NEW YORK — Artists, activists and a former president gathered online for PEN America's annual gala, held virtually this year because of the pandemic.
Those honored by the literary and human rights organization included the Chinese organizer and dissident Xu Zhiyong; Darnella Frazier, the teenager who taped the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police; and Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was a key witness during the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
Meryl Streep, Spike Lee, Bono and Emma Thompson were among the celebrities offering tributes to Tuesday night's award winners.
Hearst executive vice chairman Frank A. Bennack Jr. was this year's Corporate Honoree. PEN also presented a literary service prize to Patti Smith, who sang the ballad "Build a Peaceable Kingdom," and the Voice of Influence Award to former President Barack Obama, whose memoir "A Promised Land" came out last month. In a taped conversation with the Pulitzer Prize winning historian and former PEN president Ron Chernow, Obama said that the advocacy of PEN and other organizations influenced him as president.
"I was consistently raising issues of jailed journalists, jailed dissidents, censorship issues, freedom of the press issues in conversations that I would have," he said. "There were a number of occasions where, as a consequence of us being aware of the plight of a journalist or a dissident, a human rights activist, that making it onto the agenda of a conversation that I had, that it ended up resulting in somebody's freedom."