Isabel Wilkerson named Commencement speaker

Isabel Wilkerson, an acclaimed author, Pulitzer Prize winner and National Humanities Medal recipient, will deliver this year’s commencement address at Northwestern University.

Photo by Joe Henson

She will receive an honorary degree. Additional honorary degree recipients will be announced later.

Northwestern’s 164th commencement ceremony will begin at 9 am Monday, June 13, at Ryan Field on the Evanston campus.

Wilkerson, a former New York Times reporter, is the author of the bestselling nonfiction “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” and “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” She has become an impassioned voice for demonstrating how history can help us understand ourselves, our country and our current era of upheaval.

“Isabel Wilkerson is a truly remarkable author who has been shining a light on our country’s complex history and awakening our national conscience,” said President Morton Schapiro. “I’m thrilled that she will be on hand to inspire our talented graduates as they mark their great achievements here and look ahead to how they might build a better world.”

“The Warmth of Other Suns” (Vintage, 2011) tells the true story of three people among the 6 million who made the decision of their lives during the Great Migration, a watershed in American history. Wilkerson spent 15 years working on the book, interviewing more than 1,200 people to tell what she calls one of the greatest underreported stories of the 20th century. The book received numerous awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, and was named to 30 “best of the year” lists.

In conferring Wilkerson the 2015 National Humanities Medal, the National Endowment for the Humanities honored her “for championing the stories of an unsung history. Her de ella masterful combination of intimate human narratives with broader societal trends allows us to measure the epic migration of a people by its vast impact on our nation and on each individual life. ”

Isabel Wilkerson is a truly remarkable author who has been shining a light on our country’s complex history and awakening our national conscience.”

President Morton Schapiro

Wilkerson’s latest book, “Caste” (Random House, 2020), examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how a hierarchy of social divisions still defines our lives today. Dwight Garner of The New York Times called it “an instant American classic.” Picked as a 2020 must-read book by Time magazine, “Caste” is being adapted into a Netflix film.

Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for her work as Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times in 1994, making her the first Black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first African American to win for individual reporting in the history of American journalism.

She has lectured on narrative nonfiction at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and has taught at Princeton, Emory and Boston universities. Wilkerson has lectured at more than 200 other colleges and universities across the United States, Europe and in Asia. She also has appeared on numerous national programs such as CBS’s “60 Minutes,” NPR’s “Fresh Air” and NBC’s “Nightly News.” Her work from Ella has garnered seven honorary degrees, most recently from Bates College and Southern Methodist University.

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