President Barack Obama will award the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal to 24 outstanding American individuals and organizations, including eight African-Americans on Sept. 22 during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
In this Jan. 6, 2016, file photo, actor Morgan Freeman participates in the “The Story of God” panel at the National Geographic Channel 2016 Winter TCA in Pasadena, Calif. President Barack Obama plans to honor actors Mel Brooks and Morgan Freeman with the 2015 National Medal of Arts. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)
The National Medal of Arts, which was created by Congress in 1984, is awarded annually by the president to outstanding artists or patrons of the arts. Similarly, the National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has “deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects.”
Among this year’s recipients of the National Medal of Arts will be actor, producer and narrator Morgan Freeman, who is counted among the elite of Hollywood. Born June 1, 1937, in Memphis, Tenn., Freeman has had long careers in both theater and film and is one of the highest-ranking box office stars. The acclaimed thespian won an Academy Award in 2005 for Best Supporting Actor with “Million Dollar Baby” among other industry awards, and he has received Oscar nominations for his performances in “Street Smart” (1987), “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989), “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) and “Invictus” (2009). His deep, smooth voice has also distinguished him as a narrator with credits in films such as the Oscar-winning documentary film “March of the Penguins.”
Also receiving recognition is record producer and songwriter Berry Gordy, who told the Detriot Free Press: “As a kid from Detroit, with big dreams and a passion for music, I am truly honored and humbled to be recognized and to receive the National Medal of Arts from the president of the United States.” The White House credited Gordy with “helping to create a trailblazing new sound in American music.” As the founder of Motown Records, the most successful Black-owned music company in U.S. history, Gordy launched the music careers of artists such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5.
Audra McDonald will also be awarded during the ceremony. The multifaceted Broadway, opera, film and television actress and singer made history in 2014 when she won her sixth Tony Award and became the first person to receive awards in all four acting categories. Some of her award-winning performances occurred in Broadway plays such as “Ragtime,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” and “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” Her 2007 Los Angeles Opera debut in “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” netted her two Grammy Awards for Best Opera Recording and Best Classical Album. McDonald also has an Emmy Award and a host of other accolades.
The National Medal of Arts will also be awarded to abstract painter Jack Whitten, who the White House praised for “remaking the American canvas.” The Alabama native is known for using techniques such as “casting,” and using acrylic and other compounds to create fractured or tiled surfaces that result in mosaic-like paintings. “He transforms the materials from what we expect them to do, so we look at paint differently,” Kathryn Kanjo, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, which hosted a Whitten retrospective in 2014, told Art News.
Brooklyn-based dancer, choreographer, writer, and visual artist Ralph Lemon will also be recognized. The White House said of Lemon: “As a self-proclaimed conceptualist, he uses dance as a source of physical communication, and his complex works withstand examination from all angles, revealing intimate truths about human nature and offering broader insights into the American experience.”
President Obama will also award The National Humanities Medal to three African Americans among 12 honorees.
Journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson is one of those honorees. Wilkerson is author of the multi-award-winning tome, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” which chronicles the Great Migration of Americans from the U.S. south to the west and north. Wilkerson also won the Pulitzer Prize for her work as Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times in 1994, making her the first Black woman to do so and the first African-American to win for individual reporting. Wilkerson also counts among her accolades: the George Polk Award, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and being named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists. She has taught narrative nonfiction at Princeton, Boston and Emory universities.
Modern jazz icon Wynton Marsalis is also being recognized for his artistic contributions. “As a virtuoso trumpet player, composer, and educator, he has brought jazz to a wider audience and inspired music lovers to embrace America’s quintessential sound,” the White House said of Marsalis.
Capping off the Black honorees is author and musician James McBride, who is being awarded “for humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America.” McBride’s memoir, “The Color of Water, stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for two years and is studied in schools throughout the U.S. His debut novel, “Miracle at St. Anna” was also made into a major motion picture directed by Spike Lee. Also a musician, McBride has written songs (music and lyrics) for artists like Anita Baker and Grover Washington Jr., according to McBride’s biography.