[Top L to R: Monika Schleier-Smith, Ralph Lemon, N.K. Jemisin, Jacqueline Woodson; Bottom L to R: Fred Moten, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Catherine Coleman Flowers, Tressie McMillan Cottom and Thomas Wilson Mitchell; photos courtesy macfound.org]
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, nine of the 21 “geniuses” that have been selected are Black. Among them are award-winning author N.K. Jemisin who wrote the science fiction series The Broken Earth Trilogy, and Jacqueline Woodson, who wrote the young adult books Brown Girl Dreaming and Harbor Me, among others.
Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, artist Ralph Lemon, environmental activist Catherine Coleman Flowers, law scholar Thomas Wilson Mitchell and experimental physicist Monika Schleier-Smith are among the other 2020 MacArthur Fellows. A full list and brief bios follow below:
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.
Jemisin’s most recent novel, The City We Became (2020), is the first in what will become her Great Cities series and features present-day New York not only as its setting but also as a sentient entity itself. Invading and homogenizing forces threaten the metropolis she depicts and must be fended off by a team of human avatars—comprised primarily of people of color, male and female, queer and straight—who embody the diverse histories and distinct personalities of the city’s boroughs. The novel dramatizes the city’s own legacies of racism and both references and critiques the xenophobic and racist views of H. P. Lovecraft, whose horror fiction has had a profound impact on popular culture.
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.
In the picture book Show Way (2005), also a picture book, Woodson tells the story of a quilt that was passed down through generations from enslaved ancestors who stitched the route to freedom on the quilt. Through sympathetic and convincingly developed characters and spare, poetic writing, Woodson portrays the search for self-definition and self-acceptance in which young readers are actively engaged.
In Harbor Me (2018), Woodson employs a unique structure: the text of the novel is ostensibly derived from recordings of weekly conversations among six middle school classmates from various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. The conceit of the recordings allows the reader to intimately witness the characters’ efforts to confront their fears, biases, and confusion around topics like racial profiling, deportation, and incarcerated parents.
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.
In her book-length study of for-profit colleges, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (2017), McMillan Cottom explores the rapid growth of these institutions in the context of rising inequality in the United States. The book has reverberated amongst educators and policymakers and has influenced recent policy debates about the racial, gender, and class inequalities of educational institutions.
McMillan Cottom’s most recent book, THICK: And Other Essays (2019), is a collection of essays that offer a powerful treatise on the perilous cultural space occupied by Black women in America. The book’s title references both a colloquial descriptor of a female body type and the sociological concept of “thick description”—ethnographic research providing extensive details on context and social relationships to explain behavior. This double meaning of “thick” permeates the essays, which contain deeply personal meditations on the narrow lens through which Black women are viewed in American society, racial inequities in doctor-patient relationships, and the complexities of intragroup relations among people of African descent, among others.
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.
With the Columbia University Law School Human Rights Clinic and Institute for the Study of Human Rights, she published “Flushed and Forgotten: Sanitation and Wastewater in Rural Communities in the United States” (2019), an examination of inequalities in access to sanitation and clean water within a framework of human rights. The report exposes the extent of water contamination and sanitation problems in poor, rural communities across the country, largely due to the marginalization of these communities.
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.
In 1995, Lemon disbanded his critically acclaimed touring dance company to pursue a more expansive form of art making, which culminated in the Geography Trilogy (1996–2004). He created Geography Trilogy over the course of a nine-year span on three continents, undertaking intensive research in the form of cultural immersion in communities in Africa, Asia, and the American South. Dancers and musicians from these communities performed the resulting works, which explore the intersection of art, race, spirituality, and self-discovery through movement, music, language, and visual installations. The trilogy amounts to an epic meditation on the possibility of human connection across cultures, even as it confounds and disassembles notions of fixed identities.
Lemon is currently developing a new work, Saturnalia, which will include excerpts from previous works and conversations with collaborators about grief, violence, and power structures in contemporary culture. A restless artist perpetually reinventing both himself and inherited artistic forms, Lemon is a touchstone for a new generation of artists and is establishing spaces for audiences to explore and express the human experience in all its dimensions.
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.
Property transfer via state intestacy laws, rather than under the terms of a will or estate plan, has long been prevalent among Black Americans due to lack of access to affordable legal services and distrust of the legal system. By some estimates, more than 75 percent of Black Americans (compared to only 35 percent of White Americans) die without a will, and heirs’ property in Southern states—where many Black families can trace pre-Civil War ancestral ties—has been valued by some scholars at an estimated $28 billion.
Working collaboratively with community stakeholders, expert attorneys, and academics, Mitchell served as the principal drafter of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA) of 2010. The UPHPA’s three principal reforms—a co-owner buyout provision, guidance for courts to apply both economic and non-economic considerations in their deliberations about how to resolve a partition action, and an innovative sales procedure designed to produce prices approximating a property’s fair market value—will enable more families to avoid involuntary and predatory disposition of their real estate.
The UPHPA has been enacted into law in many states, including several in the past two years due to provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill. Through his continuing advocacy to enact the UPHPA into law in several additional states and his other state and national law reform and policy work, Mitchell is remedying a major factor in the racial wealth gap and creating mechanisms for many more disadvantaged property owners and communities throughout the country to secure their land and preserve their wealth.
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.
Moten’s diverse body of work coheres around a relentless exploration of sound and its importance as a medium of Black resistance and creativity. Moten’s recently completed three-volume theoretical treatise, collectively called consent not to be a single being (2017–2018), includes essays written over the course of fifteen years. The breadth of his theoretical insights in these volumes extends across the arts and humanities—from the music of Curtis Mayfield and Billie Holiday to the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant and Theodor Adorno—as he explores notions of performance and freedom and formations of Black identity.
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 embraces a wide repertoire that broadens the possibilities of song as an art form.
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.
She locates her renditions of standards and new original compositions within a Black, feminist, global framework. In her fresh interpretations of lesser-known works, such as Josephine Baker’s “Si J’Étais Blanche” (If I Were White) and Bert Williams’s “Nobody,” Salvant demonstrates a deep psychological and emotional engagement with the lyrics, modulating her voice from sharp-edged wit to sorrow and heartbreak as she dissects the painful past in which these works were born.
And An as yet unrecorded piece, Ogresse (2018), is an ambitious long-form song cycle that showcases Salvant’s storytelling ability and theatricality. Salvant pairs her original lyrics for a cast of characters—all of which she sings—with an orchestral score that blends baroque elements with bluegrass and jazz.
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 devises and implements experimental set-ups and techniques involving laser-cooled atoms that allow her to isolate and manipulate physical phenomena that were not previously accessible in experiments. In collaboration with colleagues, she used light-mediated interactions between atoms trapped in an optical cavity to generate, detect, and measure quantum entanglement, a fragile and difficult to study phenomenon that occurs when a pair or group of particles interact in such a way that their behavior becomes correlated. She continues to experiment with quantum systems built in the lab with the longer-term aim of using these platforms to simulate what happens when information falls into the chaos of black holes, among other areas of inquiry.
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.
To read more about these fellows, go to: https://www.macfound.org/programs/fellows/
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