Three African Americans are among the 24 recipients of the 2015 MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Awards,” which honor people who demonstrate “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits.”
“These 24 delightfully diverse MacArthur Fellows are shedding light and making progress on critical issues, pushing the boundaries of their fields, and improving our world in imaginative, unexpected ways,” said MacArthur President Julia Stasch in a statement. “Their work, their commitment, and their creativity inspire us all.”
The annual awards includes a $625,000 stipend, distributed over the next five years, which recipients can use at their discretion. The aim, according to the Foundation’s website, is to “encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations” without the burden of financial concerns.
The three Black fellows have ties to the academic world.
Patrick Awuah, 50, is an educator and entrepreneur who has forged a new vision for higher education in Ghana. A graduate of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and of the University of California, Berkeley, Awuah worked as a software engineer for Microsoft before returning to Ghana to establish Ashesi University. The Ghana native, who is a member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations and a fellow of the African Leadership Initiative of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, said he returned to his home country for a simple reason.
“I became a parent. And being the father of someone who was a member of a new generation of Africans, I felt that I needed to return and be a contributor to Africa’s rise for the sake of my children [and] for the sake of my children’s children,” he said in a YouTube video feature.
The answer to that lay in grooming a new generation of ethical, service-minded leaders to combat the pervasive corruption at the root of many problems across Africa, Awuah said. With Ashesi University, Awuah eschewed the rote learning common in Ghana’s educational system created a core curriculum grounded in liberal arts and ethical principles and one that stresses critical thinking and problem solving.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a native of Baltimore and the son of a former Black Panther, is a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. He also has served as a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Management. The prolific blogger and contributor to several publications has become a distinctive and compelling voice in modern discussions of race, using both personal experience and historical scholarship to unpack complex and challenging issues such as racial identity, systemic racial bias, and urban policing.
“I was motivated to pursue a career as a journalist because I was always an inquisitive child. I was always one to ask questions. Journalism was a career in which I got to pick the questions I wanted to ask and then somebody paid me for asking them,” the 39-year-old said in a YouTube video posted on MacArthur Foundation’s website.
For example, in a long-form print essay in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations” (2014), Coates argues for the remuneration of African Americans after centuries of them being deprived of the economic advantages enjoyed by other groups.
The third African-American 2015 MacArthur Fellow is LaToya Ruby Frazier, an assistant professor in the Department of Photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The photographer and video artist used visual autobiographies to capture the economic despair in her hometown of Braddock, Pa., a once-thriving steel town turned into a crumbling wasteland.
“When I realized I didn’t have any economic power, the only thing I knew to rely on was to document what was happening,” she said. “For the past 12 years, I’ve made portraits, still life, landscapes and performances using photography and video, documenting my hometown of Braddock, Pa. I make work that deals with the intersection of the steel industry, environmental pollution and the health care crisis.”
Frazier, 33, holds a bachelor’s degree from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and a master’s from Syracuse University. Her first book, The Notion of Family, was published in 2014.