In a quiet moment of recognition at the White House last week, President Barack Obama awarded the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal to 20 honorees. The medals are the highest government honors for outstanding achievements in art, history, literature, education and cultural policy.
"In a nation as big as ours, as diverse as ours, as full of debate and consternation as it sometimes is, what the people we honor here today remind us of is that kernel of ourselves that connects to everyone else and allows us to get out of ourselves," Obama said of the recipients. "To see through somebody else's eyes, to step in their shoes. And what more vital ingredient is there for our democracy than that?"
In addition to celebrity honorees — composer and record producer Quincy Jones, saxophonist Sonny Rollins and actress Meryl Streep — the president also recognized titans in academia. Among them: Arnold Rampersad, who received the National Humanities Medal for his work as a biographer and film critic.
Through his award-winning biographies, Rampersad, an English professor at Stanford University, has illuminated the lives and legacies of revered African Americans such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson and Ralph Ellison. Taking a break from Mardis Gras festivities in his native Trinidad, he spoke to The Root about receiving the national honor and what he seeks to reveal about black life in his work.
The Root: What does being selected for the medal mean for you?
Arnold Rampersad: It was a complete surprise when I got the letter about six weeks ago saying that President Obama wished to confer this honor on me. It's a great pleasure, mostly because of President Obama and his evident interest in and knowledge of books. That made the honor so much more special.
TR: Among the people that you've profiled, do you see a connective theme?
AR: When I was working on W.E.B. Du Bois, I was struck at the time by how weakly he seemed to be understood by scholars and critics. They saw him as an NAACP leader or some sort of civil rights figure, but they didn't seem to understand the depths of his imagination, his poetic spirit, his ability to link different disciplines. That sense of not being fully understood as a human being has been the connective thing for me.
I want to illuminate the profound humanity of black Americans. I don't think the texture of the lives has received the kind of treatment that it deserves. Even today, for example, we still have a very limited range of African-American sensibility portrayed on the screen. It has always been my pleasure and my challenge to stick close to the facts of the situation, but also to bring out the depth and richness that is in African-American life.
TR: What is your process for crafting a biography?
AR: First, I like to know that there are papers that other people have not seen or worked in. My first obstacle is to command the written record — letters, especially, but other documents. I've found that interviews with people can sometimes be unreliable, to say the least.
As I curate as much material as I can, both from the written record and speaking to people, at some point I decide I have to write. By that time, you should have some concept of the inner core of the life you're writing about, but you have to stick to certain principles. One is to be as exhaustive as possible in digging up facts. You have to be honest and must not conceal anything simply because it's embarrassing to somebody. You also have to write well. That doesn't mean necessarily writing with fancy words or convoluted sentences, but finding the appropriate style in which to tell the story.
TR: Given biographers' reliance on written records, how will the digital age affect the genre?
AR: Already we have had biographies written purely by interviews. The truth is always going to be more elusive. And when I say the truth, I don't mean that a biographer can ever establish the absolute truth of any life — you can only approximate it. But the more we go into this age of Twitter, e-mail and so on, where things vanish into the ether at some point, the harder it's going to be to pin down a subject. But I think as we remain fascinated by individual human beings, even if the sources become more nebulous, biography will remain important.
Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.