Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author who grew up in a struggling West Baltimore neighborhood and who is known for his provocative looks at race relations in America, was named a 2015 MacArthur Foundation fellow on Tuesday.
Coates, who celebrates his 40th birthday Wednesday, is one of 24 recipients of what are popularly known as "genius grants." The awards, accompanied by a stipend of $625,000 to be paid out over five years, are given annually to people the Chicago-based foundation says show exceptional creativity and a significant record of accomplishment.
The citation praised Coates' "highly distinctive voice" and added: "Writing without shallow polemic and in a measured style, Coates addresses complex and challenging issues such as racial identity, systemic racial bias, and urban policing."
Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine who recently relocated his family to Paris, could not be reached Monday for comment.
But in a video interview included on the MacArthur Foundation website, Coates said:
"When I first got the call from the MacArthur Foundation, I was ecstatic. … We labor in the dark. If anybody even reads what I'm doing, that's a great day."
Scott Stossel, who has edited Coates since the author began writing for the Atlantic in 2007, noted that Coates came from a background "that would derail many a student" but persisted in his determination to get to the bottom of troubling social ills.
"He's always looking at the world as it presents itself to him and asking how it became that way," Stossel said. "He probes one level deeper than other people, and he wraps it in an account of his personal experiences that is eminently relatable."
Stossel said Coates has taken his inquisitiveness "to the heights of American culture, and become one of our leading public intellectuals."
2015 is shaping up as a stellar year for Coates. Not only did he release his second memoir, but "Between the World and Me" received a rare endorsement from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who said the author will "fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died."
For more than two months, the memoir has ranked first or second on the New York Times' list of best-selling hardcover nonfiction. Last week, "Between the World and Me" was selected as one of 10 finalists for the National Book Award for nonfiction.
Also last week, Marvel Comics announced that Coates will team up with visual artist Brian Stelfreeze to debut a new Black Panther comic book series featuring the monarch of the fictional African nation of Wakanda.
Though the comics represents a foray into popular entertainment, the scripts will reflect the author's preoccupations with corrupt systems of government and with the inherent difficulties of one-man rule, according to a Marvel news release.
Coates is the son of Vietnam War veteran and former Black Panther W. Paul Coates and Baltimore educator Cheryl Waters-Hassan. He described his childhood in detail in his first book, "The Beautiful Struggle," a memoir published in 2008.
"West Baltimore shaped me a great deal," he said on the video. "I saw this lack of physical safety, this inability to protect your body from violence from the forces that live outside your community as well as within your community. As a young person, I was obsessed with why that was, and that probably was the lion's share of my work."
Coates was out of work and about ready to start driving a cab when he was hired by The Atlantic.
In 2013, his essay, "Fear of a Black President," won a National Magazine Award — and he made an even bigger splash the following year. "The Case for Reparations" touched off a national debate by arguing that systematic policy decisions have resulted in the gap in income and education between African-Americans and whites. The essay won the George Polk Award for commentary.
"My job is to bear witness," Coates said in July when he appeared at Baltimore's Union Baptist Church for the national launch of his second book. "It's my job to speak as candidly and as directly as I can."
In addition to Coates, the other 23 MacArthur Fellows for 2015 include:
•Educator Patrick Awuah of Ghana;
•Columbia University environmental engineer Kartik Chandran;
•environmental health advocate Gary Cohen of Reston, VA;
•Harvard University sociologist Matthew Desmond;
•Cornell University chemist William Dichtel;
•New York choreographer Michelle Dorrance;
•New York painter Nicole Eisenman;
•Chicago photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier;
•City University of New York novelist, Ben Lerner;
•New York set designer Mimi Lien;
•New York playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda.
•University of Toronto classics scholar Dimitri Nakassis;
•University of Chicago biologist John Novembre;
•Stanford University computer scientist Christopher Ré;
•Princeton University historian Marina Rustow, who was previously the Charlotte Bloomberg associate professor in the humanities of history and part of the Islamic studies program at the Johns Hopkins University;
•Chicago immigrant advocate Juan Salgado;
•Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Beth Stevens;
•New York stem cell biologist Lorenz Studer;
•New Yorker Alex Truesdell, who designs furniture for disabled children;
•New York puppet artist Basil Twist;
•Vermont poet Ellen Bryant Voigt;
•Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Heidi Williams;
♦University of California, Berkeley chemist Peidong Yang.