Three African Americans are among the recipients of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowships for 2013 —an award that recognizes those who have demonstrated extraordinary achievement and potential in their creative pursuits.

Kyle Abraham, Tarell McCraney and Carrie Mae Weems were among the 24 individuals who will each receive the $625,000 monetary award, which they can use to invest in their artistic visions in any manner they choose.

“This year’s class of MacArthur Fellows is an extraordinary group of individuals who collectively reflect the breadth and depth of American creativity,” said Cecilia Conrad, vice president, MacArthur Fellows Program, in a statement. “They are artists, social innovators, scientists, and humanists who are working to improve the human condition and to preserve and sustain our natural and cultural heritage. Their stories should inspire each of us to consider our own potential to contribute our talents for the betterment of humankind.”

Abraham, McCraney and Weems, in particular, were celebrated for their unique expressions of the African-American experience.

A 36-year-old dancer and choreographer, Abraham is the founder of the New York-based company Kyle Abraham/ His works often reflect his memories from his upbringing in Pittsburgh, Pa., such as his father’s battle with Alzheimer’s, even as they treat broader issues like gang and police violence that seem to resonate with broad audiences.

Through his singular choreographic style—a hybrid of traditional and “vernacular” dances— Abraham paints portraits of urban life using multimedia, spoken word and eclectic music scores – music is often the inspiration for his work – as the paintbrushes.

“My work is like a post-modern gumbo, because I always say that I mix so many dance styles up together and kind of serve up in a pot in a good way,” said the choreographer in a videotaped interview posted on the foundation’s web site.

Abraham said he remains very emotional about receiving the award. “When I got the call from the MacArthur Foundation I started laughing, and then the laughing turned to crying…it is so overwhelming,” he said, and later added, “I can make art, which is what I wanted to spend my life doing. And I can actually fraction the money in a way that I know I can live and make work, and hopefully good work, for a number of years.”

As for McCraney, his creativity is wielded through the power of the pen. The 32-year-old playwright is known for re-imagining classic works and creating more contemporary pieces that are imbued with rich expressions of the African-American experience.

McCraney, who is based in Chicago, was also recognized for his commitment to introducing theatre to elementary and secondary school students, particularly in underserved communities in his hometown of Miami.

“When I received the call about this fellowship, I put the phone down for a long period of time just so I could pick it up again and make sure they were there,” he said in a video interview. “I’m extraordinarily honored and that feeling is rising every day.”

And lastly, Weems is a veteran photographer and video artist, whose work provides insight into the complex legacy of African American identity, class, and culture in the United States.

Through her evocative images, Weems tries to jolt society into an awareness of the harsh realities of the of race, class, and gender discrimination that exist.

As a social activist, Weems also uses her talent to help others. She has contributed to public art campaigns meant to stop gun violence and to programs meant to train youth through visual art in Syracuse, N.Y.

The 60-year-old said when she got the phone call telling her about the MacArthur fellowship, she put her head down and cried.

“Not me! Can’t be me. Gotta be a mistake,” a teary-eyed Weems said of her reaction. “I’ll continue to work very hard. And maybe the difference would be that I have a little bit more resources in order to do that work…., that I won’t have to fight so hard for every single thing,” she said.

To learn more about this year’s MacArthur Fellows, click here.


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO