Presidential inaugural poet Richard Blanco, Litt.D. ’14, co-vice chair of the Board of Governors of the Colby College Museum of Art, will receive a National Humanities Medal at the White House on Tuesday afternoon, one of the highest honors bestowed by the U.S. government.
President Joseph R. Biden will present the medal during a 4:30 p.m. ceremony in the East Room. The ceremony will be livestreamed. The Maine resident is among a dozen who will receive the award, which honors people whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects.
A poet born to Cuban exiles, Blanco received an honorary degree from Colby in 2014, was the first artist in residence at the Lunder Institute for American Art in 2018, and delivered the commencement address in 2021. Blanco, who lives much of the year in the mountains of western Maine and began his career as a civil engineer, writes about sociopolitical issues and advocates for the role of poetry in the public realm.
This is Blanco’s second major interaction with a sitting U.S. president. In 2013 Blanco wrote and read the poem “One Today” at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama.
In a phone interview, Blanco described the East Room ceremony as “the event of a lifetime,” and said he was “humbled and excited at the same time. It’s just such an incredible honor.”
He hopes the National Humanities Medal gives him a larger opportunity to share his poetry and promote his advocacy work, particularly as it relates to the value of the humanities. “As we all know, the humanities are really under threat, and I am hoping this gives me a voice and a bigger platform to contribute to the discussion about the important and vital role the humanities play in education and in our daily lives. … The humanities play an essential role because they teach us to appreciate and respect one another and unite us.
“At Colby, we have been doing a lot of work thinking about how the museum is for everyone and how to create an invitation to the community, how to connect with the community, and how to make art matter in people’s daily lives. This honor will help us in that process.”
Other recipients of 2021 National Humanities Medals include scholar and anthropologist Johnnetta Betsch Cole; writer Walter Isaacson; social historian Earl Lewis; Indigenous historian Henrietta Mann; writer Ann Patchett; social justice advocate Bryon Stevenson; writer Amy Tan; writer Tara Westover, writer Colson Whitehead; the radio and online program Native America Calling; and singer and musician Sir Elton John. John received his medal in September 2022 after performing at the White House.
Jacqueline Terrassa, the Carolyn Muzzy Director of the Colby College Museum of Art, said the important honor recognizes Blanco’s impact on communities across the country as a poet, educator, and advocate for democratizing access to the arts.
“His sense of humanity and his deep desire to connect communities makes poetry contagious. It’s perhaps no accident that Richard is also a civil engineer. He is a believer in civic life and people’s innate creativity and curiosity. These passions come through in every instance, whether reading one of his own poems to millions or to a room of 20, teaching his students, or tangibly shaping the future of the Colby College Museum of Art. For me, it is a joy and a privilege to learn from Richard in his role as co-vice chair of the museum Board of Governors.”
The National Endowment for the Humanities manages the nominations process for the National Humanities Medal on behalf of the White House. Each year NEH invites nominations from individuals and organizations across the country. The National Council on the Humanities, NEH’s presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed advisory body, reviews the nominations and provides recommendations to the president, who selects the recipients.
The first National Humanities Medal was awarded in 1997. Since then, 195 have been bestowed—180 to individuals and 15 to organizations. Previous winners include some of the country’s most esteemed writers, including Colby’s 2022 commencement speaker Isabel Wilkerson, August Wilson, Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Studs Terkel, recipient of Colby’s 2004 Lovejoy Award for Courage in Journalism.
“The National Humanities Medal recipients have enriched our world through writing that moves and inspires us; scholarship that enlarges our understanding of the past; and through their dedication to educating, informing, and giving voice to communities and histories often overlooked,” said NEH Chair Shelly C. Lowe (Navajo). “I am proud to join President Biden in recognizing these distinguished leaders for their outstanding contributions to our nation’s cultural life.”
In a statement, the NEH said Blanco was nominated for “breathing life into the identity and idea of America,” citing his “powerful storytelling [that] challenges the boundaries of culture, gender, and class while celebrating the promise of our nation’s highest ideals.”
“I’ve always strived for my life’s work to humbly serve humanity. This great honor is an incredible recognition of that effort,” Blanco said in a statement. “I believe that the arts and humanities are key to helping us recognize the innate connections we all share.”
The humanities medal was preceded by the Charles Frankel Prize, first awarded in 1989.
Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the NEH supports learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding proposals from around the nation that support research in the humanities, nurture humanities infrastructure, and expand the reach of the humanities. Among its previous directors is William D. “Bro” Adams, former Colby president.
Blanco has published several volumes of his poetry, including How to Love a Country, which explores issues relating to immigration, racism, gun violence, and LGBTQ issues.
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