At a sold-out Sanders Theater, Harvard awarded seven individuals — including actress Laverne Cox and basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal, the University’s highest honor in African American Studies, on Thursday.
The five other honorees included author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, philanthropist Agnes Gund, Citigroup executive Raymond J. McGuire ’79, former Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78, and artist Betye Saar. The Hutchins Center for African and African American Research hosted the ceremony, which took place for the first time since 2019.
The Du Bois Medal honors its namesake, the African American scholar and civil rights activist, who graduated from Harvard College in 1890.
In an interview, University Professor and Hutchins Center Director Henry Louis Gates Jr. said the awards “honor outstanding achievement in or contributions to African American, African, and Afro-Latin American culture.”
The ceremony was open and free to the public. More than 300 seats were reserved for local high school students to attend.
“You are our future,” Gates said during the event, addressing the high schoolers.
Professor of American History Robin Bernstein introduced Cox, describing her achievement of “so many firsts,” including her receipt of the medal.
“She is the first openly transgender actress to be nominated for a primetime acting Emmy, the first trans woman of color to have a leading role on a mainstream, scripted television series,” Bernstein said. “She is the first openly trans person to appear on the covers of TIME Magazine, British Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Essence Magazine.”
“When we stand for justice, sometimes we have to let go of people, places, things in our lives that do not serve us standing in solidarity with each other,” Cox said in her acceptance speech.
Professor Suzanne P. Blier, a historian of African art and architecture, introduced Saar and described her art as “championing the sculptural idiom of assemblage to address core issues of racial prejudice, caricature, and injustice.”
“[Art] can take you all kinds of places, and the kind of art I do comes from all kinds of places,” Saar said in her remarks.
Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf introduced Patrick, detailing his distinguished career, which has included positions in the U.S. Justice Department, the NAACP, and now HKS.
In his acceptance address, Patrick described Du Bois as “a towering, prophetic leader who had the bravery and integrity to see things as they are and still imagine what America could be, and to reach for it.”
“That, to me, is both the genius and the frustration of America — that we can reinvent, refound ourselves from time to time,” Patrick said. “That we have to may be the frustration, but we can do it, and we must.”
Gund was introduced by African and African American Studies and History of Art and Architecture associate professor Sarah E. Lewis ’01, who lauded Gund’s decision to allocate $165 million toward criminal justice reform from the sale of a Roy F. Lichtenstein painting in her collection.
Gund called receiving the medal “among the great joys of my life.”
Hutchins Center Chair Glenn H. Hutchins ’77 introduced McGuire as a “titan of Wall Street” and lauded his support of De La Salle Academy, “the only private school in New York City for academically talented, less advantaged children.”
“This medal is not about me. It is about the hope and promise that it represents, it is about the kindergarten to 12th grade Black and brown boys and girls across the country,” McGuire said.
English professor Tracy K. Smith ’94 introduced Adichie as someone “consecrated to the work of the word.”
“I’m so grateful for this award because, again, it just makes me think that what I’m doing matters,” Adichie said in her acceptance speech.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow introduced Abdul-Jabbar, who used his address to draw attention to inequality in the United States.
“It’s important that we keep alive the spirit of Dr. Du Bois, not just by honoring his name, but by continuing his fight for equality for all people,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
—Staff writer Alexander I. Fung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.