MacArthur Fellows Take on the Black Experience

2012 "genius grant" recipients Junot Díaz, Dinaw Mengestu and Dylan C. Penningroth use their talent with words to tell stories that tackle race in America.

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MacArthur fellows Dylan Penningroth, Junot Díaz and Dinaw Mengestu
(MacArthur Foundation)

On Tuesday the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation unveiled 2012's list of MacArthur fellows. Each of the 23 honorees, selected for their creativity and promise to contribute positively in the future, was awarded an unrestricted $500,000 grant to reward and encourage their work.

For at least three of the recipients -- Junot Díaz, Dinaw Mengestu and Dylan C. Penningroth -- it's safe to say that will mean more literature that not only entertains but also thoughtfully explores the historical and cultural nuances of the black experience in America. From Diaz on Dominican immigrants to Mengestu on Ethiopians in Washington, D.C., and Penningroth on the customs of slaves in the antebellum South, these writers produce work that is as beautiful as it is meaningful, leaving little question about why each has been deemed a "genius."

Read excerpts from their bios below and see the full list of fellows here.

Junot Díaz is a writer whose finely crafted works of fiction offer powerful insight into the realities of the Caribbean diaspora, American assimilation, and lives lived between cultures. Born in the Dominican Republic and living in the United States since adolescence, Díaz writes from the vantage point of his own experience, eloquently unmasking the many challenges of the immigrant's life. With skillful use of raw, vernacular dialogue and spare, unsentimental prose, he creates nuanced and engaging characters struggling to succeed and often invisible in plain sight to the American mainstream. In Drown (1996), an anthology of interrelated short stories, Díaz describes his narrator's coming-of-age in New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, deftly interweaving complex chronologies, particulars of place, and shifting narrative perspectives. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), Diaz's first novel, follows three generations of a family living in both the Dominican Republic and the United States

Dinaw Mengestu is a young writer whose novels and nonfiction pieces open a window into the little-explored world of the African diaspora in America. A native of Ethiopia who came to the United States with his family at the age of two, Mengestu composes tales distilled from the experience of immigrants whose memories are permanently seared by escape from violence in their homelands. His debut novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2008), is a poignant chronicle of exile that eschews sentimentality by refusing to allow its narrator -- a struggling Ethiopian refugee in a gentrifying neighborhood of Washington, DC -- to find an easy form of solace or redemption. In this rich and multidimensional tale, Mengestu paints a powerful portrait of lives uprooted and remade in the wake of political violence as well as the fractures and tensions that characterize rapidly changing areas of contemporary urban America ...

Dylan C. Penningroth is a historian who examines shifting concepts of property ownership and kinship in order to shed light on long-obscured aspects of African American life under slavery and in the half-century following slavery's abolition. In his book The Claims of Kinfolk (2003), he elucidates the informal customs that slaves in the antebellum South used to recognize ownership of property, even while they were themselves considered by law to be property at the time. He also traces the interactions of these extra-legal, vernacular customs with the formal realm of law after emancipation by teasing stories of claims and disputes from such sources as the Freedman's Bureau and Southern Claims Commission records compiled by the federal government after the Civil War. In addition to demonstrating that ownership of land, livestock, and other material possessions was much more widespread among slave communities than previously believed, Penningroth's research draws out the underlying social relations and reliance on family members' labor that made such ownership possible. ..

Read more at the MacArthur Foundation. 

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