How to Be a Black Genius


By now, the rash of headlines and network news reports around the world have died down about the latest crop of new MacArthur fellows, a group of scholars, scientists, activists and artists popularly known as “geniuses.” Although the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which sponsors the $500,000, no-strings-attached awards, studiously avoids the term “genius,” it does accept the publicity boon each award cycle inevitably brings.


The money goes to 20 to 30 recipients who have demonstrated "exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future,” according to the foundation’s Web site. Each fellow gets half a million dollars, in quarterly installments, for five years after the award is given.

Adding to the award’s allure is a top-secret selection process. A clandestine network of 100 nominators, whose membership rotates, scours the country. An even smaller secret panel selects 30 finalists, and the foundation board makes the final cut, according to a 2005 account in the Baltimore Sun.


There is very little publicly written about this back-dealing process, which may be because writers have been too busy trying to angle for an award themselves. In the late 1990s, the New York Times detailed some of the criticism of the awards, quoting academics who dismissed them as a publicity stunt, “American myth” and even a “misuse of philanthropic funds.” For a period in the award’s history, Times reporter Janny Scott, noted that “detractors, many of them on the left, said it was lavishing scarce philanthropic dollars on mostly white, mostly male, mostly well-established professors who hardly needed the help.”

Thankfully that track record has improved. This year, there are six fellows of color.

But for the rest of us still trying to find a leg up on how to get nominated, The Root created a database of 31 African Americans who received the award from 1999 to 2008 in search of patterns. So here’s an unscientific formula for becoming a MacArthur Fellow:

o Work in the arts: 16 of the fellows belong to that category.

o Graduate from college: 25 of the fellows had a B.A. or higher.

o Live on the East Coast: 12 of the fellows reside there.

o Hook up with an institution or an organization: 17 of the fellows had some kind of institutional affiliation.


So while you’re busy sprucing up your CV and applying for a job to an East Coast university, check out this inspiring slide show of African-American fellows whose creativity and innovation helped them nab the award.

Go inside the minds of the 2009 MacArthur fellows: Edwidge Danticat, Elyn R. Saks, Daniel Mikhail Sigman, Rackstraw Downes, Esther Duflo, Richard O. Prum and Lynsey Addario.


Afi-Odelia Scruggs is a regular contributor to The Root.

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