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Harvard Awards W. E. B. Du Bois Medals to Queen Latifah, Rita Dove

Hutchins Center
The Hutchins Center for African and African American Research awards the W. E. B. Du Bois medal each year.

Oscar-nominated actress Queen Latifah and Pulitzer Prize winning-poet Rita Dove will receive the W.E.B. Du Bois medal alongside five other recipients, the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research announced Tuesday.

The medal recognizes individuals who have made “significant contributions” to African and African American history and culture, according to a press release. The honorees will be recognized at an awards ceremony on Oct. 22 in Sanders Theatre.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Harvard’s Department for African and African American Studies and the 45th anniversary of the Du Bois Institute, according to Glenn Hutchins, chairman of the National Advisory Board of the Hutchins Center.

“The spirit of inquiry, truth-telling, activism, and reconciliation that gave birth to both is present in unique ways in each of the seven individuals we honor this year,” Hutchins said in the press release.

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Singer and actress Queen Latifah is known for her role as the prison matron “Mama” Morton in the movie “Chicago,” for which she earned an Oscar nomination. She also won a Grammy for her single “U.N.I.T.Y.” from her album Black Reign, and received an Emmy nomination for her role as Bessie Smith in the HBO film “Bessie.”

In 2003, the Harvard Foundation For Intercultural and Race Relations named Queen Latifah their Artist of the Year.

Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Lonnie G. Bunch III also received a Du Bois medal this year. Bunch previously served on the Commission for the Preservation of the White House and as the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

He was one of four recipients of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom Medal on Saturday. Bunch received an honorary degree from Harvard in 2019.

Pulitzer Prize winner and former United States Poet Laureate Rita Dove will also be recognized at the awards ceremony. In 1993, she became the youngest person and the first African American to be named U.S. poet laureate.

Dove won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize with her third book of poems “Thomas and Beulah” and is the only poet to receive both the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts. Harvard granted her an honorary degree in 2018.

Among the other four medal recipients are entrepreneur and philanthropist Sheila C. Johnson; Andrew W. Mellon Foundation winner Elizabeth Alexander; artist Kerry James Marshall; and Robert F. Smith, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who attracted widespread attention after announcing he would pay the college loans of some 400 Morehouse College students graduating in 2019.

University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center, said this year’s awardees represent a spirit of perseverance and excellence.

“At this year’s Hutchins Honors, where we present the W. E. B. Du Bois Medal to seven remarkable individuals, we reflect on the tremendous will of our people not only to survive but to thrive, on the eternal commitment to lift as we climb, and on the indomitable spirit that has for so long made a way out of no way,” Gates said in a press release.

Harvard first presented the Du Bois Medal in 2000. Past winners include Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, Steven Spielberg, and Chinua Achebe. Last year, Harvard honored athlete-activist Colin Kaepernick, comedian Dave Chappelle, and portrait artist Kehinde Wiley.

— Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at amanda.su@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @amandaysu.

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