BIPOC Brainpower in This Year’s MacArthur ‘Genius’ Class

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Oct 09, 2020

Every year, the prestigious MacArthur Foundation bestows the “genius award” on thinkers and creatives, and 2020’s list of 21 winners, announced on October 6, was overwhelmingly represented by artists, academics, activists and scientists of color. Each winner is awarded $625,000.

“In the midst of civil unrest, a global pandemic, natural disasters, and conflagrations, this group of 21 exceptionally creative individuals offers a moment for celebration,” Cecilia ConradMacArthur Fellows managing director, wrote on the announcement website. “They are asking critical questions, developing innovative technologies and public policies, enriching our understanding of the human condition, and producing works of art that provoke and inspire us.”

Sociologist, writer and public scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom tackles what she calls “metaphors of mobility” in her work, by examining the intersecting issues of race, gender, education and digital technology. “Public life is just a story that has been written to justify some atrocities as natural and some lives as disposable,” McMillan Cottom wrote on her winning profile page. “When I say that I write stories to make problems for power, I mean that I rewrite the metaphors we use to rationalize big inequalities in the small decisions that make up our everyday lives—how we go to school, how we work, how we consume and how we love. My life’s creative challenge is wielding the tension between powerful narrative and compelling data to center Black intellectual lives as craft and method.” 

Playwright Larissa FastHorse has been doing similar work around Indigenous narratives by showcasing Native American artists, stories and experiences in theater. “When I start a play, I don’t have a preordained idea of what form it should take or the point of the story or how it ends,” FastHorse wrote in her profile. “Sometimes the community I am working with determines those things, sometimes it is up to me.” A member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation and co-founder of Indigenous Direction—which advises on theatrical projects that address Indigenous issues—FastHorse is dedicated to correctly representing Native American perspectives. 

Along with FastHorse and McMillan Cottom, the 2020 class includes the following “geniuses” of color: economist Isaiah Andrews; Damien Fair, cognitive neuroscientist; Catherine Coleman Flowers,  environmental health advocate; speculative fiction writer N. K. Jemisinchoreographer Ralph LemonThomas Wilson Mitchell, property law scholar; Natalia Molina, historian of race, immigration, and citizenship; Fred Moten, cultural theorist and poet; fiction writer Cristina Rivera Garza; Cécile McLorin Salvant, jazz singer and composer; Monika Schleier-Smith, experimental physicist; Nanfu Wang, documentary filmmaker; and National Book Award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson.

Watch the video below, where the MacArthur Foundation announces this year’s winners: