Posted on October 1, 2021

MacArthur Foundation Announces 2021 ‘Genius’ Grant Winners

Matt Stevens and Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times, September 28, 2021

The historian and social critic Ibram X. Kendi is used to getting hate mail. And sometimes the disdain for him and his work takes the form of a phone call. So when he does not recognize the number he does not often answer.

Such was the case on a recent day when Dr. Kendi, who wrote the best-selling book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” ignored a call from Chicago. It would take a text-message exchange with the caller and a little online sleuthing, but he eventually discovered that the person calling was from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He was intrigued: Were they calling to talk about a potential research collaboration — or was it something else?

Dr. Kendi let them call again. And when he picked up, he would learn that the foundation was calling to convey happy news — the something else he had allowed as a possibility: He had been awarded a prestigious (and lucrative) MacArthur Fellowship.


“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 to get love mail sometimes,” he said. “And this is one of the greatest forms of that I have ever received.”

Dr. Kendi, 39, is perhaps the most widely known of the 25 people in this year’s class of MacArthur Fellows. His 2019 book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” has sold two million copies and established him as one of the country’s leading commentators on race since the George Floyd protests last year.

But the MacArthur Fellowship is not simply love mail. It comes with a no-strings-attached grant of $625,000, to be awarded over five years. And it is known colloquially as the “genius” award, to the sometime annoyance of the foundation.

Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the program, said the goal of the awards is to recognize “exceptional creativity,” as well as future potential, across the arts, sciences, humanities, advocacy and other fields.


The youngest fellow is Jordan Casteel, 32, a painter known for portraits that capture everyday encounters with people of color. The oldest is Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, 70, a choreographer who founded the performance ensemble Urban Bush Women.

Unusually, the fellows include a married couple, Cristina Ibarra, a documentary filmmaker who chronicles border communities, and Alex Rivera, a filmmaker who explores issues around migration to the United States. The couple, who sometimes collaborate, were evaluated and selected separately, but informed together.


There is no theme to any given class, Ms. Conrad said. But virtually all this year’s winners outside the sciences do work relating to social and racial justice. And that meshes with the funding priorities of the foundation, which was one of five foundations that last June pledged additional payouts of $1.7 billion in response to the pandemic, in part financed by issuing debt.

In July, the foundation, whose endowment in December 2020 was $8.2 billion, announced $80 million in grants to support “an equitable recovery from the pandemic and combat anti-Blackness, uplift Indigenous Peoples and improve public health equity.”