DuVernay, LL Cool J, Brazile highlight Hutchins Center Honors at Harvard

Donna Brazile (above) joined (from left) Darren Walker, Ava DuVernay, and LL Cool J on stage at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre Wednesday evening.
Donna Brazile (above) joined (from left) Darren Walker, Ava DuVernay, and LL Cool J on stage at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre Wednesday evening.(photos by Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff)

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, pioneering rapper LL Cool J, and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile were among the recipients Wednesday of the
W.E.B. Du Bois Medal at Harvard’s annual Hutchins Center Honors.

“I had a very special relationship with LL Cool J when I was a teenager,” DuVernay said with a big grin. “He didn’t know it, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Also celebrated at Sanders Theatre were artist Kara Walker, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden — the first woman and the first African-American to hold that position — Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, Microsoft chairman John Thompson, and, posthumously, educator/activist Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer. The medal honors people who’ve made significant contributions to African and African-American history and culture.


As always, Harvard professor and Hutchins Center director Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. hosted the event with Harvard president Drew Faust and Hutchins Center board chair Glenn Hutchins.

Accepting her award, Brazile thanked Faust, calling her “Madame President.”

“God, I wish I could say that every day,” Brazile quipped, a reference to Hillary Clinton’s failed bid for the presidency.

But Brazile, who knows a thing or two about losing, having managed Al Gore’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2000, encouraged the crowd to keep its chin up.

“We’re gonna do it, ladies and gentleman. We’re gonna put a woman in the White House, we’re gonna put a Hispanic in the White House, we’re gonna put an openly gay person in the White House, a Muslim in the White House,” she said. “Because we have the power to do what we want to do and we can continue to make change happen.

“In 1,127 days, we’re gonna have a president who cares about all the American people,” Brazile said to robust applause.

DuVernay is perhaps best known as the director of “Selma,” which was nominated for two Academy Awards in 2014, including best picture. But “13th,” her documentary exploring race, justice, and mass imprisonment in the United States, was also nominated for an Oscar last year, and her next film, the Disney feature “A Wrinkle in Time,” is the first movie with a $100 million budget directed by a woman.


Introduced by American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus, DuVernay was gracious to the extreme.

“I’m experiencing a feeling of joy, a very singular joy that you experience when you find yourself somewhere unexpected,” she said. “There was no path that I ever envisioned that would have me standing here at Harvard, a girl from Compton who never went to film school.”

Likewise, LL Cool J — real name James Todd Smith — said it was a special thrill to be at Harvard, and especially to share the stage with Hayden, the Librarian of Congress.

“I love everything everybody (on this stage) does, but that library thing . . . because what you don’t know about me, what my kids would tell you, is all I like to do is read. That’s like my dirty little secret. I’m like a closet nerd,” he said. “Everything from the history of the Peloponnesian War to souls of black folk.

“So when I think about this university and these hallowed halls that we’re in, it really kind of inspires me to want to do more, to be more, to learn more,” he said. “But it kind of tells me you truly can do whatever you put your mind to. You really can.”