A Decade of Black Genius

Take a look at this selection of African-American MacArthur fellows from 1999 to the present whose creativity and innovation helped them nab the award.

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  • Jason Moran

    Jason Moran

    Practicing piano was a chore until a young Jason Moran heard a rendition of “‘Round Midnight.” The classic by Thelonious Monk set Moran on the road to musical innovation that includes a jazz interpretation of “Planet Rock” and expert execution of stride-piano styles from the 1920s. Moran, a 2010 fellow, graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in 1997 and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

    Captions by Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs

  • Annette Gordon-Reed

    Annette Gordon-Reed

    Annette Gordon-Reed has long been fascinated by Thomas Jefferson and his family. When she investigated the case of Jefferson and Sally Hemings and concluded that Jefferson could have fathered Hemings’ children, scholars derided her findings. In 1997, Gordon-Reed laid out her argument in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. The next year, DNA evidence supported her findings. Gordon-Reed, a 2010 fellow, is a professor at Harvard Law School.

  • John Dabiri

    John Dabiri

    By investigating the simple jellyfish, John Dabiri, a 2010 fellow, has uncovered complex mechanisms of locomotion that have far-reaching implications. Although he is a biophysicist, Dabiri’s work draws from theoretical fluid dynamics, evolutionary biology and biomechanics. In 2008 he was named one of “10 Brilliant Scientists” by Popular Mechanics magazine. Dabiri, who graduated from Princeton University in 2001, is an associate professor at the California Institute of Technology. 

  • Danielle Allen

    Danielle Allen

    A classicist and political theorist, Danielle Allen was only 29 when she became a MacArthur fellow in 2002. She holds doctorates from Cambridge University and Harvard. In 2007 she became the only African American on the faculty of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Before that, she spent 10 years at the University of Chicago, where she became the dean of the humanities division.

  • Fred Wilson

    Fred Wilson

    An installation artist from New York, Fred Wilson became a fellow in 1999. He uses museum-design techniques, as well as articles from museum collections, to create installations that challenge accepted points of view. His other honors include representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2003 and receiving the 2009 Cheek Medal for outstanding presentation of art.

  • Tommie Lindsey

    Tommie Lindsey

    Tommie Lindsey had been teaching in Union City, Calif., for 29 years when he became a fellow in 2004. He uses forensics — the practice of public speaking and debate — to empower at-risk students. By 2004 his students had won six consecutive awards from the Speech Association. Lindsey said that winning the award was “like getting a phone call from God.” He told reporters he would use the money to send his children to college, buy a car for his son and take a vacation.

  • Majora Carter

    Majora Carter

    Majora Carter’s determination to “make her community more livable, greener and healthier than it is today” landed her a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005. She was drawn into a battle over construction of a facility that would have processed 40 percent of New York City’s garbage. Her success in fighting the plan, and in establishing the first waterfront park in the South Bronx in more than 60 years, eventually led to the founding of Sustainable South Bronx, an organization dedicated to the greening of the Hunts Point community. In 2008 Carter left the organization to form the Majora Carter Group, an environmental-consulting firm.

  • John A. Rich

    John A. Rich

    John A. Rich’s belief that urban violence in the African-American community is a public health issue seems more relevant and urgent today than it did when he became a fellow in 2006. Rich chairs the department of health management and policy at Philadelphia’s Drexel University. He established Drexel’s Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, which offers support and services for patients who have undergone trauma from violence. He also founded the Young Men’s Health Clinic, a primary-care clinic at the Boston Medical Health Center.

  • Jennifer Richeson

    Jennifer Richeson

    Jennifer Richeson examines the effects of stereotyping and racial prejudice on thoughts, feelings and behaviors. She was named a fellow in 2006 for taking the lead “in highlighting and analyzing major challenges facing all races in America and the continuing role played by prejudice and stereotyping in our lives,” according to the MacArthur Foundation. Richeson is the director of graduate studies and a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University. She graduated from Brown University and received an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard.

  • Regina Carter

    Regina Carter

    Regina Carter has taken the violin from the orchestra to the center of the jazz world. In 2006 the MacArthur Foundation applauded performances that “highlight the often overlooked potential of the jazz violin for its lyric, melodic and percussive potential.” Her musical journey has taken her to Genoa, Italy, where she became the first jazz musician and the first African American to play a violin owned by composer Niccolò Paganini. Carter, a native of Detroit, studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and graduated from Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.

  • Angela Johnson

    Angela Johnson

    A children’s-book author from Kent, Ohio, Angela Johnson personifies the prolific writer. By the time she became a MacArthur fellow in 2003, she’d written and published at least a book a year. Her output ranges from picture books to novels for young adults. She’s best known for her ability to explore sensitive topics — racism, mental illnesses, death and divorce — in a compassionate, realistic manner. Johnson has won four Coretta Scott King Book Awards for her novels and picture books.

  • Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson

    Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson

    Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson of Columbus, Ohio, said she never had “any doubt in her mind about being an artist.” By the time she was named a fellow in 2004, she was well into a lifetime of creativity. She first displayed her art in 1948, when she was 8 years old. Robinson has made thousands of pieces: cloth paintings, quilts, book illustrations, drawings. Among her media is “hogmaw,” a mixture of clay, twigs, mud, lime and grease that she learned how to make from her father.

  • Eve Troutt Powell

    Eve Troutt Powell

    Eve Troutt Powell was writing a grant proposal when she learned she’d become a MacArthur fellow in 2003. Troutt Powell, an associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, explores the history of race and African slavery in the Nile Valley. She spent 10 years teaching at the University of Georgia. She received her B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard.

  • Patricia Williams

    Patricia Williams

    Patricia Williams was named a MacArthur fellow in 2000 for creating ” … a new form of legal writing and scholarship that integrates personal narrative, critical and literary theory, traditional legal doctrine, and empirical and sociological research.” As a proponent of critical race theory, Williams used those literary techniques to probe the relationship between law and race in her book The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Ms. Magazine called the book, published in 1991, a “feminist classic of the last 20 years.” Williams is the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University. She earned a B.A. from Wellesley University and a J.D. from Harvard.

  • Will Allen

    Will Allen

    Will Allen has helped to pioneer agricultural and educational techniques that have taken the phrase “urban farm” from an oxymoron to a model for sustainable agriculture. In 2008 the MacArthur Foundation noted his down-and-dirty efforts to bring healthy food to Milwaukee’s inner city. The son of a sharecropper, Allen graduated from the University of Miami in 1971. After a stint in professional basketball, he worked in corporate marketing.

  • Regina Benjamin

    Regina Benjamin

    Regina Benjamin’s most recent achievement is being named U.S. surgeon general in 2009. But in 2008 the MacArthur Foundation honored her for founding the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Care Clinic in Alabama. The clinic is the major source of health care for the impoverished village on the state’s Gulf Coast. Benjamin rebuilt the clinic three times: after Hurricanes George and Katrina, and once again after a fire. She has an M.D. from the University of Alabama and an M.B.A. from Tulane University.

  • Edward P. Jones

    Edward P. Jones

    Edward P. Jones’ first novel, The Known World, trolled a hidden corner of antebellum history: the lives of free, slaveholding blacks. Jones, who lives in Washington, D.C., became a MacArthur fellow in 2004, a year after the novel was published. “Edward P. Jones is a fiction writer who renders in story a mysterious incongruity of the human experience-how faith, dignity and love often survive, and sometimes thrive, in the face of systemic adversity … [He] works painstakingly to compose artful, morally complicated fiction that challenges, provokes and enriches,” the MacArthur Foundation said. Jones graduated from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass.

  • Mary Jackson

    Mary Jackson

    Mary Jackson of South Carolina maintains and builds on a tradition that her Gullah ancestors brought from Africa. Jackson has transformed the sweetgrass basket, turning utilitarian containers into “finely detailed, sculptural forms,” the MacArthur Foundation said when she was named a fellow in 2008. Jackson’s sculptures have been exhibited in numerous museums, including the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of African American History in Detroit.

Saaret Yoseph is a writer and Assistant Editor at TheRoot.com. She manages and blogs for "Their Eyes Were Watching ..."

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