At the age of 16, Reginald Dwayne Betts was arrested for armed carjacking. He was sentenced to prison—where an unknown person slid a copy of Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets under his cell door.
It was this book that sparked a love for poetry and led to his lifelong interest in literature.
“I spent nine years, writing every day, reading every day, imagining that words would give me the freedom to sort of understand what got me in prison,” Betts said. “And when you’re trapped in the cell—literally— words are your only lifeline. And I committed myself to using them to find some semblance of hope.”
Now an award-winning author, poet, and lawyer, Betts—a 2021 Wesleyan Honorary Doctorate of Letters recipient—is the latest Wes alumnus to receive the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Colloquially referred to as a “genius” grant, the fellowship is awarded annually to 25 talented individuals “who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” The honor comes with a $625,000 unrestricted award.
He joins more than 19 Wesleyan alumni and former faculty— including Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02; Majora Carter ’88; Saidiya Hartman ’84, Hon. ’19; John Ashbery; and Tyshawn Sorey, MA ’11— as a MacArthur Fellow.
Betts is currently working to promote the humanity and rights of individuals who are or have been incarcerated. He recently partnered with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to found the nonprofit Freedom Reads project where more than 1,000 prisons across the country are gifted with books for incarcerated individuals.
“I build libraries in prisons because I believe people serving time deserve access to the books that give us dignity,” Betts said in his MacArthur Fellowship bio.
During Betts’ Commencement Address to Wesleyan’s Class of 2021, he commended the eight graduating students who were recently or still incarcerated at the Cheshire Correctional Institution. They had obtained their BA degrees through Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education Program.
“For the first time in history, really, the students who are graduating understand something of what these men in prison turned baccalaureates have experienced. Chasing freedom through education, all while wondering if they’d ever walk outside and feel safe again,” Betts said during his address. “Today, these men, some of whom have known more years in prison than free, should know that their fellow graduates understand a little bit of what it meant for them to study inside.”
Choreographer and dance entrepreneur Jawole Willa Jo Zollar joins Betts as a 2021 MacArthur Fellow with a Wesleyan connection.
Zollar, who worked as a visiting instructor of dance in 2013-14, is the founder and artistic director of Urban Bush Women. The performing arts organization is one of Wesleyan’s Embodying Antiracism Initiative partners, which uses the power of dance and artistic expression to celebrate the voices of Black women and promote civic engagement and community organizing.
“Urban Bush Women is looking at the cultural expression of the African Diaspora and looking at the struggle, growth, and transformation of the human spirit,” Zollar said in her MacArthur bio.
View other Wesleyan MacArthur Award Winners online here.