Tressie McMillan Cottom was at home when she received the call from the MacArthur Foundation. 

“They asked, ‘Are you alone? Do you have somewhere to sit safely?’, which suggests that they’re used to people passing out,” McMillan Cottom told the INDY

The MacArthur fellowship—also often informally known as a “Genius Grant’—is awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. This year’s 21 luminaries come from diverse fields: the speculative science fiction writer N. K. Jemisin is one of the awardees, as is the poet and former Duke professor Fred Moten.

Other fellows include a property law scholar, experimental physicist, econometrician, and a playwright. The no-strings-attached $625,000 grant is distributed over five years. 

McMillan Cottom, 43, is a graduate of N.C. Central University. She received her doctorate from Emory University and was hired as an associate professor at UNC’s School of Library and Information Science in July. She is also a senior faculty researcher at UNC’s Center for Information, Technology and Public Life.

Her dissertation research at Emory led to the nationally acclaimed 2017 book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, which was followed by the collection Thick: And Other Essays in 2019. 

“I’m thrilled at the freedom that the MacArthur provides you,” McMillan Cottom says. “It is not the kind of freedom that women intellectuals get very often. You know the old adage from Virginia Woolf that what a woman really needs to develop herself is ‘a room of one’s own’? In a very real way, what the MacArthur Fellowship gives all scholars—but especially scholars who do not have the time to develop their gifts or potential—is a ‘room of one’s own.'” 

An announcement from the MacArthur Foundation praised the way that Cottom McMillan’s complex work melds “analytical insights and personal experiences in a frank, accessible style on a range of issues at the intersections of race, gender and education.” 

“I’m thrilled at what that will mean, not just for my work, but what my freedom and development will mean for my students, the people I work with and mentor, and what is possible now that we have this base of support and recognition,” McMillan Cottom added. 

“In the midst of civil unrest, a global pandemic, natural disasters, and conflagrations, this group of 21 exceptionally creative individuals offers a moment for celebration,” MacArthur Fellows managing director Cecilia Conrad said in a statement. “They are asking critical questions, developing innovative technologies and public policies, enriching our understanding of the human condition, and producing works of art that provoke and inspire us.”

Fellows are allowed to share the embargoed news with one person; McMillan Cottom chose to tell her mother, Vivian McMillan, who has—thanks to the colorful stories McMillan Cottom ofter shares about her on Twitter—achieved minor celebrity status. 

“I have given my mother the greatest gift possible,” McMillan Cottom says, “And that is something to brag about at church.” 

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