Actress Pam Grier was among eight recipients of the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal during a ceremony at the Hutchins Center Thursday at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.
Grier, the queen of ’70s blaxploitation cinema, was joined on stage by fellow honorees Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox; pioneering hip-hop artist Lana “MC Lyte” Moorer; Harvard senior Admissions Officer David Evans; David Lattin and Willie Worsley of the 1966 Texas Western Miners men’s basketball team (the first team with an all-black starting lineup to win the NCAA basketball national championship); and David Simon, writer and producer of “Homicide: Life on the Street” and creator of the acclaimed HBO series “The Wire.” (Opera legend Jessye Norman was also honored but was unable to attend.)
The Du Bois Medal honors individuals who have made significant contributions to African and African American history and culture.
Grier, who’ll remain in Cambridge for a few more days to see her work celebrated at the Harvard Film Archive, is perhaps best known to young people for her roles in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” and on the Showtime series “The L Word.”
But Harvard professor Lawrence Bobo, who praised Grier for playing “the consummate badass feminist hero” on screen, reminded the audience that the actress graced the cover of Ms. magazine as far back as 1975. (The story was authored by Harvard professor Jamaica Kincaid, who was then toiling as a freelance writer.)
Like many of the honorees, Grier gave credit to those who came before her, especially her grandfather, who taught her to hunt and fish and shoot.
“I grew up with that and I brought it to the screen,” she said. “He set my soul on fire.”
Evans, who has worked at Harvard for nearly 50 years, was introduced by former Harvard professor Cornel West, a longtime friend whose talents as an orator were on full display as he bellowed his homage to Evans.
Simon, a former journalist whose credits also include the HBO series “Treme,” said he read Du Bois’s biography of the abolitionist John Brown after learning he’d be receiving the award from Harvard.
“If Dr. Du Bois were to know one of these [awards] was going around the neck of a television hack, he’d be spinning,” said Simon.
But he sounded a serious and hopeful note referencing the Black Lives Matter movement and “post-Ferguson” America.
“I’m convinced this is going to end well,” Simon said. “There’ll be a lot of heartbreak involved, but there’s no going back.”