A packed Sanders Theatre rose in standing ovation again and again Tuesday afternoon to honor the eight recipients of this year’s W. E. B. Du Bois Medals.
The recipients—U.S. Congressman John L. Lewis, writer and activist Maya Angelou, architect David Adjaye, artist and activist Harry Belafonte, "12 Years a Slave" filmmaker Steve McQueen, television producer Shonda Rhimes, Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein, and Oprah Winfrey—were recognized for their contributions to African American culture and the “life of the mind.”
The Du Bois Medal, first presented in 2000, is the highest honor awarded by Harvard in the field of African and African American studies.
The event opened with a performance of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College. Members of the audience rose during the performance, while some, including Winfrey, sang along.
Winfrey accepted the medal on behalf of her late friend and mentor, Maya Angelou. Angelou, known for her writing and activism, died in May.
“Her greatest lessons were to teach us all how we are more alike than we are different,” Winfrey said.
Shonda Rhimes rose to accept her medal, after an introduction by Lawrence D. Bobo, chair of the African and African American Studies Department, as audience members shouted “We love you Shonda!”
After responding that she loved them too, Rhimes commented on the praise given to her for her realistic representations of diversity on primetime television shows such as "Grey’s Anatomy," "Scandal," and "How to Get Away With Murder."
“I wish it wasn’t so remarkable that I thought that television should look like the rest of the world,” she said.
University Professor William Julius Wilson honored filmmaker Steve McQueen, saying that McQueen has produced “a body of work that allows us to look at and change our perspective,” including "12 Years A Slave" and Hunger. Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. referred to the former movie as “one of the most vivid and authentic portrayals of slavery ever captured in a feature film.”
After an introduction by Diane Paulus '88, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, Weinstein accepted his award, joking that he can now tell his mother that he got an award at Harvard.
Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78 thanked Representative John L. Lewis “for the moral leadership he has offered time and time again.” Lewis is known for his role as the second African American to represent Georgia in Congress since Reconstruction and for his leadership during the civil rights movement.
“When I was growing up in rural Alabama, I saw signs that said ‘white men, colored men, white women, colored women’ and I didn’t like that,” Lewis said. “And my parents told me whenever I asked a question, ‘That’s the way it is, don’t get in their way, don’t get in trouble.’ And I got in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”