President Barack Obama to Receive the 2020 PEN America Voice of Influence Award

Illustration for article titled President Barack Obama to Receive the 2020 PEN America Voice of Influence Award
Photo: Drew Angerer (Getty Images)
It's Lit!It's Lit!Where all things literary live at The Root

When it comes to living American presidents, it’s indisputable (and infuriating, if you’re Donald Trump), that President Obama remains the leader who retains the most influence and goodwill in the global sphere. On Wednesday, PEN America recognized the indelible impact of our favorite president to date, announcing Obama as the recipient of this year’s PEN America Voice of Influence Award, which will be conferred during the organization’s virtual gala on Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. ET.


The honor, which was awarded last year to director, producer, and activist Ava DuVernay, comes less than a month after the release of the first volume of Obama’s presidential memoirs, his fourth book, not counting the numerous others he has collaborated on and penned forewords for. As noted in a press release provided to The Root, the Voice of Influence Award is being given “in recognition of how the former president’s writings throughout his career have traversed political, social, and ideological bounds and framed a self-reflective humanism that has marked his influence on public life.”

“As an organization of writers, we have always seen President Obama not just as a leader, but as one of us: an author. His probing and evocative narratives helped introduce the world to his unique background, and the power of his life experience as a prompt toward a more pluralistic and encompassing society,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel in a statement. “We are thrilled that on the occasion of the publication of A Promised Land, we will have the chance to honor President Obama with this award as part of the virtual edition of the best book party of the year: the PEN America gala.”

Following the award presentation, Obama and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Ron Chernow will engage in a wide-ranging “exclusive author-to-author conversation” where the two “will discuss the freedom to write, a liberty that faces unprecedented challenges amid rising authoritarianism that parlays disinformation and distrust to impair the very function of free speech as a catalyst for revealing the truth and driving forward societal progress,” says Nossel.

As previously reported by The Root, Darnella Frazier, the young woman who recorded the killing of George Floyd, will also be honored with a PEN/Benenson Courage Award this year, which will also be conferred upon former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. According to the release, additional honorees during PEN America’s 2020 virtual gala will include:

Patti Smith, recipient of the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award; Hearst’s Frank A. Bennack Jr., this year’s Corporate Honoree; and Chinese dissident writer Xu Zhiyong, who will receive in absentia the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. Additional participants include Bono, Emma Thompson, Spike Lee, Madeleine Albright, Soledad O’Brien, Cory Booker, and many more.


“Long before he was a politician, Barack Obama was a spectacular writer. Since he published Dreams from My Father a quarter-century ago, America and the world have benefited from the qualities he brought to that memoir: empathy, superb storytelling, and a fount of hope and possibility,” said PEN America President Jennifer Egan. “Now, as we conclude a year of plague and division, his voice is a tonic reminder of the power of language—and narrative—to uplift and transform. We’re overjoyed that the president can join us for this special evening.”

The PEN America 2020 virtual gala is free and open to the public, though registration is required. More information including registration and participant information can be found on the event website.

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?


Dr Emilio Lizardo

This is gonna make Donny bomb Iran.