11/16/2018 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

The Better Shape of “Genius”

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When the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announces its annual list of MacArthur Fellows — often referred to as MacArthur “geniuses” — we’re always interested in the quality and breadth of the recipients’ work. Among this year’s 25 fellows are a biophysical engineer, a health economist, a violinist, a choreographer, a social justice advocate, a community organizer, a human rights lawyer, a painter, a poet, a novelist, a playwright, a journalist, a mathematician, and a media scholar.

Given that November is Native-American Month, we particularly wanted to highlight the work of one of this year’s recipients, poet and educator Natalie Diaz, the only Native American on this year’s list. Diaz is a fairly new voice on the American literary landscape, with only one book published date, but her poetry is astounding for both its literary quality and its portrayal of America through a Native-American lens. Her collection, “When My Brother Was an Aztec” (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), includes a series of heartbreaking poems reflecting on her brother’s drug addiction, drawing upon Mojave, Greek, and Christian symbols to describe his destructive behavior and its effect on their family. Other powerful poems in the collection include “American Arithmetic,” about police violence against Native Americans, and “The First Water Is the Body,” written in honor of the Standing Rock protesters and Diaz’s own Mojave people. Both poems engage directly with the oppression of Native Americans and the urgency of survival — and both offer a reminder of why the rest of us need to be better allies to the Indigenous community.

In “American Arithmetic,” Diaz writes:

We are Americans and we are less than 1 percent
of Americans. We do a better job of dying
by police than we do existing.

When we are dying, who should we call?
The police? Or our senator?
Please, someone, call my mother.

Diaz is a member of the Gila River Indian Tribe and teaches creative writing at Arizona State University. As the MacArthur Foundation puts it, she is also “a powerful new poetic voice” who broadens “the venues for and reach of Indigenous perspectives through her teaching, cross-disciplinary collaborations, and language preservation efforts.”

Diaz’s next book, “Postcolonial Love Poem,” will be published in 2020 by Graywolf Press.

Another 2018 MacArthur Fellow worth noting here is William J. Barber II. Barber is not a Native American, nor is he by profession an educator, but the work he does as a pastor at the Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and as a social activist connects well with any school that encourages community service, social engagement, and racial and environmental justice.

As the MacArthur Foundation notes, Barber “is effective at building unusually inclusive fusion coalitions that are multiracial and interfaith, reach across gender, age, and class lines, and are dedicated to addressing poverty, inequality, and systemic racism.” In particular, after being thwarted in his work by North Carolina lawmakers, Barber organized a series of “Moral Monday” rallies outside the state house in Raleigh to protest the lawmakers’ efforts to suppress voter registration, cut funding for public education and health care, and further disenfranchised poor white, black, First Nations, and LGBTQ communities. In 2017, Barber and colleagues launched a revival of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, originally started in the 1960s by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights activists. In awarding Barber the fellowship, the foundation particularly noted the way Barber and colleagues recast the campaign for the 21st century by conducting an audit of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the war economy in the United States since 1968 — and using this information to drive change.

While Barber does not work in schools, clearly he is teaching all of us how to keep bending the arc of history toward justice.

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