet to become household names.

There are artists and writers like the poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts; the critic, essayist and poet Hanif Abdurraqib; novelist and radio producer Daniel Alarcón; and writer and curator Nicole R. Fleetwood, whose book “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” won the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

Dr Fleetwood, 48, who is also a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, curated an exhibition of the same name that gained acclaim after his debut at MoMA PS1 last year. In the book and accompanying museum exhibit, Dr Fleetwood delves into the cultural and aesthetic significance of art made by incarcerated people.

“For me, one of the great gifts for people who go to the show or read the book is that it challenges their assumptions about who is incarcerated, why they are incarcerated and what they do with their time,” said Dr Fleetwood.

The grant will help the “Marking Time” project expand its touring footprint, she added, noting that she recently helped set up the exhibit in Birmingham. To the.

Other fellows in this year’s class include Trevor Bedford, a virologist who develops real-time tools to follow the evolution of the virus; Marcella Alsan, doctor and economist who studies how the legacies of discrimination perpetuate health inequalities; and Desmond Meade, a civil rights activist working to restore the franchise to those formerly incarcerated.

And there are several fellows who work with or study the technology. Joshua Miele, technology designer at Amazon, develops devices that help visually impaired and blind people like him access technology products and digital information on a daily basis. Safiya Noble, digital media specialist, wrote about how search engines reinforce racist and sexist stereotypes.

The youngest is Jordan Casteel, 32, a painter known for his portraits that capture daily encounters with people of color. The oldest is Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, 70, a choreographer who founded the performance ensemble Urban Bush Women.

Exceptionally, the fellows include a married couple, Cristina Ibarra, a documentary maker who chronicles border communities, and Alex Rivera, a filmmaker who explores issues related to migration to the United States. The couple, who sometimes collaborate, were assessed and selected separately, but informed together.

“It was great fun calling them,” Ms. Conrad said.

Few honors carry the prestige – and mystique – of the MacArthurs. Potential fellows cannot apply, but are suggested by a network of hundreds of anonymous nominators from across the country and shortened by a committee of a dozen, whose names are withheld.

“There is nothing like being recognized by your peers,” said Dr. Kendi. “We all create, write and operate in communities. We, as individuals, are nothing without the communities where we create and work.

There is no theme for any given class, Ms. Conrad said. But virtually all of this year’s winners outside of science are doing work related to social and racial justice. And that aligns with the funding priorities of the foundation, which was one of five foundations that last June pledged additional payments of $ 1.7 billion in response to the pandemic, partly funded by debt issuance. .

In July, the foundation, whose endowment in December 2020 was $ 8.2 billion, announced $ 80 million in grants to support “a fair recovery from the pandemic and fight anti-darkness, elevate indigenous peoples and improve equity in public health ”.

Another member, Monica Muñoz Martinez, historian at the University of Texas at Austin, is the co-founder of Refusing to Forget, a nonprofit that raises awareness of the largely ignored history of racial violence along the border. Mexican-American at the turn of the 20th century, which she recounted in her 2018 book “Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas.”

It’s a hotly contested topic in Texas, which has been inundated with legislation that seeks to downplay references to slavery and anti-Mexican discrimination in the teaching of state history.

“As a historian who studies stories of racist violence and the long struggle for civil rights and social justice, it is disturbing to see so many dangerous patterns from the past repeat themselves every day,” said Dr Martinez.

“We live in a time when there are organized efforts to restrict rights: voting rights, reproductive rights, you could talk about immigration all afternoon,” she added. “There is so much at stake.”

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