Oscar-nominated actor Queen Latifah, Pulitzer Prize winning-poet Rita Dove, and five others received the annual W. E. B. Du Bois Medal before a packed crowd in Sanders Theatre Tuesday afternoon.
The medal is Harvard’s highest honor awarded to those who have made contributions to African and African American history and culture.
In addition to Latifah and Dove, this year’s recipients include co-founder of Black Entertainment Television Sheila C. Johnson; Andrew W. Mellon Foundation president Elizabeth Alexander; artist Kerry James Marshall; entrepreneur and philanthropist Robert F. Smith; and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Lonnie G. Bunch III.
The Kuumba Singers of Harvard College opened the ceremony with a performance of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which is widely considered "The Black National Anthem.”
At the beginning of the event, Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research praised the seven medalists as “paragons of black excellence.”
“We are here this afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, celebrating not only achievement but also opportunity,” Gates said. “Our medalists, stars in the fields of art, literature, music, business, and even a queen, are people who made the most of their opportunities.”
Throughout the night, the award recipients took turns delivering acceptance speeches, following introductions made by University President Lawrence S. Bacow, Chairman of the Hutchins Center Glenn H. Hutchins ’77, among others.
In her speech, Queen Latifah — a versatile artist who both won a Grammy Award and received an Emmy nomination — urged students to persevere through challenges.
“I get in the backyard sometimes and I scream, ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’ That's me fighting for my life. Fighting against drugs and alcohol, fighting against mental illness, fighting against racism, sexism, all of it. We going to have to fight,” she said.
Smith — who announced this past summer that he would pay off the college loans of some 400 Morehouse College students graduating in 2019 — spoke about never forgetting his roots.
“I realized that part of my job is to create opportunity. I have to give that light into our community and take all of the brilliance that is represented on this stage and all the brilliance that was represented in my neighborhood,” Smith said.
During his speech, Marshall — who is known for his artistic works depicting African American life and history — said he wants to challenge the notion in color theory that “blackness represented absence.”
Rather than a monochromatic color, blackness has many different dimensions, according to Marshall.
“Fundamentally, black doesn't collapse into simplicity,” he said.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Harvard’s Department for African and African American Studies, the 45th anniversary of the Du Bois Institute, and the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in the British colonies.
African and African American Studies Professor Cornel West ’73 closed the evening with an address commending the seven medalists for their accomplishments.
“400 years of being hated, look at the love they're still dishing. 400 years of being paralyzed, look at all the freedom they're still unleashing on the world. 400 years of being traumatized, look at how they heal us,” West said before an enthusiastic audience.
“That's the tradition of W.E.B. Du Bois,” he added.
— Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @amandaysu.