Penningroth received a B.A. (1993) from Yale University and an M.A. (1996) and a Ph.D. (2000) from Johns Hopkins University. He was affiliated with the University of Virginia (1999–2002) prior to his appointment as associate professor in the Department of History at Northwestern University in 2003. Since 2007, he has also been an American Bar Foundation research professor. Northwestern University Professor Dylan C. Penningroth and writer Dinaw Mengestu are among this year’s recipients of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly known as the “genius grant.” The MacArthur Fellowship is a “no strings attached” award bestowed annually to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. Penningroth is a historian who examines shifting concepts of property ownership and kinship in order to shed light on long-obscured aspects of African-American life under slavery and in the half-century following slavery’s abolition. In his book The Claims of Kinfolk (2003), he elucidates the informal customs that slaves in the antebellum South used to recognize ownership of property, even while they were themselves considered by law to be property at the time. He also traces the interactions of these extra-legal, vernacular customs with the formal realm of law after emancipation by teasing stories of claims and disputes from such sources as the Freedman’s Bureau and Southern Claims Commission records compiled by the federal government after the Civil War.
Dinaw Mengestu’s novels and nonfiction pieces open a window into the little-explored world of the African diaspora in America. A native of Ethiopia who came to the United States with his family at the age of two, Mengestu composes tales distilled from the experience of immigrants whose memories are permanently seared by escape from violence in their homelands. His debut novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2008), is a poignant chronicle of exile that eschews sentimentality by refusing to allow its narrator—a struggling Ethiopian refugee in a gentrifying neighborhood of Washington, DC—to find an easy form of solace or redemption. In this rich and multidimensional tale, Mengestu paints a powerful portrait of lives uprooted and remade in the wake of political violence as well as the fractures and tensions that characterize rapidly changing areas of contemporary urban America. He also explores the transformation of the immigrant experience through the increasing flow of information and people between their adopted homes and their countries of origin in How to Read the Air (2010).
In addition to his fiction writing, Mengestu is also a talented freelance journalist, recently making forays into war-torn regions of sub-Saharan Africa to write about life in Darfur, northern Uganda, and eastern Congo near the border with Rwanda. Mengestu’s depictions of the loss of culture, community, and landscape endured by immigrants in America are broadening the thematic concerns and voices encompassed by the American novel.
Dinaw Mengestu received a B.A. (2000) from Georgetown University and an M.F.A. (2005) from Columbia University. His journalism and fiction have appeared in such publications as Harper’s, Granta, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal.
article by Lori Lakin Hutcherson