Kelly Lytle Hernández is one of over two dozen thinkers and creators to receive this year’s $625,000 MacArthur Genius Fellowship, a prize and honor awarded over the course of five years for a recipient to use at their own disposal. Lytle Hernández is a professor of African American Studies and History at the University of California, Los Angeles.
For Lytle Hernández, the prize money will allow her the freedom to further explore her intersectional work on race, mass incarceration, and the borderlands. “I hope the fellowship provides an even larger umbrella for myself and other scholars who are doing this kind of movement-driven scholarship to have more flexibility, to have more — you almost want to say credentials,” she told the New York Times.
Lytle Hernández herself grew up in the borderlands of San Diego in the 1980s, a witness to and victim of race-based policing during a national era of law and order and the War on Drugs. “As a Black girl in the borderlands … I had my fair share of locker sweeps at school and was registered as a ‘gang member’ by the local police,” she explained in an interview with the African American Intellectual History Society. “But, in the borderlands, I also observed how the U.S. Border Patrol patrolled our neighborhoods and transit stations, questioning just about anyone who looked poor and Mexican.” Her most recent book “City of Inmates” takes a look at the historical origins of this system of targeted incarceration in Los Angeles, while her first book, Migra!: A History of the US Border Patrol, delves into the immigration policies that were reinterpreted and weaponized over time to carry out anti-Mexican goals.
Lytle Hernández spoke to NPR this week to explain the focus of her research and teachings, much of which requires her to look back at the records on which our historical narratives are built and find sources that have been overlooked or buried because of how they compete with the narratives of people in power today. “My work and the work of many others is very much invested in telling the stories of communities that have been marginalized, that have been caged up, that have been locked out, that have been enslaved, and bringing our story, and our experience, to the center of the American narrative and helping us to change the American future with those stories.”