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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, actor and rapper LL Cool J, and six others received the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal—Harvard’s highest honor in the field of African and African American Studies—before a zealous crowd in Sanders Theatre Wednesday afternoon.
Harvard has presented the medals annually since 2000 to individuals “in recognition of their contributions to African American culture and the life of the mind,” according to the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research’s website.
In addition to DuVernay and LL Cool J, this year’s recipients included Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, Microsoft Board Chair John Thompson, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, visual artist Kara Walker, and philanthropist Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer ’89, who was honored posthumously.
After receiving the medal, LL Cool J read a post from his Instagram account that honored victims of Sunday’s shooting in Las Vegas, which killed 59 people and wounded hundreds more. He encouraged audience members to remain resilient in the face of tragedy.
“Our intestinal fortitude is being tried. But, world, we have been here before,” LL Cool J said. “This experiment called humanity can and will work if we stay grounded in faith, tempered by reason and bolstered by action. We must resist the temptation to live in fear.”
The rapper ended his acceptance speech on a hopeful note, and said he was “giving the whole world a hug.”
“Stay strong. Fear not. Stay faith filled. Better days are coming,” he added.
DuVernay, the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe, said she was humbled to receive the award given her modest upbringing.
“I’m experiencing a feeling today, a feeling of joy...it’s a unique kind of joy that you experience when you find yourself somewhere entirely unexpected,” she said. “There was no way that I ever envisioned that would have me standing here at Harvard, a girl from Compton who never went to film school.”
Others accepted the Du Bois medal with lighthearted remarks.
“It’s a real medal,” Kara Walker, the evening’s first honoree, joked, to chuckles from the audience. “Thank you very much—it’s a true honor.”
University President Drew G. Faust, Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church Jonathan L. Walton, and Hutchins Center Director Henry Louis Gates, Jr. presented the awards on Wednesday.
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