Although we know that genius drips from our very pores—from the magic of hip-hop to the delicacies of soul food—it’s nice to be acknowledged.
And, as per usual, the MacArthur Foundation gets it right, choosing the best, the brightest, the most creative, and, dare we say, the wokest from our communities.
This year, five black folks were among the 25 who have been bestowed the esteemed and life-changing honor (the no-strings-attached $625,000 ain’t bad either); each recipient is chosen for their innovation and creativity, and their potential to make important contributions to our communities and society.
This year’s five African and African-American winners primarily hail from the arts world—save a man whose job is to save souls. And yet, his advocacy is artistic and their art remains a balm in troubled times.
Here are the black geniuses chosen by the MacArthur Foundation this year:
William Barber, 55: Social Justice Advocate
In a world where morality is fast being erased by political expedience and winning at all costs, there are a few who still look to a higher power and move with integrity, both as a guidepost and an organizing principle. Rev. William Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., and former president of the North Carolina conference of the NAACP utilizes radical Christian love to protest that which is unjust.
His “Moral Mondays” movement at the North Carolina statehouse has not only shown that justice is his lodestar, but has waged successful legal challenges to voter suppression and racial gerrymandering, and engaged in massive voter registration and education efforts. Also, as an ode to MLK’s Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, Rev. Barber and his associates have conducted an audit of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the war economy in the United States since 1968.
“The findings of the audit have been used to inform and build state and local, nonpartisan fusion movements committed to challenging laws and policies that are antithetical to these four broad tenets of social justice,” says the MacArthur site.
Titus Kaphar, 42: Painter and sculptor
Titus Kaphar is an artist whose works stretch across media—he’s a painter, sculptor and maker of innovative installations, including The Vesper Project (initiated in 2013), which includes a reconstruction of the Vesper family’s two-room residence in an advanced state of decay. The home of a fictional, nineteenth-century New England family of mixed heritage whose members pass as white serves as the setting for a number of other deconstructed paintings by the artist (supposedly destroyed by Mr. Vesper after a psychotic break) that address questions of historical representation, memory, and the erasure of identity.
Kaphar has also established NXTHVN, an art space based in New Haven, Connecticut, which will open in Winter 2019, providing studio spaces and residencies for artists and curators whose mission is to cultivate an artistic community in a city plagued by deep and long-standing socioeconomic divides. His work has been exhibited at MoMA PS1, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Yale University Art Gallery, in addition to being part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Pérez Art Museum Miami, and the Equal Justice Initiative Museum in Montgomery, Ala.
John Keene, 53: Writer
John Keene, prolific author of both works of fiction and nonfiction, is also an academic at Rutgers University-Newark, where he is currently chair of the Department of African American and African Studies and a professor in the Department of English. His writing is intersectional in scope and delves into the ways that historical narratives shape the contemporary lives of those who have been marginalized while giving his subjects the fullness that they deserve.
According to the MacArthur site, “[Keene’s] 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.”
In the story collection Counternarratives (2015), Keene reimagines moments, both real and fictional, from the history of the Americas, including “Rivers,” where Keene imagines two meetings between an older Huckleberry Finn and a now-free “nigger” Jim, a man now bestowed with a voice, an inner life, and a perspective that Twain could never.
Okwui Okpokwasili, 46: Choreographer and performer
Okwui Okpokwasili is a performer, choreographer and writer creating multidisciplinary performance pieces that draw viewers into the interior lives of black women from the continent and here in America; narratives which heretofore remain woefully unexamined in contemporary dance.
Okpokwasili, a Nigerian-American born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., creates works that are “highly experimental in form, bringing together elements of dance, theater, and the visual arts.” The MacArthur website describes her work thus:
For the one-woman show Bronx Gothic (2014), she draws upon the disparate storytelling traditions of Victorian epistolary novels and West African griot poets. 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. …
Her more recent performance piece, Poor People’s TV Room (2017), takes a similarly hybrid, nonlinear form and explores how Nigeria’s past and present collide and fragment within the body. … She is one of a multigenerational ensemble of four women who perform intricately scored sequences, incantatory monologues, dialogues, and songs loosely inspired by the Bring Back Our Girls movement.
Dominique Morisseau, 40: Playwright
Since seeing her searing ode to her hometown, Detroit ’67, at New York City’s Public Theater some years ago, Dominique Morisseau remains one of this writer’s favorite contemporary playwrights. She has proven herself an apt documentarian of urban African-American life, deftly weaving emotional stories that chronicle our tragedy and triumph, despair and joy. Detroit ’67 is the first of a trilogy called The Detroit Project (surely an homage to August Wilson’s Century Cycle), wherein Morisseau deftly conjures three very specific moments in time in Detroit’s history:
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. Paradise Blue (2015) dramatizes the lives and music of the jazz community in a Detroit neighborhood in 1949, where legendary artists performed and flourished before urban renewal policies forever altered the landscape. The final play in the trilogy, Skeleton Crew (2016), is set in 2008 in an automotive stamping plant during the worst of the recession and centers on characters wrestling with conscience, identity, and the instinct for economic survival. ...
Other works include Sunset Baby (2012), a raw, potent look at a daughter’s relationships with her estranged revolutionary father and her drug-dealing boyfriend, and Pipeline (2017), which explores a mother’s desperation and fatalism as she witnesses her black son’s seeming inability to avoid the “school to prison pipeline.”
At only 40, we can only imagine what Ms. Morisseau has in store for us in the years to come—and we are certainly here for it.
For the entire list of 2018 MacArthur Fellows, click here.