Upon first speaking into the microphone last night, one of the world’s best known actors had to step back from the podium so as not to overwhelm the audience with the deep, resounding voice so well known from films like The Great White Hope, Star Wars, and The Lion King.
“I am going to talk about racism, a subject that I rarely discuss,” said James Earl Jones to an audience of over a hundred as he began the third annual Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian Lecture at Memorial Hall last night.
Dr. S. Allen Counter, Director of the Harvard Foundation, presented Jones—who has appeared in nearly 130 movies—with the 2004 Harvard Foundation Humanitarian Award.
Jones’s lecture, entitled “The Color of Delusion,” centered on what Jones called the “undeniable truth” about racism—that it “is not only wrong because it is immoral—first and foremost it is wrong because it is mistaken,” he said.
Jones spent much of his talk discrediting theories of racial superiority which rely on pseudosciences like phrenology and eugenics, instead using genetics and evolutionary theory to argue that “there’s no evidence that shows a relation between physiology and mental or moral behavior.” Rather, he argued, “race is a social construct.”
In the rest of the lecture, Jones expounded on why that construct has proven so persistent throughout human history. “One answer,” Jones said, “lies in the dread of ‘otherness’ … it may be that this alien is our own creation, the imagined antithesis of our own kin.” While that “mythological” construct, as Jones described it, gave the basis for racism, the motivation for racism, he argued, came from the fact that “someone always profits from racism,” whether it be in the form of slavery or race-biased gerrymandering.
In addition to making the intellectual argument against racism, Jones also appealed to the audience’s emotions with stories of his encounters with racism as a teenager and as an officer in the army corps. “All I can do, is all any of us can do, is play the hand we’re dealt,” he said in closing.
In an interview after the lecture, Jones said that he wanted the message of the speech to be clear and simple.
“Sometimes ideas travel better if they are not too complex,” he said. “But they need to be complex enough to be compelling.”
Sabine Ronc ’07 said she thought that more people should have the opportunity to hear Jones speak.
“It would be wonderful if he would offer to teach anthropology at Harvard,” she said. “He would be a magnificent professor.”
Counter, the Foundation director, said that the lecture is named for Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes, one of the founders of the Foundation, because he has devoted much of his life to championing humanitarian principles. According to Counter, the Foundation annually invites someone with “a record of outstanding humanitarian efforts, philanthropic efforts or otherwise” to give the Gomes lecture and recieve the Award.
“We wanted to have highest quality of person, symbolic of that kind of philosophy—humanitarianism,” Counter said.
Once Jones—in Counter’s words a “noted philanthropist and humanitarian”—was suggested as a potential recipient, the choice was easy. Jones quickly and enthusiastically accepted, Counter said.
The program began with a gospel performance by the Harvard Kuumba singers, and included remarks from Gomes, Counter, the Foundation’s undergraduate interns, and, in a surprise appearance, Mayor of Cambridge Michael Sullivan, who presented Jones with a key to the city.
Past winners of the Humanitarian Award, originally established in 1984, include Bishop Desmond Tutu, John Hume, Elie Wiesel and Wilma Mankiller, the principle chief of the Cherokee nation.
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