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 2020, 10 of the 21 “geniuses” that have been selected are Black or biracial.
N. K. Jemisin is a speculative fiction writer exploring deeply human questions about structural racism, environmental crises, and familial relationships while immersing readers in intricately imagined, fantastical worlds. The societies she constructs are populated by protagonists who push against the conventions of earlier-era science fiction and epic fantasy, which often feature male-dominated casts of characters and draw heavily from the legends of medieval Europe. Her multi-volume sagas counterbalance the monumental themes of oppression and exploitation with attentiveness to the more intimate inner workings of families and communities and the range of emotions—from love to rage, resentment to empathy—that they inspire.
Jacqueline Woodson is a writer redefining children’s and young adult literature in works that reflect the complexity and diversity of the world we live in while stretching young readers’ intellectual abilities and capacity for empathy. In nearly thirty publications that span picture books, young adult novels, and poetry, Woodson crafts stories about Black children, teenagers, and families that evoke the hopefulness and power of human connection even as they tackle difficult issues such as the history of slavery and segregation, incarceration, interracial relationships, social class, gender, and sexual identity.
Tressie McMillan Cottom is a sociologist, writer, and public scholar shaping discourse on pressing issues at the confluence of race, gender, education, and digital technology. In work across multiple platforms, ranging from academic scholarship to essays and social media engagement, McMillan Cottom combines analytical insights and personal experiences in a frank, accessible style of communication that resonates with broad audiences within and outside of academia.
Catherine Coleman Flowers is an environmental activist bringing attention to the largely invisible problem of inadequate waste and water sanitation infrastructure in rural communities in the United States. As founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ), Flowers builds partnerships across social scales—from close neighbors, to local elected officials and regional nonprofits, to federal lawmakers and global organizations—to identify and implement solutions to the intersecting challenges of water and sanitation infrastructure, public health, and economic development.
Ralph Lemon is an artist generating interdisciplinary modes of artistic expression as he strives to communicate stories, emotions, memories, and identities that do not conform to standard categories of representation. He incorporates sensibilities and approaches gleaned from endeavors beyond the arts, such as ethnographic and historical research, into a diverse and complex body of work that includes choreography, books, paintings, and experimental stage and lecture performances.
Thomas Wilson Mitchell is a property law scholar reforming longstanding legal doctrines that deprive Black and other disadvantaged American families of their property and real estate wealth. Heirs’ property, a subset of tenancy-in-common property, tends to be created in the absence of a will or estate plan and results in “undivided ownership,” which means each of the legally defined heirs own a fractional interest in the property (rather than a specific piece or portion of the property). After several generations, ownership of land and other property, including single-family homes, may be fragmented among many heirs, any one of whom can sell their fractional ownership or seek to force a sale of the land, with or without the agreement of all owners.
Fred Moten is a cultural theorist and poet creating new conceptual spaces that accommodate emergent forms of Black cultural production, aesthetics, and social life. In his theoretical and critical writing on visual culture, poetics, music, and performance, Moten seeks to move beyond normative categories of analysis, grounded in Western philosophical traditions, that do not account for the Black experience. He is developing a new mode of aesthetic inquiry wherein the conditions of being Black play a central role.
Cécile McLorin Salvant is a singer and composer bringing historical perspective, a renewed sense of drama, and an enlightened musical understanding to both jazz standards and her own original compositions. Classically trained and steeped in jazz, blues, folk, musical theater, cabaret, and vaudeville traditions, Salvant’s nearly four-octave vocal range—from a bold, husky low register to clear high tones—animates her performances in a variety of configurations, from the spare duets for voice and piano featured on her album The Window (2018), to the instrumental trios on For One to Love (2015), to orchestral ensembles and her work with the all-female group Artemis.Monika Schleier-Smith is an experimental physicist advancing understanding of how many-particle quantum systems behave. She works at the interface of atomic, molecular, and optical physics and quantum information science with the goal of harnessing the properties of quantum systems for such applications as powerful new computing paradigms and ultra-precise sensors. Schleier-Smith is opening new avenues for the exploration of quantum effects that occur at the smallest scales of matter and connecting phenomena observed in the laboratory to a range of other areas of physics.
Forrest Stuart is a sociologist whose multi-year, immersive investigations reveal the causes and consequences of entrenched poverty and bring to light the lived reality of those who experience it. Combining historical and theoretical analysis with extensive ethnographic fieldwork, Stuart situates communities impacted by poverty and violence within the context of broader policy decisions and cultural forces.
Stuart’s recently published second book, Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy (2020), focuses on the use of social media, particularly the creation of drill music videos, among gang-associated youth in Chicago. He demonstrates that youth use social media to promote their street prowess while also mitigating or avoiding potentially violent confrontations. He also illuminates how social media enables disenfranchised young men to build economic, cultural, and social capital that is otherwise unattainable for them. Stuart helps us to better understand the lives of people whose humanity is often obscured by stereotypes and challenges long-held assumptions about the forces that shape urban poverty and violence.To read more about these fellows, go to: https://www.macfound.org/programs/fellows/