Updated October 7, 2020 - 8:15 am
Las Vegas-born poet and cultural theorist Fred Moten has been named a 2020 MacArthur Foundation fellow and recipient of its signature genius grant.
Moten, 58, is a professor in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University, where he teaches courses and conducts research in Black studies, performance studies, poetics and critical theory.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the fellowships Tuesday. Each of this year’s 21 fellows will receive $625,000 over five years to spend as they please. The Chicago-based foundation has awarded the genius grants every year since 1981 to help further the pursuits of people with outstanding talent.
The foundation cites Moten for “creating new conceptual spaces to accommodate emerging forms of Black aesthetics, cultural production and social life.” The fellows in his company include an activist who speaks out about inadequate waste and water sanitation in rural America, an author of young adult and children’s literature that reflects the world’s diversity, and a neuroscientist who uses mathematics to study the brain’s development.
Moten said Tuesday that since news of this year’s honorees was released “basically, I’ve just been texting and emailing all day. A lot of friends have been calling and sending me beautiful texts.”
Moten was born in Las Vegas — right in Sunrise Hospital, he says — and grew up here until moving at 14 to Pittsburgh with his mother, who entered graduate school there. After a move to Arkansas after her graduation, he went to Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, then the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his doctorate.
Though he lived in Las Vegas for just 14 years, “Las Vegas definitely had an influence on me,” Moten said. He had a large extended family here and grew up in “a rich social and cultural world on the Westside.
“It was an influence on me and everything I do now. There were clubs and restaurants and music on Jackson Street. One of my mom’s best friends ran the gambling at the Town Tavern on Jackson Street.
“It was kind of a tight-knit, rich community that was a great place for me, growing up.”
Today, Moten studies Black art and culture, “and some of that study leads to writing and some of that writing is in prose and criticism and some of that writing is in poetry. But it all comes from studying the richness of Black art and Black music and Black social life, which I began to learn about growing up in Las Vegas.”
Moten said the award will allow him to do “some different kind of work I wouldn’t have a chance to do, and also extend a lot of collaborative projects I’ve been trying to work on with friends.”
Moten said he still returns to Las Vegas to visit friends and family members.
“I’ll never not be coming to Vegas whenever I can,” he said. “Plus, I’m still, as all of my family can tell you, a rabid Runnin’ Rebels fan.”