The 2019 MacArthur Fellows have been announced and the list includes five Black trailblazers in their respective fields. They include literary scholar and cultural historian Saidiya Hartman, landscape and public artist Walter Hood, historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez, urban designer Emmanuel Pratt and artist Cameron Rowland.
The MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius” grant, is a $625,000 no strings attached award given to “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential.” The fellowship is one of the most prestigious honors that can be bestowed in the United States. Fellows are nominated by a group of anonymous invited nominators, evaluators and selectors and chosen based on three criteria; “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments and potential for the Fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.”
While their work varies, they each are doing their due diligence to expand the knowledge and understanding of Black history, life and community while simultaneously helping to engage audiences to reimagine what the world could look like for African Americans and people of color.
Saidiya Hartman is an author and expert of Black literature and cultural history. She works to archive historical narratives that have been concealed, left out or lost and uses these stories to directly connect slavery, its origins and afterlife to present day American life. Hartman told The Root that she found out about her nomination while working on a Black studies mobile academy in Durban, South Africa. She said the nomination felt surreal and she kept it a secret because she was still in shock. “I was in disbelief and then in tears. It’s hard to really process it.” Hartman said.
Landscape architect and Oakland, California native Walter Hood is a public artist that designs eco friendly public spaces that are easy to maintain and help to empower marginalized and underserved communities. His current projects include Nauck Town Square in Arlington, Virginia, a revitalized landscape that sits on Freedman’s Village, a pre-Emancipation town for free Blacks and the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina.
Emmanuel Pratt is an urban designer that focuses on engaging residents in community development in underserved neighborhoods by transforming abandoned buildings and lots into thriving sites of agriculture. He is also the co-founder and executive director of the Sweet Water Foundation (SWF), a nonprofit on the South Side of Chicago that aims to cultivate and regenerate social, environmental and economic resources in the neighborhoods they service. Pratt salvages material in collaboration with community residents to be reused in innovative design projects that help to grow and foster a sense of community in neglected neighborhoods. In 2011, he renovated a shoe warehouse and turned it into a center for aquaponics, a system for using fish waste as nutrients for plants. The system helped to purify water supplies for reuse and produce large quantities of locally grown food.
Cameron Rowland is a conceptual artist who also helps to engage us in reimagining through the use of physical items and documents. Rowland exhibits everyday items and connects them to “institutions, systems, and policies that perpetuate systemic racism and economic inequality.” In his 2016 exhibit 91020000, Rowland displayed items like courtroom benches, desks and extension rings for manhole covers and traced them to New York State prison inmates who were paid only $0.10 to $1.14 an hour to make the items. The documents proving the procurement of this labor as well as the items were also featured in the exhibit. Rowland’s work makes explicit how complicit we all are in systemic racism.
Kelly Lytle Hernández is an author and historian who also highlights the country’s mass incarceration issues, tracing its “origins, ideology and systemic evolution” through the lens of immigration detention. Hernández’ book, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol is considered the first notable body of work chronicling the origin of the institution. She uses the history of the Los Angeles County jail system to mark the enslavement of African Americans as the predecessor for America’s racial overtone in its prison system and draw a correlation to the country’s targeting of all marginalized groups.
The MacArthur Fellowship has named 1,040 Fellows since 1981. 26 grants were given this year. They provide the creative leaders the freedom to do the work without having to worry about financial backing. With that weight lifted we can’t wait to see what they create next!