Two Black women whose work was influenced by their time in Chicago are among this year’s MacArthur Fellows.
Historian and author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Jacqueline Stewart, who studies the history of cinema, both focus their work on the Black experience and uplifting Black voices. They are among 25 recipients of the no-strings-attached $625,000 fellowships, unofficially dubbed the “genius grants,” announced Tuesday.
Taylor has lived in Chicago for more than a decade. Stewart was born and raised in Hyde Park. Both said their experiences with Chicago’s Black neighborhoods played a pivotal role in their intellectual development.
“Chicago is uniquely racist,” said Taylor, who researches why racism persists in the United States.
“I came to the city in a U-Haul and the first thing that struck me was the segregation. You are driving for miles where it is wall-to-wall Black people, and you don’t see any white people until crossing through the Loop or going north on Lake Shore Drive,” said Taylor, who graduated from Northeastern Illinois University in 2007 and holds a master’s degree and a doctorate from Northwestern. “That’s how you know that government was involved, that banks were involved, that real estate was involved, because you could not achieve that degree of racial isolation just from the kind of personal mores of white or Black people.”
Taylor moved to Chicago from New York City to join activist movements focused on ending the death penalty and exonerating Black men on Illinois’ death row. She also organized for Chicago tenants’ rights in the wake of the 2008 housing crisis. Taylor is the author of “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership,” a book she says was influenced by her time living in Chicago and noticing the city’s stark segregation. She now lives in Philadelphia and teaches history at Princeton University.
Stewart, a professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago, also says her work on the history of African American filmmaking was influenced by her upbringing.
“Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I always felt very immersed in a dynamic, historically rich Black community,” Stewart said. “A lot of my research has looked at the great migration of African Americans from the South to Chicago, and Chicago was significant to me because it was seen as this site of freedom and possibility. Even when people got here, they found that there were still struggles and they developed ways to continue to achieve all of their aspirations.”
Stewart directs the South Side Home Movie Project, which preserves amateur films shot by Chicago residents, and serves as chief artistic and programming officer at The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, set to open Thursday.
The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has granted billions of dollars to “creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks” since its founding in 1970. Fellowships are awarded to “extraordinarily talented individuals” each year, and winners are free to use the grant however they choose.
You can’t apply for a MacArthur Fellowship. Instead, recipients are selected by a team of anonymous nominators. The process is confidential, and recipients usually don’t know they’ve been picked until the congratulatory phone call.
After Stewart got that call, while waiting for an Uber with her son and ex-husband, she put her head down and started crying.
“My ex-husband turned to my son and said, ‘Your mom’s a MacArthur genius,’” Stewart said. “He had been saying for years, ‘Oh, you know you’re gonna get that.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ I never really thought that was going to happen. I have to admit, he was right.”
Taylor said she had already been growing wary of spam calls from 773 phone numbers when she got the call. She said she was taken aback when the unknown voice on the other end of the phone wasn’t asking about her car’s extended warranty, but instead was awarding her with one of the most prestigious honors in academia.
“It feels so random and unexpected,” Taylor said. “If you’re an academic you obviously know what the MacArthur Foundation is, but I don’t think anyone ever expects to get one of these things. It’s shocking and it’s surprising and it doesn’t make sense.”
Taylor will put some of her grant toward a book she’s writing that will try to “understand what happened to the promise of civil rights.” And some will go for a “multimedia exploration” she is working on with former New York Times editor Jennifer Parker about racial discrimination and the ways it is challenged.
“I feel grateful and appreciative that whomever was involved in that process recognized the value in the work that I do,” Taylor said. “That this is not just activism and it’s not just advocacy, but that my work has made an important intellectual contribution.”
The rest of the 2021 MacArthur Fellows are:
- Hanif Abdurraqib, Columbus, Ohio; music critic, essayist, poet
- Daniel Alarcón, New York, N.Y.; writer, radio producer
- Marcella Alsan, Cambridge, Mass.; physician, economist
- Trevor Bedford, Seattle; computational virologist
- Reginald Dwayne Betts, New Haven, Conn.; poet, lawyer
- Jordan Casteel, New York, N.Y.; painter
- Don Mee Choi, Seattle; poet, translator
- Ibrahim Cissé, Pasadena, Calif.; cellular biophysicist
- Nicole Fleetwood, New York, N.Y.; art historian and curator
- Cristina Ibarra, Pasadena, Calif.; documentary filmmaker
- Ibram X. Kendi, Boston; American historian and cultural critic
- Daniel Lind-Ramos, Loíza, Puerto Rico; sculptor, painter
- Monica Muñoz Martinez, Austin, Texas; public historian
- Desmond Meade, Orlando, Fla.; civil rights activist
- Joshua Miele, Berkeley, Calif.; adaptive technology designer
- Michelle Monje, Palo Alto, Calif.; neurologist and neuro-oncologist
- Safiya Noble, Los Angeles; digital media scholar
- J. Taylor Perron, Cambridge, Mass.; geomorphologist
- Alex Rivera, Pasadena, Calif.; filmmaker and media artist
- Lisa Schulte Moore, Ames, Iowa; landscape ecologist
- Jesse Shapiro, Providence, R.I.; applied microeconomist
- Victor J. Torres, New York, N.Y.; microbiologist
- Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Tallahassee, Fla.; choreographer and dance entrepreneur