Meet the Black Geniuses of 2016

On Thursday the MacArthur Foundation announced the 23 recipients of its prestigious award, commonly referred to as the “genius” grant.

Joyce J. Scott
Joyce J. Scott John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Joyce J. Scott was an artist in utero. She will tell you that while she was safely inside the womb, her mother, an internationally recognized fiber artist, was nourishing her with colors and patterns and craft. Scott wanted nothing more than to be who she has become—a multitalented, multimedium, multipersonality spitfire of a performer.

She is art.

She weaves stories and voices together like yarn. One minute, she’s the voice closest to the woman you believe to be Scott; the next, she is a Baltimore-round-the-way-girl and “err’thing”; the next, she’s a distinguished Jewish debutante; and the next, she’s Eartha Kitt, “dah-lings” and all. It makes the story of her work—all of her work—more textured, layered.

The depth of and commitment to her narrative voices belies the effort involved in her process. You can get lost in her voice in the same way you can get lost in her beadwork: It’s beautiful, and you can forget that this took time—a lot of time; painstaking time; precise, carefully constructed time.

But Scott is a worker committed to her craft—or, as she puts it, “When you’re up from slavery, brother, you gots to do err’thing.”

And “err’thing” includes being a sculptress, jewelry-maker, actress, painter, singer, textile artist and, now, a genius (although Scott would playfully argue that she’s always been a genius).

On Thursday the MacArthur Foundation announced that Scott and 22 other special people have been named recipients of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation award that’s more commonly referred to as the “genius” grant.

The no-strings-attached grant awards recipients $625,000, paid out over five years, so that they can explore and create without the burden of financial stress. Award winners are not obligated to produce work and can spend their grant however they see fit. The award is “an investment in a person’s originality, insight and potential,” the foundation explains on its website. “The purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.”

So how did Scott handle the news?

“I almost threw up,” Scott said after receiving the call that she was one of the 2016 MacArthur fellows. Scott, who was born and raised in Baltimore, still calls the area home. In fact, the CVS that was burned and looted during the Freddie Gray uprising is in her neighborhood. Scott was flooded with emotions—from over-the-rainbow happiness that her work, work she’s been creating for some 40 years, was recognized on such a prestigious scale, to full-fledged fear at the enormity of it all.

“I had such a panic attack,” she said after settling into the news that she had won.

“I’m really such an around-the-way girl. I always talk about my city. I make artwork in and about the city, and this award means I’m no longer an around-the-way girl. There’s a responsibility and a gravitas to this that goes beyond the anonymity that you have being in your own neighborhood, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m still trying to fashion a way to understand the responsibility to myself and to my community and how I will traverse the rest of my life because of it. It’s a weighty thing.”

Others in the MacArthur “Class of 2016” include the following:

* Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a 31-year-old playwright who uses the history of theater to confront issues of identity, family, class and race. Jacobs-Jenkins’ plays, Neighbors (2010), Appropriate (2014) and An Octoroon (2014), all explore how race and class are negotiated historically in both the theater and modern culture.

“I’ve always believed that one of the most incredible things about the theater and all art, really, is that we are creating a safe space for feelings, but especially ugly feelings,” Jacobs-Jenkins said on a video posted to the foundation’s website.

* Kellie Jones, 57-year-old art historian and curator, has been instrumental in preserving contemporary art of the African Diaspora and influential in securing black art in the historical canon of modern and contemporary art.

“The objects that I work with and the artists that I work with are under-known, undiscovered,” Jones told the MacArthur Foundation. “So you really have to bring the work out into view in a gallery setting, in a museum setting.

“When I first got the call from the MacArthur Foundation, I was floating,” she continued. “I was in disbelief that the field that I’ve worked in for many, many years was validated in such a major way. I think it’s really important to the field of art history to finally be able to acknowledge that there are art histories that are global and that art history isn’t just written in Europe.”

* Claudia Rankine, 53-year-old poet who has written five books of poetry, believes that “everyone is a secret poet.” The MacArthur Foundation describes her works as “different forms of poetic expression that correspond to the trajectory of her concerns from the private to the public.”

See the full list of MacArthur fellows here.

Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is a senior editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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