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Narratives of obscure lives earn Emory grad prestigious award

When the telephone rang, Tiya Miles 95G was in the middle of washing her family’s breakfast dishes.

The caller was Daniel J. Socolow. After identifying himself as the director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, he asked Miles a rather strange question.

“Are you sitting down?”

Miles, who teaches both African American and Native American history at the University of Michigan, tightened her grip on the phone. “No,” she told him, “but I can be.”

Miles sank down on the wooden staircase that flanks the kitchen in her Ann Arbor home, listening to Socolow announce that she had just been awarded $500,000 in the form of a no-strings-attached “genius grant” from the famed John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Since these grants are awarded based on anonymous nominations rather than applications, the calls are famously unexpected.

“Really, I was just plain astonished,” says Miles of that unforgettable October morning. “At first, when he told me he was from the MacArthur Foundation, I assumed he wanted a recommendation from me for some other candidate they were considering.”

In that moment, after more than a decade of fiercely original research on the frontier between African American and Native American history, Miles joined the elite recipients of one of the most prestigious (and most lucrative) independent fellowship grants in the world.

Miles, 41 and a descendant of African slaves in rural Mississippi, was recognized as a scholar with a powerful gift for writing historical narratives that connect the Africa-linked culture of American slavery with the aboriginal culture of the Cherokee Nation.

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