DuBois Award Honors Cultural Critic

Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, the oldest research center in the country dedicated to African and African American studies, has seen its fair share of greats. And last Friday, the center added writer and critic Albert Murray to its list, awarding him its highest honor, the Du Bois Medal.

Murray is a 90-year-old novelist and poet widely known for his commentary on jazz and American culture. The center awards the medal each year for “contributions to African or African American studies,” according to Du Bois Institute Manager of Events and Publications Dell M. Hamilton.

Fletcher University Professor Henry L. Gates, Jr., the director of the institute, said Murray is “vital and central to our intellectual and artistic tradition.”

“This is a man who made the claim—galling to some and glorious to others—that ‘American’ means ‘black’ and not ‘white,’ as was, and still is, the prevailing cultural presumption on which our nation’s artistic life is built,” Gates said in a written citation about the medal.

Murray is the author of several works of cultural criticism, three autobiographical novels, and a poetry collection.

“Mr. Murray is one of the great cultural critics of his generation in the U.S.,” Gates said in an interview. “His books have defined the relationship between African American and American culture for the past 50 years.”

Born in Alabama, Murray received a bachelor’s degree from Tuskegee University and a master’s from NYU. He was also a member of the Air Force for nearly 20 years.

Murray has spent most of his life in New York where, according to Gates, “he has presided over black cultural life for several decades.”

The Du Bois Medal, given in recognition for “contributions to the arts, culture, and the life of the mind,” is usually presented to an individual once a year, although the Institute sometimes awards it to groups of people. In 2005, the Medal was given to Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, Toni Morrison, and Derek Walcott upon their visit to Harvard.

“When it is awarded depends on the time of the person’s work,” Hamilton said. “It’s a result of marking a person’s place in time and honoring their contributions.”

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