Ibram X. Kendi, Jordan Casteel, Desmond Meade Among 2021 MacArthur “Genius” Fellows Awarded $625K Grant –
Every year, the MacArthur Fellows Program awards its recipients a $625,000 “no strings attached” grant, an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential so they may continue to “exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.”
In 2021, 12 of the 25 “geniuses” that have been selected and were announced this week identify as Black.
Among them are historian Ibram X. Kendi, who founded and directs the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University as well as wrote the best-selling books How to Be an Anti-Racist (2019) and Stamped From The Beginning (2016), and civil rights activist Desmond Meade who helped strike down restrictive voting laws for formerly incarcerated citizens in Florida.
Artist Jordan Casteel, internet studies and digital media scholar Safiya Noble, biological physicist Ibrahim Cissé, art historian and curator Nicole Fleetwood, film scholar, archivist and curator Jacqueline Stewart, and choreographer and dance entrepreneur Jawole Willa Jo Zollar are among the other 2021 MacArthur Fellows.
A full list (in alphabetical order) of the Black fellows and summaries of their work follow below:
Hanif Abdurraqib is a music critic, essayist, and poet using the lens of popular music to examine the broader culture that produces and consumes it. Many of the essays in Abdurraqib’s first collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (2017), grew out of reviews and articles he wrote while a journalist; taken together, they form a deeply personal consideration of self-identity and the continued suffering inflicted on Black bodies at the hands of police and others. For example, he writes about attending a Bruce Springsteen concert days after visiting a memorial for Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and struggling to reconcile his technical appreciation of the music with the racialized and gendered stories told by the lyrics.In his book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest (2019), Abdurraqib traces the three-decade history of the pioneering hip-hop group and its impact within the larger hip-hop movement. He writes with clear affection for the group, and his assessment of the social and political atmosphere in which it operated includes reflections on how those same forces shaped his childhood and his experience of the music.
Abdurraqib delves more deeply into historical research for his most recent book, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (2021). His thought-provoking observations on key artists and cultural moments in music, film, dance, and comedy—ranging from William Henry Lane, a nineteenth-century minstrel dancer who performed for White audiences in blackface, to Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl appearance and the dance and music television show Soul Train—form a focused analysis of Blackness and a celebration of Black identity.
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer promoting the rights and humanity of people who are or have been incarcerated. Betts’s work is informed by his experience with incarceration after being tried as an adult for a carjacking at the age of sixteen. As a practicing lawyer, Betts fights for clemency and parole for individuals facing lengthy sentences, and he is a member of local and national taskforces dedicated to ending cash bail, limiting sentence lengths, and prohibiting the practice of sending juveniles to adult prisons.
His poetry reflects both his legal training—particularly his deep engagement with scholarship on notions of guilt, punishment, and justice—and his command of craft. Throughout Felon (2019), his third collection, Betts inhabits multiple voices, making visible the entire spectrum of the criminal justice system.In a series of redaction poems, Betts blacks out the often obscure and sanitizing language of legal documents to lay bare the criminalization of poverty. Impoverished people, unable to pay traffic tickets or excessive bail, are jailed indefinitely in a modern-day version of debtor’s prison. In collaboration with artist Titus Kaphar, Betts created a series of prints of the redacted poems overlaying Kaphar’s portraits of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits. The resulting exhibition, Redaction (2019), was a powerful indictment of the human impact of cash bail. It addressed a community that rarely sees itself reflected back from the walls of museums.
Betts recently launched the nonprofit Freedom Reads to give incarcerated people access to the power of literature. Freedom Reads donates books and shelving for libraries, organizes author visits, and sets up book circles in prisons and juvenile detention facilities.
Jordan Casteel is a painter capturing moments of proximity with people and environments she has encountered on the streets of Harlem, within the New York subway, in her classrooms, and in the spaces occupied by those closest to her. Her paintings depict, in luminous hues and nearly life-size proportions, people of color and landscapes that convey relationships of mutual respect and care that extend beyond the canvas.
Casteel often centers her subjects in forward-facing, seated positions. The intimate bond formed between artist and sitter is revealed from the self-possessed expressions of her subjects, which invite a direct connection with the viewer. The paintings are pieced together from multiple photographs that reference a shared moment in time, during which relationships are cultivated that continue to flourish long after the work is completed. This practice can be witnessed when sitters and their family members participate in museum exhibitions of works that bear their names as titles—Yahya, Q, Yvonne and James—ensuring that they are seen as collaborators in the composition of each painting.
The works in Casteel’s Visible Man series (2013–2014) redirected the gaze of all-too-common depictions of Black men in media. Her intensely personal and emotionally resonant renderings of male nudes highlight her subjects’ vulnerability and affirm their individuality. Casteel also invites the viewer to consider “Blackness” as a concept and social construct through her experimental use of color. Her figures’ skin often glows with patches of red, yellow, lavender, or pink, complementing their vibrant surroundings.
Other recent works, which feature students and family members in settings of their choosing, expand upon Casteel’s commitment to broadening whose likenesses appear in museum and gallery spaces. By honoring the surroundings and people that she sees day-to-day, Casteel prompts viewers to meet the gaze of others and to recognize our shared humanity.
Ibrahim Cissé is a biological physicist developing single-molecule super-resolution microscopic imaging and applying it to the investigation of subcellular processes in live cells. Cissé’s imaging tools facilitate the study of transient, loosely joined groups of biomolecules at high spatial and temporal resolutions (that is, with minute detail and with very little time between each image captured). His investigations deepen our understanding of how gene regulation and expression produce proteins in cells.
Cissé continues to push the limits of quantitative microscopy (a microscopic study that uses algorithmic analysis of digital images) in his efforts to further describe the physical mechanisms that condense and dissolve Pol II clusters and the chemical and biological processes underlying cells’ control of condensation. He is also advancing imaging methods to investigate the early stages of misfolded protein clustering, which may be critical to understanding neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.
Nicole Fleetwood is an art historian and curator exploring how the art of incarcerated people is essential to our understandings of contemporary art, the carceral state, and the humanity it contains.
In part motivated by her experiences visiting imprisoned family members, Fleetwood turned her keen curatorial vision to artistic production in and around the United States prison system. In the book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (2020), and an accompanying museum exhibition of the same name, Fleetwood investigates the cultural, personal, and aesthetic significance of incarcerated people’s art.The book is the most extensive work to apply the interpretive methods of art history to study the art people make within prison. Drawing on interviews with over seventy currently and formerly incarcerated artists and hundreds of paintings, photos, collages, and other forms of art, Fleetwood develops a concept of “carceral aesthetics” to understand both the works of art produced by incarcerated individuals and the constrained conditions under which they were created. She pays particular attention to the ways people build a sense of themselves and community through creative connection despite the circumstances of imprisonment.
Fleetwood’s emphasis on both the artworks’ aesthetic value and the artists’ ingenuity in finding ways to convey their creative vision is a powerful testament to the humanity of all those impacted by the criminal justice system. In both the book and exhibition, she takes a deeply collaborative approach and centers the lived experiences of the artists themselves, many of whom participated in conferences, panel discussions, and other opportunities for public engagement that informed and emerged from the years of work that went into Marking Time.
Ibram X. Kendi is an American historian and writer drawing on an in-depth understanding of racist ideology to present a framework for building a more equitable society. Kendi’s first book, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965–1972 (2012), focuses on student activism at both historically Black and predominantly White institutions. He recounts how activists achieved access and equality in many university settings, from dorm life to curriculum.
With Stamped from the Beginning (2016), Kendi turns to the historical roots of racist ideas. He traces the development of assimilationist, segregationist, and antiracist thought through the writings and legacies of historical figures such as W. E. B. DuBois, Angela Davis, and Thomas Jefferson, among others.
In How to Be an Antiracist (2019), Kendi moves seamlessly between historical analysis and personal memoir. Kendi asserts that people of all races have power to affect policy changes to correct racist structures. He describes a shared responsibility, wherein all individuals have a duty to confront how their behaviors support inequitable institutions, policies, and practices and to realign their actions with a foundational vision of equality for all in the United States.
Kendi founded and directs the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, a multidisciplinary collaborative focused on intellectual, creative, and policy interventions for building racial equity. The center, in partnership with the Boston Globe, recently launched The Emancipator, a multimedia platform that aims to reframe the national conversation on race with rigorous and evidence-based journalism, analysis, and commentary.
Daniel Lind-Ramos is a sculptor and painter transforming everyday objects into sculptural assemblages that embody the social history, religious rituals, and built and natural environments of his Afro–Puerto Rican community. Born and raised in the city of Loíza, the center of Puerto Rico’s rich, African cultural traditions, he constructs his large-scale sculptures out of materials that activate the collective memories of a place and its people.
The island’s tropical vegetation features prominently throughout his works, particularly parts of the palm tree, whose oil and coconuts used to play a major role in sustaining the town. Lind-Ramos juxtaposes these organic materials with manufactured and mass-produced objects—agricultural tools, fishing nets and crab traps, electronics, musical instruments, concrete blocks, and cooking pots—that call to mind Loíza’s festivals, percussive Bomba music, and day-to-day domestic labors. The resulting constructions are alternately joyful and haunting, humorous and ominous in their visual effects.
Certain works resemble shrines or altars and incorporate syncretic religious elements drawn from Yoruba and Christian belief systems. Others take totemic form and wield shields or weapons that recall centuries of resistance to the ravages of racism, colonialism, austerity, and natural disasters. A bold, blue FEMA tarp drapes the loosely figurative sculpture Maria-Maria (2019), evoking the protective symbolism of the Virgin Mary, the destructive effects of Hurricane Maria in 2017, and the failure of the U.S. government to provide adequate supplies and support to a devastated population.
Vencedor: 1797 (2019) features a horse-riding warrior figure, wrapped in rope and painted burlap, that proudly asserts the role Black Puerto Ricans played in shaping Puerto Rico’s cultural and communal identity. The title refers to the year that Black militias fought valiantly along with Spanish troops and other volunteers to defend the island against attacking British forces.
In addition to his sculptures, Lind-Ramos’s body of work spans painting, drawing, video, and neighborhood-based performance pieces. Lind-Ramos’s distinctive visual language is deeply rooted in a specific locale and yet speaks powerfully of the global connections inherent in Afro-Caribbean and diasporic legacies.
Desmond Meade is a civil rights activist working to change disenfranchisement laws and other barriers preventing formerly incarcerated citizens from fully participating in civic life. As executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) and a returning citizen himself, Meade understands firsthand the stigma people with prior convictions face and the perception that they are unfit for involvement in democratic governance.
Meade developed a campaign to change Florida’s disenfranchisement laws through a ballot initiative and constitutional amendment. His approach centered those most affected by Florida’s laws. He and collaborators enabled formerly incarcerated people to speak on their own behalf and to meet with policymakers, academics, and community leaders. This strategy effectively conveyed to the public the harms disenfranchisement causes to families and communities.
In partnership with the Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ), the NAACP, the Brennan Center, the ACLU, and many other state and national organizations, the FRRC succeeded in obtaining the 700,000 petition signatures required for placement of a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot. The Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative would change the state constitution to establish voting rights for all adult citizens in the state of Florida (except for those convicted of murder or sexual offenses). On November 6, 2018, the amendment passed with 64 percent of the vote and re-enfranchised as many as 1.5 million Florida residents and resulted in the largest expansion of voting rights in the country in the last fifty years.
Meade and FRRC are also working on a series of criminal justice reform initiatives, including bail reform and re-entry programs, and finding ways to open access to housing and employment opportunities for returning citizens. Despite setbacks, his bold vision for empowering returning citizens through mobilization and education serves as a blueprint for other states to follow. Meade is pushing the nation closer to democracy that better represents the full extent of its citizens.
Safiya Noble is an internet studies and digital media scholar drawing on training in information science and a deep understanding of the intersections among culture, race, and gender, to reveal how the artificial intelligence and algorithms underpinning technologies we use daily have both real and negative impacts on the lives of vulnerable people, particularly women and girls of color.
In her book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (2018), Noble demonstrates that search engines are not sources of neutral and objective information. Rather, economic incentives (primarily advertising revenue) and the social values assigned to ideas, objects, or people shape search engine results. For example, the first page of results of a 2011 keyword search for “Black girls” in Google yielded mostly pornographic and hypersexualized content, exacerbating racist and sexist stereotypes about Black women. The same stereotyping was true for other racialized categories of women like Asian and Latina girls.
Noble explains that the classification and ranking methods used by Google’s proprietary search algorithms (at that time, PageRank) are based on traditional frameworks for organizing information, namely, the Library of Congress classification system created in the late nineteenth century, which has a deep history of exclusion and misrepresentation. Commercial search engines are now ubiquitous—used daily by educators, students, parents, and the public to understand the world around us and make crucial, life-altering decisions—and Noble points to the need for greater accountability and regulation of tech companies that have an outsized share of power over how we understand the world. She details how bias embedded within search algorithms promotes disinformation, reduces the political and social agency of marginalized people, and can lead to real-world violence.
In addition to her research, Noble works with engineers, executives, artists, and policymakers to think through the broader ramifications of how technology is built, deployed, and used in unfair ways. Noble is also co-founder of the newly established University of California at Los Angeles Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, an interdisciplinary research center focused on the intersection of human rights, social justice, democracy, and technology.
Jacqueline Stewart is a film scholar, archivist, and curator illuminating the contributions that overlooked Black filmmakers and communities of spectators have made to cinema’s development as an art form. With a body of work that spans scholarship on African American film cultures, film preservation efforts, and curation of public programs, Stewart fills critical gaps in the history of American media.
In her landmark study, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (2005), Stewart paints a nuanced picture of Black spectatorship of the silent screen in Chicago at the time of the Great Migration. She maps the ways in which Chicago’s Black neighborhoods formed a distinctive cinema culture that shaped the creation and consumption of race films. These early twentieth-century films were produced outside of the Hollywood studio system for Black audiences and featured Black casts.
She conceived of and directs the South Side Home Movie Project, which preserves, digitizes, and screens amateur films shot by Chicago residents. The small-gauge films cover periods from the 1920s to the 1980s and offer audiences an intimate record of everyday life on the South Side, particularly among Black communities, as well as insight into how these communities see themselves and record their lives. Stewart has also broadened awareness of and access to the films of the L.A. Rebellion, a movement of Black filmmakers who studied at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television in the 1970s and 1980s.
She co-curated a preservation initiative and touring film program and co-edited an accompanying anthology, L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015). Her archiving efforts and essays for this project document how the filmmakers (including Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, and Haile Gerima, among others) aimed to create more authentic narratives of the Black experience in response to distorted and marginalizing portrayals in mainstream American media.
Since 2019, Stewart has hosted Silent Sunday Nights on the Turner Classic Movies network, where she presents the cultural significance and historical context of featured silent films. In 2020, she became chief artistic and programming officer at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the largest U.S. institution devoted to the arts, sciences, and artists of moviemaking.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a historian and writer presenting powerful critiques of the political and economic forces underlying racial inequality. Taylor brings her experiences as an activist and organizer for housing rights to her scholarship, combining deep understanding of the concrete manifestations of inequality—such as substandard housing, over-policing, and high unemployment—with fine-grained analysis and historical research.
Her first book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (2016), is a trenchant examination of the origins and trajectory of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Taylor situates BLM within the context of the decades of stagnant economic progress, rising mass incarceration, and disinvestment in Black communities that followed the Civil Rights Movement.
In her second sole-authored work, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Home Ownership (2019), Taylor documents how deeply racialized, exploitative real estate practices continued long after the establishment of legal bans on housing discrimination. She recounts a pattern of predatory inclusion: the industry charged African Americans high interest rates, encouraged them to buy over-valued houses that they could barely afford, and pushed them into neighborhoods where property values were unlikely to increase.
Taylor argues that liberal policies supposedly designed to advance racial justice were, in fact, largely shaped by profit seeking and the influence of the private sector. As a result, Black homeownership did nothing to narrow the gap in Black-White wealth, and residential segregation and inequity in neighborhood investment and schools were further entrenched.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is a choreographer and dance entrepreneur who has forged a style of dance-making and artistic leadership that tethers dance to cultural identity, civic engagement, community organizing, and imperatives of social justice. Zollar is the founder and visioning partner of the performance ensemble Urban Bush Women (UBW), which she founded in 1984. Through community building, leadership development, and a body of work exploring the culture of African Americans and the African diaspora, she has created a sustainable movement and organization that centers the perspectives of Black women.
Zollar’s choreographic works often include spoken or sung text, and her movement vocabulary mixes elements from postmodern, modern, and Africanist dance styles. In such pieces as SCAT! (2018), an autobiographical musical set during the Great Migration, and Batty Moves (1995), a provocative and joyful exploration of the Black female body, Zollar constructs narratives that celebrate Black culture and promote community advancement.
At the same time, UBW exemplifies a deep commitment to social change through cultural expression. Many of its works address important contemporary issues. Shelter (1989) delves into homelessness and displacement, and Visible (2011) focuses on the immigrant’s search for home and a sense of self. Zollar’s artistic practice includes engagement with community—both place-based communities and the community of dancers with whom she works—through residencies, workshops, and mentoring/education forums. The 2001 piece Dixwell grew out of a series of residencies and workshops led by Zollar and members of her company in the Dixwell neighborhood of New Haven, where they recorded oral histories and worked with local artists to understand the history of the community.
Hair Stories is a multimedia work about notions of beauty, gender, and body image that has continued to evolve since its inception in 2001. It incorporates personal stories from participants at workshops in churches and community centers across the country. Walking with ‘Trane (2015) is a deep dive into the life, music, and legacy of John Coltrane. It continues her commitment to exploring jazz music and the pedagogies inherent in its theoretical frameworks for dancers and choreographers.
Zollar is also deeply invested in holistic leadership development. UBW dancers contribute to other facets of the organization to grow professionally and build equity both on and off stage. Zollar draws on UBW’s experiences with community engagement at the Summer Leadership Institute, which highlights values that center a community organizing approach—such as asset mapping to enter and exit a community—to help strengthen artists’ cultural organizing abilities, and foster awareness of social issues.
In 2013, Zollar founded the UBW Choreographic Center Initiative (CCI). She designed CCI to be both a research center focused on Black women and their role in society as well as a development program for choreographers who are women of color.
All photos courtesy macfound.org; (paid Amazon links)