Virtual Bookshelf: 2021 National Humanities Medalists

2021 National Humanities Medalists
(March 27, 2023)

On March 21, 2023, President Joseph R. Biden awarded the 2021 National Humanities Medal, honoring twelve  distinguished humanists in a White House ceremony. Explore the range of work and achievements of the Humanities Medalists, below. And watch video from the 2021 National Humanities Medal ceremony here.

Richard Blanco
For breathing life into the identity and idea of America. An award-winning poet and author, professor and public speaker, and son of Cuban immigrants, Richard Blanco’s powerful storytelling challenges the boundaries of culture, gender, and class while celebrating the promise of our Nation’s highest ideals.

Richard Blanco read his poem One Today during President Obama’s second inauguration, becoming the 5th poet to read at a presidential inauguration. The Academy of American Poets named him the first Education Ambassador for his poetry collections Looking for the Gulf Motel, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, and City of a Hundred Fires. In May 2013 Blanco wrote and performed Boston Strong  for the victims and survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing at the Boston Strong Benefit Concert. The proceeds of the published poem were donated to the One Fund Boston, which helps survivors of the bombing.

A son of Cuban immigrants, Blanco has also written two memoirs, The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood and For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey. In 2014 Blanco performed The Prince of Los Cocuyos at the 25th Anniversary Chicago Humanities Festival.

Johnnetta Betsch Cole
For being a celebrated leader of sanctuaries of higher learning and culture.  A scholar, anthropologist, and academic pace-setter, Johnnetta Betsch Cole’s pioneering work about the ongoing contributions of Afro-Latin, Caribbean, and African communities have advanced American understanding of Black culture and the necessity and power of racial inclusion in our Nation.

Johnnetta Betsch Cole is a leading figure in higher education, having served as a professor, college president, and museum director.  During her tenure as Spelman College’s first Black female president, Cole published her 1994 book, Conversations: Straight Talk with America's Sister President, encouraging America’s Black women to take an active role in making the world a better place.

More recently, Cole published an illustrated children’s book. Her 2021 book,  Racism in American Public Life: A Call To Action argues that diversity and inclusion are essential to a healthy, productive society.

Walter Isaacson
For chronicling the history and genius of America. Through the stories of our Nation’s remarkable citizens, Walter Isaacson’s work, words, and wisdom bridge divides between science and the humanities and between opposing philosophies, elevating discourse and our understanding of who we are as a Nation.

Walter Isaacson delivered the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) 2014 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. His lecture, “The Intersection of the Humanities and the Sciences,” touched on the careers of Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Ada Lovelace, Walker Percy, Edwin Land, and others who fused humanistic thought with scientific discovery.

Isaacson has written award-winning biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Leonardo da Vinci, and is currently working on an upcoming biography of Elon Musk. His most recent book, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, published in 2022, was a New York Times Best-Seller.


Sir Elton John
For moving our souls with his powerful voice in one of the defining songbooks of all time. An enduring icon and advocate with absolute courage, who found purpose to challenge convention, shatter stigma, and advance the simple truth that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

Medal awarded separately in September 2022.

Sir Elton John was presented with the National Humanities Medal in September 2022 during a White House event, “A Night When Hope and History Rhyme.” With a career spanning six decades, John is one of the best-selling artists of all time. His numerous awards include induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a 2004 Kennedy Center Honor, Academy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Grammy Awards, and Tony Awards. Beyond his work as a musician, Sir Elton John established the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992, providing education programs and care and support programs for people living with HIV. In 2012 he released Love Is the Cure: On Life, Loss, and the End of AIDS, a personal account of his life during the AIDS era. All proceeds of the book went to the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Most recently, John penned his autobiography, Me, which became an instant #1 New York Times Best-Seller.


Earl Lewis
For writing America’s history and shaping America’s future. As a social historian and academic leader, Earl Lewis has made vital contributions to the field of Black history, educating generations of students, while also being a leading voice for greater diversity in academia and our Nation.

As a historian, grant-maker, and educational leader, Earl Lewis authored numerous books on African American history and championed the importance of diversifying the academy and examining the role of race in American history. His works include In Their Own Interests: Race, Class and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, Virginia, The African American Urban Experience: Perspectives from the Colonial Period to the Present, Defending Diversity: Affirmative Action at the University of Michigan, and To Make Our World Anew: Volume II: A History of African Americans From 1880.


Henrietta Mann
For dedicating her life to strengthening and developing Native American education. The pioneering efforts of Henrietta, Ho’oesto’oona'e, Mann, led to programs and institutions across the country devoted to the study of Native American history and culture, honoring ancestors that came before and benefiting generations that follow.

Henrietta Mann has had profound impact on the study and understanding of Indigenous history and culture, both in and outside of the classroom. Beginning her college teaching career in 1970 at the University of California, Berkley, Mann developed the first curricula for ethnic studies in the United States, before moving to direct the Native American Studies program at the University of Montana, and develop her 1973 resource guide for educators, Developing a Native American Studies Program. Over the course of her 28 years at the University of Montana, Mann designed other Native American Studies programs, eventually moving to the Montana State University Bozeman campus to serve as the endowed chair of Native American Studies.

In addition to her work as an educator, Mann served as a trustee for the opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and was a member of the curatorial team of the OKLA HOMMA exhibition, and exhibition guide, for the First Americans Museum.

Native America Calling logo

Native America Calling
For connecting tribal and non-tribal communities across the United States. Through its interactive shows on the radio and online, Native America Calling educates the American public about Indigenous issues while preserving Indigenous history and culture to honor their contributions that strengthen the sacred Nation-to-Nation relationship. 

Native America Calling broadcasts innovative programming exploring topics relevant to Indigenous audiences across North America to nearly 90 public, community, and tribal partner radio stations in the United States and Canada. Online, Native America Calling reaches a global audience through special features and daily episodes released as podcasts  across all major platforms.

Native America Calling’s call-in format engages audiences in conversation, over the air and offline. Click here to find an affiliate station near you.


Ann Patchett

For putting into words the beauty, pain, and complexity of human nature. With her best-selling novels and essays, and her bookstore, readers from around the world see themselves in the pages of Ann Patchett’s books that take people to places of the heart and feed the imagination of our Nation.

Since publishing her debut novel The Patron Saint of Liars in 1992, Ann Patchett has written an array of novels, essays, and children’s books, delighting readers of all ages. Patchett’s eighth and most recent novel, The Dutch House, was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and a critically acclaimed addition to her collection of literary fiction, which includes Commonwealth, State of Wonder, Run, and Bel Canto, winner of the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize. 

Patchett has also published essay collections, including her 2021 book These Precious Days, a reflection on friendship, family, and what matters most. Read an excerpt, “My Three Fathers,” in The New Yorker, and explore additional nonfiction works including This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,  What Now?, and Truth and Beauty: A Friendship.

Ann Patchett is the owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee.


Bryan Stevenson
For his moral call to redeem the soul of our Nation. An advocate fighting tirelessly for the poor, incarcerated, and condemned, Bryan Stevenson follows the Book of Micah’s instruction to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly as he chronicles the legacy of lynching and racism in America, shining a light on what has been and all that we can be as a Nation.

In Montgomery, Alabama, Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) are telling a more complete American story and working to ensure a just future for every citizen. In his 2014 memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Stevenson tells the story of EJI and the team’s successful work to free Walter McMillian, a man wrongfully sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. Stevenson’s book was later adapted into the film, Just Mercy, in 2019. He has written and spoken extensively about criminal justice, including for the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, New York University Law Review, and the New York Times 1619 Project, and delivered TED Talks on these topics. He is the Aronson Family Professor of Criminal Justice, at New York University School of Law.

Stevenson and EJI also oversee two major cultural and historical institutions, the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice,  which opened in 2018. The Museum and National Memorial “chronicle the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation, and the connection to mass incarceration and contemporary issues of racial bias.” Learn more about EJI, Bryan Stevenson, and the development of these institutions in the 2018 documentary, True Justice, now streaming from HBO.


Amy Tan
For expanding the American literary canon. By bravely exploring experiences of immigrant families, heritage, memories, and poignant struggles, Amy Tan’s writing makes sense of the present through the past and adds ground-breaking narrative to the diverse sweep of American life and literature.

Amy Tan’s fiction weaves together narratives across time, continents, cultures, and generations. Tan’s 1989 debut novel The Joy Luck Club became a best-seller and was named a finalist for the National Book Award. Tan served as a co-screenwriter for the adaptation of The Joy Luck Club into a critically acclaimed 1993 film (which was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2020.) Tan has written five other celebrated novels, including The Kitchen God's Wife, The Bonesetter's Daughter, and most recently, The Valley of Amazement, in 2013. Younger readers have also enjoyed Tan’s work as a children’s author of Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat and The Moon Lady, created in collaboration with illustrator Gretchen Schields.

While her life and memories are often reflected in her fiction, Tan has also written two memoirs, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life and Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir. Tan further explored her life and career, sharing previously unseen home movies and photos, in a 2021 episode of PBS’s American Masters, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir.  


Tara Westover
For turning American life into literature. Tara Westover’s memoirs of family, religion, and the transformative power of education, has moved millions of readers and served as a powerful example of how the humanities can set people—and a Nation—free.

Tara Westover’s 2018 memoir Educated about her upbringing as the daughter of survivalists in the mountains of Idaho reached millions and resonated with readers across the world. Educated, which details Westover’s journey from her isolated home to the halls of Cambridge University, was named Indies Choice Adult Nonfiction Book of the Year by the American Booksellers Association in 2019 and was a finalist for the John Leonard Prize and the Autobiography Award from the National Book Critics Circle Awards in 2018.

Westover has published multiple essays since the release of Educated, including “I Am Not Proof of the American Dream” for the New York Times in 2022,  “Rethink: Build a World as One People” for BBC News in 2020, and her lauded 2019 Northeastern Commencement Address, “The Un-Instagramable Self.” In addition to her own work, Westover’s website features resources for Educated readers, including poetry, books, lectures, and music that have helped her on her journey.  


Colson Whitehead
For his truth-seeking as an American literary icon. With genre-defying craftsmanship and creativity, Colson Whitehead’s celebrated novels make real the African American journey through our Nation’s continued reckoning with the original sin of slavery and our ongoing march toward a more perfect Union.

Since his literary debut in 1999 with the novel The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead has published a rich collection of work that includes an additional seven novels and two nonfiction books. Whitehead’s work crosses—and often blends— genres, ranging from the post-apocalyptic Zone One  to the historic fiction epic The Underground Railroad. Several of Whitehead’s books, including his novels Sag Harbor and Harlem Shuffle, and nonfiction The Colossus of New York, draw inspiration from his native city, New York, and its surrounding communities.

Whitehead has received two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction—in 2016 for The Underground Railroad and in 2020 for The Nickel Boys. In this Town & Country interview with series creator Barry Jenkins, Whitehead discusses the adaptation of The Underground Railroad into a critically-acclaimed television series.