Why we're honouring Chimamanda, others - Harvard University

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

By Nehru Odeh

Bestselling Nigerian writer and feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and six other notable individuals who have excelled in various fields of endeavour will receive Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Medal on 6 October, 2022.

Other honourees include basketball legend, cultural critic and activist, Kareem Abdul- Jabbar; groundbreaking actress, Laverne Cox: philanthropist and patron of the arts and education, Agnes Find: business trailblazer, Raymond J. McGuire: former Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick and pioneering artist and visual storyteller, Betye Saar.

The Hutchins Center for African and African American Research announced in in the Harvard Gazette that Chimamanda and the six other honourees will receive the medal as people “who embody the values of commitment and resolve that are fundamental to the Black experience in America.”

This is not the first time Chimamanda will be honoured by the prestigious university. Chimamanda was the Harvard College Class Speaker in 2018 and was also a Harvard Radcliffe Institute Fellow (2011-2012).

Professor Henry Henry Louis Gates Jr, distinguished scholar and director of the Hutchins Center, in an official statement, said this year’s honourees represent “unyielding commitment to pushing the boundaries of representation and creating opportunities for advancement and participation for people who have been too often shut out from the past promise of our times.”

The W.E.B. Du Bois medal is the highest honour given by Harvard in the field today of African American studies and is making a return. With a new slate of honourees after a nearly three-year hiatus due to the pandemic. Past recipients include Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Muhammed Ali, Steven Spielberg, Ava Duvernay and Chinua Achebe.

Chimamanda has received global recognition for her work, which has been translated into over 30 languages and won numerous awards and prizes.

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She occupies a unique position combining a number of attributes. The New York Times T Magazine in its 2017 ‘Greats’ issue, described her as ‘one of those rarest of people: a celebrated novelist who has also become a leading public intellectual’.

Chimamanda is also a fashion and beauty icon and continuously promotes Nigerian designers, including through her ‘Wear Nigerian’ initiative. She was selected as the face of beauty brand Boots No7, and has been featured in numerous style publications including Vanity Fair’s ‘International Best-Dressed List’; and on the covers of British Vogue and Marie Claire Brazil among others.

Barack Obama called her “one of the world’s great contemporary writers;” and Hillary Clinton has written that “she has the rare ability to sum up even the biggest societal problems swiftly and incisively.”

In 2018, she was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize, named after Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, given annually to a writer of “outstanding literary merit who shows a fierce intellectual determination.” She chose to share the Pinter prize with imprisoned Saudi lawyer and human rights activist, Waleed Abulkhair.

She was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2015, and Fortune Magazine named her one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders in 2017. In 2018, she received the Global Hope Coalition’s Thought Leadership Award, and the Action Against Hunger Humanitarian Award.

Chimamanda has received 16 honorary doctorate degrees from some of the world’s leading universities; and is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Her second, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), won the Orange Prize for Fiction (subsequently the Bailey’s Prize, and now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) – the world’s most prestigious annual book award for fiction by a woman. Her third novel, Americanah (2013), won the US National Book Critics Circle Award – the most respected literary award in the US, being that winners are selected by professional book critics – and was named one of the New York Times Top 10 Best Books of the year.

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