MacArthur ‘genius grant’ winners announced for 2021

Rick Kogan
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — I am sorry that your name is not on the accompanying list, which is a gathering of the 25 members of this year’s class of MacArthur Fellows. It is, as it has been since its inception in 1981, an impressive gathering of people across the planet considered to hold the potential for important work in a wide variety of fields — which this year include such familiar areas as filmmaking and history and such esoteric pursuits as computational virology and adaptive technology design.

These fellowships, announced Tuesday, are presented by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and have been dubbed “genius grants.” They consist of $625,000 (bumped up from $500,000 in 2013 and paid out in annual installments of $125,000 over five years) to do with whatever the awardees want. People cannot apply for this, and no one knows if they are being considered. As the foundation’s website informs, “nominees are suggested by a constantly changing pool of invited external nominators chosen from as broad a range of fields and areas of interest as possible.”

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The foundation further informs us that “the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight and potential.” Of course, the foundation hopes that the money will be used by recipients for the financial freedom that might allow them to pursue their most innovative ideas.

The new 2021 list consists of 13 men and 12 women, the youngest a 32-year-old painter from New York City named Jordan Casteel and the eldest 70-year-old Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, a female choreographer who calls the Florida State University in Tallahassee home.

TCM host Jacqueline Stewart photographed on the TCM set on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019 in Atlanta. (John Nowak/TCM/TNS)

There are a few of this year’s crowd that have, or more accurately had, academic ties to Chicago before moving on. One that Chicago can claim is Jacqueline Stewart, who the MacArthur folks describe as a “film scholar and curator ensuring that the contributions of overlooked Black filmmakers and communities of spectators have a place in the public imagination.”

She is 51 years old, and Chicago born and raised. She attended Bret Harte Elementary School and Kenwood Academy High School in Hyde Park. Some of her most pleasant and influential memories took place in her grandmother’s house.

“Everyone in my family liked to tell stories,” she said Monday by phone. “And my aunts and uncles and cousins had stories, great stories, for the photos and home movies that we saw. That is what really inspired my life’s work.”

It has been her thirst for discovering and bringing to wide attention the contributions of overlooked Black filmmakers and the audiences for their work that has guided her career and given her an impressive academic resume, which include degrees from Stanford University and the University of Chicago, from which she received her Ph.D. in 1999. That same year, she became a member of its Department of English, until 2006 when she joined the Departments of Radio/Television/Film and African American Studies at Northwestern University as an associate professor. She returned to the University of Chicago in 2013 as a professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies and was appointed director of Arts + Public Life in 2019.

In 2005 she wrote “Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity” and later created at the U of C the South Side Home Movie Project. Since 2019, Stewart has hosted “Silent Sunday Nights” on the Turner Classic Movies network.

She is currently on an extended leave from U of C, serving as chief artistic and programming officer at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, a new and highly anticipated facility “devoted to the history, science and cultural impact of the film industry.” It is scheduled to open Thursday.

In conversation, she is lively and passionate and firmly tied to our city.

“I took shape in Chicago,” she said.

She got the MacArthur news, as most recipients do, over the phone.

“I didn’t know the number so was hesitant to answer, thinking it might be a telemarketer,” she said. “But I did and was shocked. I cried. Over the last year I decided to double down on my work, and it was incredible to me to think that people noticed.”

The current class of the MacArthur Fellows Program also includes:

  • Hanif Abdurraqib, Columbus, Ohio, 38: Music critic, essayist and poet who is, according to the MacArthur folks, “forging a distinctive style of cultural and artistic criticism through the lens of popular music and autobiography.”
  • Daniel Alarcon, New York City, 44: Writer and radio producer “chronicling the social and cultural ties that connect Spanish-speaking communities across the Americas.”
  • Marcella Aslan, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 44: Physician-economist “investigating the role that legacies of discrimination and resulting mistrust play in perpetuating racial disparities in health.”
  • Trevor Bedford, Seattle, 39: Computational virologist “developing tools for real-time tracking of virus evolution and the spread of infectious diseases.”
  • Reginald Dwayne Betts, New Haven, Connecticut, 40: Poet and lawyer “promoting the humanity and rights of individuals who are or have been incarcerated.”
  • Jordan Casteel, New York City, 32: Painter “capturing everyday encounters with people of color in portraits that invite reciprocal recognition of our shared humanity.”
  • Don Mee Choi, Seattle, 59: Poet and translator “bearing witness to the effects of military violence and U.S. imperialism on the civilians of the Korean Peninsula.”
  • Ibrahim Cisse, Pasadena, California, 38: Cellular biophysicist “developing microscopy tools to investigate the subcellular processes underlying genetic regulation and misfunction.”
  • Nicole Fleetwood, New York City, 48: Art Historian and curator “elucidating the cultural and aesthetic significance of visual art created by incarcerated people.”
  • Cristina Ibarra, Pasadena, California, 49: Documentary filmmaker “crafting nuanced narratives about borderland communities, often from the perspective of Chicana and Latina youth.”
  • Ibram X. Kendi, Boston, 39: American historian and cultural critic “advancing conversations around anti-Black racism and possibilities for repair in a variety of initiatives and platforms.”
  • Daniel Lind-Ramos, Loiza, Puerto Rico, 68: Sculptor and painter “transforming everyday objects into assemblages that speak to the global connections inherent in Afro-Caribbean and diaspora legacies.”
  • Monica Munoz Martinez, Austin, Texas, 37: Public historian “bringing to light long-obscured cases of racial violence along the U.S.-Mexico border and their reverberations in the present.”
  • Desmond Meade, Orlando, Florida, 54: Civil rights activist “working to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens and remove barriers to their full participation in civic life.”
  • Joshua Miele, Berkeley, California, 52: Adaptive technology designer “developing devices to enable blind and visually impaired people to access everyday technologies and digital information.”
  • Michelle Monje, Palo Alto, California, 45: Neurologist and neuro oncologist “advancing understanding of pediatric brain cancers and the effects of cancer treatments with an eye toward improved therapies for patients.”
  • Safiya Noble, Los Angeles, 51: Digital media scholar “highlighting the ways digital technologies and internet architectures magnify racism, sexism, and harmful stereotypes.”
  • J. Taylor, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 44: Geomorphologist “deconstructing the physical processes that create landforms on Earth and other planetary bodies.”
  • Alex Rivera, Pasadena, California, 48: Filmmaker and media artist “exploring issues around migration to the United States and exploitative labor practices with an activist orientation.”
  • Lisa Schulte Moore, Ames, Iowa, 50: Landscape ecologist “implementing locally relevant approaches to improve soil and water quality and strengthen the resilience of row crop agriculture.”
  • Jesse Shapiro, Providence, Rhode Island, 41: Applied microeconomist “devising new frameworks of analysis to advance understanding of media bias, ideological polarization, and the efficacy of public policy interventions.”
  • Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Princeton, New Jersey, 49: Historian “analyzing the political and economic forces underlying racial inequality and the role of social movements in transforming society.”
  • Victor J. Torres, New York City, 44: Microbiologist “investigating how bacterial pathogens overcome the immune system and identifying potential therapies.”
  • Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Tallahassee, Florida, 70: Choreographer and dance entrepreneur “using the power of dance and artistic expression to elevate the voices of Black women and promote civic engagement.”


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