OWN’s Oprah Winfrey reacts as television producer and writer Shonda Rhimes gets up to receive her W.E.B. Du Bois Medal as Weinstein Co. Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein looks on during the Hutchins Center Honors W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Ceremony in Cambridge, Mass., on Sept. 30, 2014.
Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty images

On Tuesday evening the second annual Hutchins Center Honors attracted a coterie of political and cultural celebrities to Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. The recipients—Oprah Winfrey, Harvey Weinstein, Shonda Rhimes, Steve McQueen, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Harry Belafonte and British architect David Adjaye—represent some of the world’s leading figures in politics, culture and entertainment. The late Maya Angelou was also honored. The Kuumba Singers of Harvard College rounded out the festivities with stirring spirituals that complemented the evening’s discussion of the importance of art to political transformation.

A who’s who of political and intellectual luminaries—including Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson and novelist Jamaica Kincaid—presented the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal to the recipients. 

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The Root’s editor-in-chief, Harvard professor and Hutchins Center Director Henry Louis Gates Jr., opened the ceremonies by recalling the origins of modern black-studies departments and programs in American universities, as well as the importance of the arts to their creation. It was a fitting tribute, since seven of this year’s award recipients represented the arts—perhaps none so powerfully in the past year as director and honoree McQueen’s Oscar-winning best picture, 12 Years a Slave.

Gov. Patrick praised civil rights legend John Lewis—one of the heroes of 1965’s Bloody Sunday demonstration in Selma, Ala. “We are all hungry for moral leadership,” remarked Patrick. “And that’s what John Lewis has offered time and time again.”

Lewis, in return, spoke in typically gracious, humble terms. “The only thing I was trying to do,” he explained, “was help out.” When he was growing up in rural Alabama, his parents warned him not to get into trouble by defying the culture of Jim Crow. “I got in trouble,” he said to rising cheers and applause.

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Shonda Rhimes was introduced as a visionary, subtly bringing unprecedented complexity to the portrayal of black women and men and racial diversity on television. “I wish it wasn’t so remarkable that I thought that television should look like the rest of the world,” said Rhimes. “As far as I’m concerned, [I’m] just getting started.”

Jamaica Kincaid delivered a tribute to Maya Angelou, whose artistry personified the artistic and intellectual power and urgency of black women in postwar America. “She was bold and she was brave, and as she grew older she became wiser,” said Kincaid. “She devoted her life to making justice seem as normal as oxygen.” Angelou’s close friend Oprah Winfrey accepted the award on her behalf. “She was a poet who was most fluent in the voice of humanity,” remarked Winfrey. “I miss her deeply,” said Winfrey, “but her spirit abides around all of us.”

Singer, actor and icon Harry Belafonte enjoyed a reception that could only be described as rapturous. He personified, for two generations, the artist as political activist, one who counted Martin Luther King Jr. as one of his closest friends. And as a testament to his political longevity, Belafonte, acknowledging Lewis, said, “He was a teenager when I met him.”

Winfrey, the most successful black woman in the history of media, was the final award recipient. Harvard President Drew Faust introduced Winfrey’s incredible biography—a life that began in poverty and abuse that evolved into spectacular professional success and philanthropic achievement.  

The recipient of an honorary Harvard doctor of law degree, Winfrey received the evening’s biggest cheers, attesting to her enduring cultural resonance. She characterized her success as being based on “wanting to use my life as an expression of art.”

A celebration of black excellence, the Hutchins Center Honors gathered a historic contingent to commemorate the work of artists, intellectuals and activists.

But the event is much more than that.

It reminds us of the importance of black presence, vision, and political and intellectual power in major American institutions. W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African American to receive a Harvard Ph.D., would be proudly astonished to discover the way in which a research institution dedicated to black life at a predominantly white university—that once shunned African Americans—has become a headquarters for the kind of artistic and intellectual achievement that he envisioned more than a century ago. 

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Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.