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BLACK GENIUS: MEET THE 2018 MACARTHUR FELLOWS

October 8, 2018

Too often, genius flows through the veins of the Black community unrecognized and vilified by the outside world. Yet the co-sign of ability and wisdom comes as no surprise when it arrives. Our gifts are our power, and the desire to use them to change the lives of Black people trigger shifts that encourage the kind of change that liberates the community and moves beyond. Genius is nothing new for Black people but its proper recognition is a relatively recent occurrence; and increasingly, it has come to emerge in the form of awards like the MacArthur Genius Grant.

The grant awards $625,000 (over a 5-year period, no strings attached) to each of the 25-30 annual recipients, for creativity in “solving long-standing scientific and mathematical problems, pushing art forms into new and emerging territories, and addressing the urgent needs of under-resourced communities,” according to MacArthur Fellows Program Managing Director Cecilia Conrad.

For the trained eye, genius can be found in every movement, word, taste, smell, and sound that permeates through life. So it is understandable that the Black excellence which graces the MacArthur Fellows list includes a pastor who marches against injustice, a performance artist from the Bronx, a Detroit playwright memorializing the city’s history through words, a writer who gives voice to historical trauma, and an artist who reconfigures history with a paintbrush.

Meet this year’s Black MacArthur Fellows:

Rev. William J. Barber II

The North Carolina pastor, and civil rights activist, found out he won the grant while leading a demonstration in support of raising minimum wage outside the McDonalds headquarters in Chicago. “I’ve just been arrested in Chicago, and I’m waiting on their process,” Mr. Barber told The News & Observer. The former president of the North Carolina NAACP “rose to prominence with ‘Moral Monday’ protests in Raleigh to combat voting-rights restrictions,” according to the New York Times. As a vocal critic of Trump, Barber is one of the few fellows with political elements to his work, which aligns with the liberal MacArthur ethos: “creating a more just, verdant and peaceful world.”

“He is effective at building unusually inclusive fusion coalitions that are multiracial and interfaith, reach across gender, age, and class lines, and are dedicated to addressing poverty, inequality, and systemic racism,” says the MacArthur Foundation site. “When his work to expand voting rights, health care, living wages, immigrant rights, public education, and LGBTQ rights were thwarted by state lawmakers in North Carolina, Barber began a series of “Moral Monday” rallies outside of the statehouse in Raleigh to protest laws that suppressed voter turnout, cut funding for public education and healthcare, and further disenfranchised poor white, black, First Nations, and LGBTQ communities.”

Dominique Morisseau

The Detroit playwright has been heralded as a contemporary writer who brings the full spectrum of the African-American experience to the stage. Her background as an actor and spoken-word poet informs her lyrical dialogues, which bring emotionally complicated characters to life. Morisseau’s power lies in her ability to portray characters and circumstances in a way that allows for the audience to examine society with a broader lens, unpacking the actions and responsibilities of the world relating to its treatment of Black people. The playwright’s work consists of theatrical odes to her city of Detroit, with plays that explore and celebrate its cultural roots while deep-diving into its history.

According to Morissuea’s page on the MacArthur Foundation site, “The Detroit Project, a trilogy of works inspired by August Wilson’s Century Cycle, paints an authentic picture of the city at three moments in time. Set during the riots of the summer of 1967, Detroit ’67 (2013) delves into the bond between a brother and sister and the difficult, life-altering decisions they must make against a backdrop of chaos and economic instability.”

John Keene

As a writer of fiction and non-fiction, Keene’s words have served as a bridge of influence between historical narratives and contemporary lives. Keene gives a voice to the perspectives of suppressed people (of color and sexuality), to allow for previously unaccounted for nuance. In order to re-write the future, one has to rewrite the past, etching away at the layers of built-up misidentification in order to arrive at a more holistic and inclusive view of marginalized identities; Keene’s words aid the effort to unpack and decolonize Black identity, allowing it to explore and expand in the realm of agency where it was previously denied access.

“His first book, Annotations (1995), is simultaneously a semi-autobiographical novel chronicling the coming of age of a Black, queer, middle-class child in the 1970s and ‘80s in St. Louis and a collection of essays about the ideological, philosophical, and political contexts that define his struggle to achieve agency,” per the MacArthur Foundation site. “In the story collection Counternarratives (2015), Keene reimagines moments, both real and fictional, from the history of the Americas, adopting the language and literary forms of the time periods in which his characters live—from seventeenth-century epistolary novels to Modernist and post-modernist experiments with stream of consciousness.”

Okwui Okpokwasili

Okwui was on her way to do her laundry when she found out about the award. The multi-disciplinary artist returned to her Brooklyn home with clean clothes and a whole new tax bracket. Okpokwasili’s performances draw from the interior lives of African and African-American women, extricating their survival experiences from the depths of societal apathy. Okwui’s art form speaks to a life unexplored, her body convulsing as a burgundy flame exorcizing its demons in her Bessie award-winning performance piece Bronx Gothic. As a child of the Bronx, the choreographer, writer and performer uses dance, theatre, and visual art, as both experimental forms and as flashlights, illuminating the stories of girls and women from the borough and beyond.

“For the one-woman show Bronx Gothic (2014), she draws upon the disparate storytelling traditions of Victorian epistolary novels and West African griot poets,” per Okwui’s page on the MacArthur Foundation site. “As Okpokwasili reads from a series of intimate notes exchanged by two black girls navigating the early years of adolescence in the 1980s, her body shudders, buckles, and slams to the floor. Through the intensity and duration of her movements, her body becomes, in effect, the medium through which long-buried experiences—of friendship, sexual awakening, daydreams, and nightmares—are conjured and shared.”

Titus Kaphar

Kaphar is an artist whose paintings and sculptures re-configure Western art practices to explore the intersection of art, history and civic agency. The work addresses issues relating to the legacy of slavery in the US, and its influence on racial injustice, protest, and punishment of the Black American community. Kaphar has mastered traditional painting techniques, only to deconstruct classical images in an effort to undo the authority claimed by the historical figures, warping the support structures of the artwork (sometimes literally) in order to question that power through broader conversations.

The MacArthur Foundation site describes some of Kaphar’s work, like “Sacrifice (2011), which comprises two distinct elements, Kaphar initially rendered a formal group portrait of three men, two black and one white, on a traditional canvas. He then cut the seated white figure away and re-situated it atop the bare stretcher bars that would have supported an accompanying canvas. As a result, the work depicts a double loss: the black men flank a glaring absence, and the white man is bereft of any context whatsoever. Kaphar’s practice also includes drawing, performance, and immersive environments.”

The time of “First Black person to…” is far from over, yet the increasing representation of geniuses of color in the ranks MacArthur Fellows does mark a sea-change in opportunities afforded where they were previously denied. It was never a lack of ability, but a lack of opportunity and now we can see the glimmer of a world where the only thing holding Black people back is the confines of our imagination.

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