Ta-Nehisi Coates Leads Diverse Group of MacArthur 'Genius' Grant Recipients

Journalist and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates is among a diverse group of artists, advocates and scientists that make up this year’s recipients of MacArthur fellow “genius” grants, announced on Tuesday.

Coates joins 23 other MacArthur fellows who will receive a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000, paid out over five years in quarterly installments. Other 2015 recipients include puppeteer Basil Twist, photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier and sociologist Matthew Desmond.

Coates, currently a national correspondent for the Atlantic, has come to wide prominence for his measured and reflective writing on racial identity, systemic racism and urban policing. His 2014 essay The Case for Reparations tackled the rationalizations for slavery and their effects on the US throughout the 20th century, such as red-lining. His second book, Between the World and Me, published this year, focuses on the evolution of his views on the constructions of race.

Coates said he was “overjoyed” and “deeply, deeply honored” after hearing from the MacArthur Foundation about the grant.

“You can never be prepared for it, right,” Coates told the Guardian. “I’ve been doing this basically for 20 years now, and the majority of your career you write and nobody cares.”

Coates said growing up in west Baltimore in the years after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X shaped his views.

“I emerged into a city in America where it appeared that African Americans were going to have all the promises that had been withheld from them, and on paper had had a great deal of them, and yet the effects of history were all around me,” Coates said.

“The immediate thing I saw was this lack of physical safety, the inability to secure your body, to protect your body from violence from people who live around you, from forces who live outside of your community, as well as within your community,” he said. “As a young person I was simply obsessed with why that was. That probably was the lion’s share of my work.”

Coates said he was already considering new projects when he received news he’d received the grant roughly two weeks ago.

“When somebody makes this sort of investment in you, you’re really called to do something great, so I’m going to try to do something great. That really is the bottom line for me in my field, I feel like I’m always called to do that.”

MacArthur “geniuses” are selected for their “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work”, according to the foundation’s website. They are given maximum freedom to follow their creative visions with the money.

Puppeteer Basil Twist, who has used fabric and other materials to explore the lines between the animate and inanimate, was standing in the middle of a stage at the Abrons Art Center among the chaos of a rehearsal for his upcoming show Sister’s Follies when he received the call informing him that he was selected as a fellow.

“I just thought that was so cool to be standing in the middle of the stage,” Twist, 46, told the Guardian. “That was very special.”

Originally from San Francisco, Twist comes from a family of puppeteers and began working with puppets as a child. He studied puppetry at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette, and has produced shows since 1998. Additionally, Twist has worked with ballets, opera companies, choreographers and playwrights.

Although he does not yet know what he will do with the grant money, Twist said his work in puppetry is labor-intensive and expensive.

“I really want to get the work done, and if I have the resources, they will get sucked into it,” he said.

Artist and photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier said that once she overcame the initial shock of receiving a call from the MacArthur Foundation, she felt “tremendous joy”.

“After that I realized, OK, this is a serious responsibility,” Frazier, 33, told the Guardian.

Frazier’s work centers entirely on her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a once booming steel town located near Pittsburgh. Through self-portraits and photography of her mother and grandmother, Frazier retells the history of the steel industry’s collapse in the area and its effect on local residents from the perspective of three women from different generations.

Frazier’s grandmother grew up in Braddock in the 1930s, when the steel town was prosperous; her mother grew up in the 1960s, during the height of segregation and the beginnings of white flight. And Frazier was raised in Braddock in the 1980s, after the steel mill closed and the global economy came into focus.

The series of photographs were collected into a book, The Notion of Family.

“It’s a reflection not only of ourselves but also the fabric of the town,” she said. “Essentially I make these collaborative portraits with my family and community residents that I work with that are portrait life landscapes in order to build a visual archive to address the impact of intersection of the steel industry, environment and the healthcare system’s impact on the bodies of my family and community.”

As a MacArthur fellow, Frazier, who is an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said she wants to give other families in Braddock and the Rust Belt the opportunity to tell their stories.

“There are a lot of residents and families in Braddock that are overlooked,” Frazier said. “With the MacArthur I’ll be able to continue to shed light on who these individuals are.”

Sociologist and ethnographer Matthew Desmond told the Guardian that being selected for the grant “was totally out of the blue”. Desmond studies poverty and eviction, and currently teaches classes on poverty in America at Harvard University.

As an ethnographer, Desmond spent four months living in a Milwaukee trailer park, and later 10 months in a rooming house between 2008 and 2009, to follow people who were getting evicted from their homes. After examining court records and creating the Milwaukee Area Renters Study, Desmond found remarkably high rates of eviction. Watching people be evicted, he said, encapsulates the brokenness of housing policies, poverty and desperation within one moment.

“It’s one thing to look at the numbers, and it’s another to go out with the sheriff and see people evicted, especially in the winter,” Desmond said. “There’s a certain violence to it that really sticks with you.”

Desmond wants to use the grant money to answer questions surrounding the rapidly growing unaffordability of cities around the world, such as exploring how working and poor families experience this “new kind of hardship”.

Kartik Chandran, an environmental engineer and associate professor at Columbia University, has worked to marry microbial ecology, molecular biology and engineering to make wastewater an environmentally friendly resource. He said finding out about the MacArthur was “a bit overwhelming”.

“To think of this properly, it’s a big responsibility and I sincerely wish to be able to shoulder the responsibility,” he told the Guardian.

Chandran’s work focuses on combining mixed microbial communities to mitigate the harmful environmental impacts of wastewater. He has implemented his solutions to be locally appropriate. Working with Engineers Without Borders in rural Ghana, Chandran developed a technology to convert fecal matter into biodiesel in an economically advantageous fashion.

Chandran said the MacArthur grant opens up new questions that he now has the opportunity to answer. As people migrate to cities in larger numbers, Chandran said he wants to look into new ways of energy production.

“How do we deal with environmental problems?” he asked. “We need to rely on decentralized, distributed energy.”

Full list of 2015 MacArthur winners

Patrick Awuah, education entrepreneur creating a new model for higher education in Africa that combines training in ethical leadership, a liberal arts tradition and skills for contemporary African needs and opportunities.

Gary Cohen, environmental health advocate spurring environmental responsibility among healthcare providers and repositioning healthcare institutional practice around the broader challenges of sustainability, climate change and community health.

William Dichtel, chemist pioneering the assembly of molecules into stable, high-surface-area networks with potential applications in electronic, optical, and energy storage devices.

Michelle Dorrance, tap dancer and choreographer reinvigorating a uniquely American dance form in works that combine the musicality of tap with the intricacies of contemporary dance.

Nicole Eisenman, painter expanding the expressive potential of the figurative tradition in works that engage contemporary social issues and restore cultural significance to the representation of the human form.

Ben Lerner, writer transcending conventional distinctions of genre and style in works that convey the texture of our contemporary moment and explore the relevance of art and the artist in modern culture.

Mimi Lien, set designer translating a text’s narrative and emotional dynamics on to the stage in bold, immersive sets that enhance the performance experience for theater makers and viewers alike.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, playwright, composer and performer expanding the conventions of musical theater with a popular culture sensibility and musical styles and voices that reflect the diverse cultural panorama of the American urban experience.

Dimitri Nakassis, classicist challenging long-held assumptions about modes of economic exchange and political authority in prehistoric Greek societies and revealing their connections to the origins of modern civilization.

John Novembre, computational biologist shedding new light on the links between geography and genomic diversity and producing a more finely grained picture of human evolutionary history.

Christopher Ré, computer scientist democratizing big data analytics through open source data-processing products that have the power of machine learning algorithms but can be integrated into existing and applied database systems.

Marina Rustow, historian mining textual materials from the Cairo Geniza to deepen our understanding of medieval Muslim and Jewish communities.

Juan Salgado, community leader creating a model for workforce development and training among immigrant communities through a holistic approach that addresses language skills, education and other barriers to entering the workforce

Beth Stevens, neuroscientist revealing the heretofore unknown role of microglial cells in neuron communication and prompting a fundamental shift in thinking about brain development in both healthy and unhealthy states.

Lorenz Studer, stem cell biologist pioneering a new method for large-scale generation of dopaminergic neurons that could provide one of the first treatments for Parkinson’s disease and prove the broader feasibility of stem cell–based therapies for other neurological disorders.

Alex Truesdell, adaptive designer and fabricator constructing low-tech, affordable and customized tools and furniture that enable children with disabilities to participate actively in their homes, schools and communities.

Ellen Bryant Voigt, poet meditating on will and fate and the life cycles of the natural world through a distinctive intermingling of lyric and narrative modes and ongoing experimentation with form and technique.

Heidi Williams, economist unravelling the forces that hinder or spur medical innovation through empirically based studies that are informing public policy.

Peidong Yang, inorganic chemist opening new horizons for tackling the global challenge of clean, renewable energy sources through transformative advances in the science of semiconductor nanowires and nanowire photonics.


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