“My first words were ‘Are you serious?’” recalled The Root 100 and Time 100 honoree Ibram X. Kendi upon learning that he’d also been chosen as a 2021 MacArthur fellow—and the recipient of one of the foundation’s “Genius” grants.
Those familiar with Kendi’s 2019 bestseller How to Be an Antiracist (or previous opus, Stamped from the Beginning) might not have been surprised, but as Kendi told the New York Times, “It’s very meaningful—I think to anyone who studies a topic where there’s a lot of acrimony and a lot of pain—to be recognized...and this is one of the greatest forms of that I have ever received.”
Kendi joins an illustrious and extremely diverse group of 25 MacArthur fellows this year, each of whom also receive a “no-strings-attached” $625,000 “genius” grant from the foundation. Among the 11 Black fellows on this year’s list are artist Daniel Lind-Ramos; poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts; essayist and poet Hanif Abdurraqib; writer and curator Nicole R. Fleetwood (author of the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration; civil rights activist Desmond Meade, biological physicist Ibrahim Cissé; historian and writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and film scholar, archivist, and curator Jacqueline Stewart. Painter Jordan Casteel is the youngest fellow at 32, while the oldest is 70-year-old Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of Urban Bush Women.
“As we emerge from the shadows of the past two years, this class of 25 Fellows helps us reimagine what’s possible,” said MacArthur Fellows Managing Director Cecilia Conrad in a statement. “They demonstrate that creativity has no boundaries...Once again, we have the opportunity for exultation as we recognize the potential to create objects of beauty and awe, advance our understanding of society, and foment change to improve the human condition,” she added.
While there is no “theme” to each year’s class of fellows, the Times notes that “virtually all this year’s winners outside the sciences do work relating to social and racial justice,” reinforcing a commitment by the foundation “to support ‘an equitable recovery from the pandemic and combat anti-Blackness, uplift Indigenous Peoples and improve public health equity,’” via $80 million in grants.
The money is no doubt a huge perk of the honor, but as Kendi told the Times: “There is nothing like being recognized by your peers...We’re all creating, writing and functioning in communities. We as individuals are nothing without the communities where we create and work.”