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Five African Americans named ‘genius’ grant winners by MacArthur Foundation

In their own way, each is working toward increasing understanding of black histories and communities

10:02 AMThe MacArthur Foundation announced its “genius” grant winners Sept. 25. Formally known as MacArthur Fellows, this year’s recipients are artists, writers, scientists and academics who have demonstrated “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Out of the 26 fellows in the 2019 class, five are African American:

  • Emmanuel Pratt, 42, is an urban designer who lives and works in Chicago. He uses a resident-driven approach to community development that incorporates agriculture, education and design. His goal is to turn neglected urban neighborhoods into places of growth and vitality.
  • Saidiya Hartman, 58, works as a literary scholar and cultural historian at Columbia University. She studies the way slavery impacts modern American life and works to document the lives of individuals who were systemically left out of historical archives.
  • Walter Hood, 61, is an Oakland-based landscape and public artist at the University of California, Berkeley. He infuses black history, ecological sustainability and social justice into his work, which includes Nauck Town Square in Arlington County, Virginia, and the upcoming International African American Museum (2020) in Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Cameron Rowland, 30, lives in Queens, New York. His work highlights the institutions, systems and policies that contribute to systemic racism and economic inequality. Rowland focuses on the display of objects and documents that underscore the legacies of racial capitalism and forms of exploitation that are part of many aspects of daily life.
  • Kelly Lytle Hernandez, 45, is based in Los Angeles. The historian works at the University of California, where she teaches African American studies. Her book, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol, has been called the “first significant academic history” of the agency. Her work connects racialized incarceration and immigrant detention practices with the U.S. labor system.

The work of each of these fellows, though in different fields, is geared toward increasing understanding of black histories and communities. MacArthur Fellows receive $625,000 over five years. This award is considered “no strings attached.” They may use the money to advance their current work, start a new project or change the direction of their careers.

MacArthur Foundation president John Palfrey said in a statement: “From addressing the consequences of climate change to furthering our understanding of human behavior to fusing forms of artistic expression, this year’s 26 extraordinary MacArthur Fellows demonstrate the power of individual creativity to reframe old problems, spur reflection, create new knowledge, and better the world for everyone. They give us reason for hope and they inspire us all to follow our own creative instincts.”

The foundation, which John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur established in 1970, has dispersed nearly $7 billion in the United States and 40 countries around the world. The grants are awarded annually to 20 to 30 people.

More than 1,000 people have received this prestigious award since 1981. Previous recipients included poets Natalie Diaz and Claudia Rankine, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.

‘Ambassador’ Stephen A. Smith honored during HBCU Week

First Take, Magic Johnson and bands are part of celebration at Delaware State

2:44 PMFirst Take co-host Stephen A. Smith has never been shy about representing and giving back to Winston-Salem State University. It was at this very historically black university in North Carolina where Smith learned the core principles and values he continues to hold dear today. And now, the university is showing appreciation for its famous alumnus with a student-athlete scholarship in his honor.

Winston-Salem State chancellor Elwood Robinson made the announcement during the second hour of First Take, which was broadcast live from the 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware, on the last day of HBCU Week.

“We wanted to say how much we appreciate what you do for HBCUs,” Robinson said. “But we also appreciate what you do from Winston-Salem State University. Because of your generosity, because of your giving, students get a first-class education. Because of you, the Red Sea of Sound is here today. And because of you and your generosity, Money magazine said in 2019 that Winston-Salem State University was the No. 1 public HBCU in the country for best value, and that is because of folks like you.”

Smith, who graduated from the university in 1991, accepted the honor with pride, and even cracked jokes about himself while looking at a poster-size photo from his time as a member of the Winston-Salem State Rams men’s basketball team.

It was important for Smith, an ambassador for HBCU Week, to end the week on a positive note. HBCU Week, which was started three years ago in Wilmington, Delaware, featured a weeklong series of events and celebrations, all while promoting the importance of historically black colleges and universities.

“I’m an ambassador for HBCU Week,” Smith said. “I’m a graduate of Winston-Salem State University. … You’ve got a lot of folks that come from HBCUs, a lot of folks that want to come to HBCUs, a lot of folks that may not know about HBCUs. And obviously we’re here to bring attention to HBCUs, particularly to help those especially from impoverished backgrounds to let them know they can have an opportunity to go to college and get a higher education as well.”

The show opened with a grand entrance by Winston-Salem State’s Red Sea of Sound, a marching band that now stands at No. 1 in the Top 10 Division II Rankings of the ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings. NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson joined the show and expressed his feelings about why HBCUs are so important.

“God is so good,” Johnson said. “When you think about Stephen A. going to a historically black college, then being the superstar and celebrity that he is, to come back home and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be the ambassador for historically black colleges.’ Only God can have his hand on Stephen A. and all these tremendous students here. … This is what it’s all about. The education that you can get at a historically black college is second to none, and life experiences you get are second to none.”

Before diving into the scheduled basketball segment, Johnson left the audience with words that will hopefully resonate with the students in attendance.

“You may grow up poor, but you don’t have to have poor dreams,” Johnson said. “I grew up poor, but I didn’t have poor dreams. So I was dreaming that I was going to be a businessman one day, and I applied myself and I worked my butt off to get there. And here I am.”

Both the Red Sea of Sound and Delaware State University’s band, The Approaching Storm, took turns leading the show in and out of commercial breaks while simultaneously entertaining the crowd behind the scenes. Later in the show, Smith and co-hosts Max Kellerman and Molly Qerim were joined by former NFL defensive back Troy Vincent, who is currently the league’s executive vice president of football operations.

Stephen A. Smith (left) is surprised on the set of First Take in Wilmington, Delaware, with a scholarship named in his honor at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina.

Photo by Mikey Reeves / ESPN Images

Vincent also stressed the importance of HBCUs and how NFL players who attended HBCUs are some of the ones who’ve made the biggest impact on the game.

“It seems like the narrative of student-athletes or students from historically black colleges have been forgotten,” Vincent said. “When we think about our HBCUs, we really think about black excellence. It’s always been that way historically through time, and at the National Football League level we felt like the greatest players who have ever played the game at the professional football level have come from historically black colleges. But beyond the playing field, doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists — they’re there as well on those campuses.”

The program also highlighted legends in sports and entertainment who graduated from or attended HBCUs before ending by surprising Smith with the scholarship in his honor. Those featured included Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Jerry Rice, Michael Strahan, Steve McNair and Wilma Rudolph.