What a way to do it for the culture!
Earlier this week, the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal awards occurred and the show of Black excellence reminded us why the honorees deserved to be celebrated for their contributions to the culture.
Previously, we reported about the 2019 honorees which included trailblazing icon Queen Latifah, founder and chairman of Vista Equity Partners, Robert Smith, head of the Smithsonian Institution, Lonnie Bunch III, world renowned poet Elizabeth Alexander, award winning artist Kerry James Marshall, U.S. poet laureate, Rita Dove, and the co-founder of BET, Ms. Sheila C. Johnson.
According to The Harvard Gazette, this year’s award ceremony was filled with themes of opportunity, perseverance, courage and of course, Black excellence. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard set the tone for the evening with opening remarks.
“We are here this afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, celebrating not only achievement but also opportunity. Our medalists have made the most of their opportunities. Our charge to the young people in the audience this afternoon is that you make the most of yours,” Gates said.
Queen Latifah gave a rousing speech about following your dreams, telling the audience, “Understand that there will be times when you will have to stand alone. There will be no one else that will believe in your dream. There are plenty of people who told us we will never be where we are today. But we don’t believe those people. You have to be strong and be courageous and just know that if you believe in it, it’s going to happen. Don’t give up. Do not quit. Fight for it.”
Latifah began her career as a rapper in 1989 and grew to become one of the most respected and influential women in hip hop. She is a Grammy, Emmy and Golden Globe winner and in 2006 she became the first hip hop artist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Recently, she returned to her hometown of Newark, NJ to reinvest in the community by building a $14 million housing complex.
Billionaire Robert Smith took the stage to talk about his childhood and community and how that inspired him to reach a level of success that no one around him had seen before. More importantly, he stressed, it made him want to hold the door open for others. Smith recently paid off more than $30 million in student loans for the entire graduating class of Morehouse and their parents while simultaneously creating an internship program to connect Black students to careers in STEM. Smith told the audience that it’s his job “to liberate the human spirit.”
Founding Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie Bunch, told the crowd, “I am humbled because I know you’re really not bestowing an award on me. What you’re doing is recognizing that all of us are standing on the shoulders of so many.”
Former Du Bois medal recipient and Professor at the Harvard Divinity School, Cornel West, closed the night by reiterating that the award was not a celebration of any one person, but rather a celebration of the culture itself. “When you look at these brothers and sisters, their lives are enacting so much of the best of the afterlife of their mothers and fathers, and grandfathers and grandmothers, and aunts and uncles, and teachers and coaches, and jazz and blues and hip-hop and rhythm and blues. That’s what you’re looking at when you’re looking at these folk! You’re looking at a great tradition of a great people.”
Past Du Bois medal honorees include Colin Kaepernick, Dave Chappelle, Kehinde Wiley, Ava DuVernay, LL Cool J, Toni Morrison, Nas, Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, Marian Wright Edelman, Jessye Norman and Oprah Winfrey.
Congratulations again to all the 2019 recipients!
Photo Courtesy of Amanda Y. Su/The Harvard Crimson