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 Kendi, who wrote the bestselling 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?
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.
"My first words were 'Are you serious?' " he recalled. Indeed, they were.
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 2 million copies and established him as one of the country's leading commentators on race since the George Floyd protests last year.
The MacArthur Fellowship 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.
Most of the 2021 fellows, while esteemed in their fields, have yet to become household names.
There are artists and writers like poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts; critic, essayist and poet Hanif Abdurraqib; novelist and radio producer Daniel Alarcon; and writer and curator Nicole R. Fleetwood, whose book "Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration" won the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism.
The grant will help the "Marking Time" project expand its footprint on tour, she added, noting that she had recently helped install the exhibition in Birmingham, Ala.
Other fellows in this year's class include Trevor Bedford, a virologist who is developing real-time tools for tracking virus evolution; Marcella Alsan, a physician and economist who studies how the legacies of discrimination perpetuate health inequalities; and Desmond Meade, a civil rights activist who works to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people.
Few honors carry the prestige — and mystique — of the MacArthurs. Potential fellows cannot apply but are suggested by a network of hundreds of anonymous nominators from across the country and narrowed down by a committee of about a dozen people, whose names are not released.
There is no theme to any given class, 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.