Named one of the UK’s top public intellectuals by The Observer in 2011, award-winning playwright, author and broadcaster Bonnie Greer was awarded a Doctor of Literature honoris causa at the School of Advanced Study’s (SAS) graduation ceremony on 9 December. The honour acknowledges the Chicago-born writer’s dedication to the advancement of others and her significant contribution to literature and promotion of intelligent and informed debate.
She was given a moving introduction by Sarah Churchwell, professor of American literature and chair in public understanding of the humanities, who quoted Bonnie Greer’s words in her biography of American poet and activist, Langston Hughes: ‘“The only way that he could fight it was to write it”. That is also a leitmotif of Bonnie Greer’s career as a writer, critic, commentator and artist. She fights it when she writes it. And we are here to honour both the writing and the fighting, the activism and the art, the creativity and the confrontation.’
Professor Churchwell pointed out that in her memoir, A Parallel Life, published in 2014, Bonnie Greer rejects some racial labels like African American, negro, BAME. ‘She begins by saying she prefers to be described as black, just plain black in her words. “To me it contains all the history of oppression and resistance of being close to the soil and the sky, of plain speaking of the journey”. Hers was from the projects of Chicago to New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic and to Britain and Europe where she had made her home since 1986.’
Ms Greer, who is a former deputy chair of trustees of the British Museum, former chancellor of Kingston University, and a patron of SAS’s Being Human festival of the humanities, said she was ‘grateful to be awarded this honour‘ from the School, a federation member of the University of London. In her emotional acceptance speech, she thanked the two cohorts of graduating students for inviting her to share their day and urged them to follow the words of her father. He told her, ‘Keep expanding your mind. Keep moving. Keep going forward. Don’t stop.’
An advocate of free speech and truly inclusive higher education, regardless of individual gender and cultural background, Bonnie Greer said that the world she wants to hand on to the next generation is one in which we ‘can find common ground as human beings. My late father came of age in rural Mississippi, during segregation. His education, therefore, was severely limited. For him, lifelong learning was both a goal and a passion. And literature was everything.’
She concluded: ‘And I say to all of you, especially in the humanities, don’t stop. Don’t stop. We have a human story. We are humans. We are together. We’re related.’
Two hundred and twelve School graduands were awarded postgraduate degrees in the humanities and social sciences at the ceremony in Senate House, of which 40 were awarded Doctor of Philosophy degrees.