Three artists of color and a Black historian were among the Americans recognized by President Barack Obama July 28 for their outstanding contributions to the arts and humanities.
During a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, the president conferred the 2013 National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest award given to artists and their patrons, and the National Humanities Medal, which honors those in fields including history, literature, languages, and philosophy to 22 honorees.
“We honor you today because your accomplishments have enriched our lives and reveal something about ourselves and about our country,” Obama told the award recipients. “And we can never take for granted the flash of insight that comes from watching a great documentary or reading a great memoir or novel, or seeing an extraordinary piece of architecture. We can’t forget the wonder we feel when we stand before an incredible work of art, or the world of memories we find unlocked with a simple movement or a single note.
“The moments you help create – moments of understanding or awe or joy or sorrow – they add texture to our lives,” he added. “They are not incidental to the American experience; they are central to it – they are essential to it. So we not only congratulate you this afternoon, we thank you for an extraordinary lifetime of achievement.”
Among the Medal of Arts recipients was dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones, co-founder of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Jones received numerous awards during his career: The two-time Tony winner (“Spring Awakening,” “Fela”) is also a 2010 Kennedy Center honoree, a MacArthur “genius,” an officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In his citation, Jones was praised for “provocative performances . . . that challenge us to confront tough subjects and inspire us to greater heights.”
Dominican-American author, poet, and essayist Julia Alvarez joined Jones. The New York native gained recognition with the novels How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), and Yo! (1997). “In poetry and in prose, Ms. Alvarez explores themes of identity, family, and cultural divides. She illustrates the complexity of navigating two worlds and reveals the human capacity for strength in the face of oppression,” her citation read.
Northwestern University professor Darlene Clark Hine received a Humanities Medal for her scholarship in the fields of African-American studies and history. Hine deserved praise for “enriching our understanding of the African-American experience,” Obama said. “Through prolific scholarship and leadership, Dr. Hine has examined race, class, and gender, and has shown how the struggles and successes of African-American women have shaped the nation we are today.”
Stanley Nelson Jr. also received a Humanities Medal for his work as a director and producer of documentary films that spotlight the history and experiences of African Americans. Among his notable films are Freedom Riders (2011), Jonestown: The Life & Death of People’s Temple (2006) and The Murder of Emmett Till (2003). “By using his camera to tell both well-known and lesser-known narratives, Mr. Nelson has exposed injustices and highlighted triumphs, revealing new depths of our nation’s history,” his citation read.
Other arts honorees included:
—American singer Linda Ronstandt
— Brooklyn Academy of Music
— Chicago arts patron Joan Harris
—Composer John Kander of New York
—Writer Maxine Hong Kingston of Oakland, Calif.
—Documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles of New York
—Architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams of New York
—Artist James Turrell of Flagstaff, Ariz.
The Humanities award also went to:
—Literary critic M.H. Abrams of Ithaca, N.Y.
—Historian David Brion Davis of Orange, Conn.
—Historian Anne Firor Scott of Chapel Hill, N.C.
—East Asian scholar William Theodore De Bary of Tappan, N.Y.
—Architect Johnpaul Jones of Bainbridge, Washington
—Public radio host Diane Rehm of Washington
—Radio host Krista Tippett of St. Paul, Minn.
—American Antiquarian Society of Worcester, Mass.