Saidiya Hartman was sitting in a bar in Durban, South Africa when she got the news: she had just been awarded a $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship. Accompanied by one of her best friends, Hartman—a literary scholar and cultural historian—was in town to help plan a meeting for a black studies mobile academy.
“I was in disbelief and then in tears,” Hartman told The Root over the phone Tuesday night. For three and a half weeks, Hartman has kept the good news secret—even from the good friend who was with her on the trip—a feat she says wasn’t too difficult because it felt so surreal.
“I said, ‘Well send a letter to my house,’ because I was like, is this a cruel prank or something?” She laughs. “It’s hard to really process it.”
Announced Wednesday morning, the prestigious MacArthur fellowship—also known as the “genius” grants—awards $625,000 directly to individual recipients. Previous winners include writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, and the poet Claudia Rankine.
The grants have become among the highest honors for the country’s most influential artists, academics, and thinkers. Most importantly, the sizeable grant frees its recipients to pursue their work, untethered to grant proposals or restrictions.
As the MacArthur Foundation website states, the money comes with no strings attached. All fellows are nominated by their peers and have to meet three criteria:
1. exceptional creativity
2. Promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments
3. Potential for the Fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.
This year, the foundation handed out grants to 26 recipients, five of whom are black. Their titles vary: some are academics and writers, others architects and artists. And while all have established themselves as creative leaders in their fields, there is another thread that runs through most of their work: expanding our understanding of black histories and communities, so that we may better articulate and engage with our present world.
Walter Hood, a landscape architect from Oakland, Calif., imbues ecological sustainability and social justice into his work. His ongoing projects, Nauck Town Square in Arlington County, Virginia and the forthcoming International African American Museum (2020) are particularly conscious of commemorating the history of black Americans in public spaces. As the MacArthur Foundation writes, the former, “located in a neighborhood whose residents are descendants of a pre-Emancipation community of freed blacks, [will] include a towering sculpture that spells “Freed” made from replica slave badges.”
Architect and urban planner Emmanuel Pratt similarly takes a resident-centered approach to his work in community development. In Chicago’s South Side, Pratt, through his non-profit Sweet Water Foundation, transforms abandoned buildings and vacant lots “into sites of sustainable urban agriculture,” the MacArthur Foundation writes:
In 2011, Pratt transformed a former shoe warehouse into a vibrant center for aquaponics, a system for cultivating fish and plants that recycles ammonia-rich waste from the fish into nutrients for the plants, which, in turn, purify the water for recirculation. In addition to producing large quantities of locally grown food, the facility also functions as a dynamic classroom and design laboratory, providing valuable hands-on learning experiences for students of Chicago State University and Chicago Public Schools, among numerous other groups.
The theme of reimagining the neglected or mundane also runs through Cameron Rowland’s work, though to much different ends. A conceptual artist, Rowland takes items that would otherwise seem unremarkable—courtroom benches, leveler rings for manhole openings—and connects them to our racialized capitalist system. Those items, part of a 2016 exhibition called 91020000, were all made by New York State prison inmates, paid between $0.10 to $1.14 an hour for their work. Rowland’s work challenges its audience to consider the many ways exploitation touch our daily lives.
Like Hartman, historian Kelly Lytle Hernández’ work illuminates the past to inform our present. Her 2010 book, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol, is considered the “first significant academic history” of the agency, the MacArthur Foundation writes. Her work connects modern-day incarceration and immigrant detention practices with our nation’s racialized carceral and labor system; the Los Angeles-based historian hones in particularly on the Western U.S.
Lytle Hernández has also built what she calls a“rebel archive” to help document the ongoing lives of those passing through the L.A. County Jail—the country’s largest jail system. The archive comprises materials from local public health agencies and city councils, as well as materials from community members, organizers and those incarcerated.
Hartman’s work also revolves around archives. Using a technique she calls “critical fabulation,” the Columbia University professor takes a speculative approach to writing history, fleshing out the lives of marginalized people previously excluded from historical archives.
“With the current regime in the White House I think that people are grappling with how foundational the so-called past is to our present,” Hartman says about why her work, and others like it, has particular resonance now. She notes that many people are publicly grappling with issues like slavery, anti-black racism, settler colonialism and the way they are playing out in the reactionary, white nationalist politics of the present.
“For many people, the past no longer feels remote,” Hartman says.
Her most recent book, Wayward Life, Beautiful Experiments, explores the lives of black women at the turn of the 20th century, casting particular attention to the radical intimate choices those women made that ran counter to “mainstream” norms. Her next project will be a nonfiction novella about a radical black woman who lived in the ’20s and ’30s but “about whom little is known,” she says. An important historical figure, her subject’s private life is “utterly a mystery.”
The grant will give her the freedom to leap into the work.
“I won’t have to apply for grants and hope I get them. I won’t have to wait until I accrue enough sabbatical credits,” she says. “I can actually just start writing the next thing.”