(New York, NY) — At its annual gala to take place October 5, the literary and free expression group PEN America will honor writer, critic, professor, and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. and executive chairman, chairman of the board of directors, and former CEO of The Walt Disney Company Robert A. Iger. Gates will receive the organization’s PEN/Audible Literary Service Award, and Iger will be honored as the PEN America Corporate Honoree, to be presented by Broadway superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda. Health and safety regulations permitting, PEN America is planning to return its signature Literary Gala event to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City under the iconic blue whale in the Hall of Ocean Life.

“While we cannot know for sure what the fall will bring, we are hoping to be live on October 5 with a celebration of writers, storytellers, and the freedoms that make their work possible,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All. “The PEN America Literary Gala is a beloved affair and one of the best parties of the year. We are delighted to recognize Bob Iger for his unparalleled role in fueling the life of the imagination worldwide by building on Disney’s iconic history and reputation to find boundless new ways to excite audiences and elevate new narratives through films, books, television, parks, and virtually every other venue in which we imbibe stories. Henry Louis Gates’ curiosity, bracing honesty, and brilliant insights have reshaped the American academy, elevated new disciplines, uncovered lost histories, and sharpened our understanding of America. Both leaders have raised the bar in their respective fields, and we are privileged that they will join us for our 2021 gala celebration.”

The annual celebration is a moment to honor free expression, bringing together supporters, friends, Members, and leading writers all to help support the critical work of PEN America. Some 17,000 tuned in for the organization’s virtual gala in December 2020, which honored former President Barack Obama; author and musician Patti Smith; Darnella Frazier, the courageous teenager who filmed the murder of George Floyd; Hearst Chairman Frank A. Bennack Jr.; Chinese dissident writer Xu Zhiyong; and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. PEN America puts the health and safety of attendees first and will continue to assess its gala plans in light of evolving  guidance. For those not in New York City, opportunities to celebrate and support will be announced in coming months. 

Gates is being honored with this year’s PEN/Audible Literary Service Award for a lifetime of contributions to literature and history. The PEN/Audible Literary Service Award is given each year to a cultural luminary whose work helps us understand and interpret the human condition in powerful and original ways.

An Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Gates has authored or co-authored more than 20 books and created more than 20 documentary films, including The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, Black in Latin America, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, Africa’s Great Civilizations, Reconstruction: America after the Civil War, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This is Our Song, and the genealogy series, Finding Your Roots. The recipient of 58 honorary degrees and numerous prizes, Gates was a member of the first class awarded “genius grants” by the MacArthur Foundation in 1981, and in 1998, he became the first African American scholar to be awarded the National Humanities Medal. In 2011, his portrait, by Yuqi Wang, was hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

“Free expression has defined every facet of my career, and I’m grateful to PEN America for choosing to honor me as part of its long tradition of upholding the freedom to write,” said Gates. “This past year has proven that we cannot live without dissent. We cannot live without passion. We cannot live without a free and open exchange of ideas that defends the unpopular but also uplifts the silenced. I look forward to joining PEN America this fall to celebrate.”

“PEN America has been on the forefront of safeguarding free expression and amplifying voices that deserve to be heard,” said Rachel Ghiazza, executive vice president and head of U.S. content for Audible, which underwrites the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award. “Audible believes that great storytelling has the power to build human connection and enable greater understanding of one another. We are proud to partner with PEN America to celebrate Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose towering scholarship and singular voice have immeasurably broadened the fields of history and cultural critique.”

Iger is being celebrated as the PEN America Corporate Honoree for his career enlightening and entertaining billions at the helm of The Walt Disney Company, providing visionary leadership for one of the world’s most iconic companies.

Over his 15 years leading the company, Iger built Disney into one of the world’s largest and most admired media and entertainment companies, overseeing the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox; and the successful launch of the Disney+ streaming service. Iger was named TIME magazine’s “Businessperson of the Year” in 2019; one of the “World’s Most Powerful People” by Forbes magazine; twice named one of Fortune magazine’s “25 Most Powerful People in Business”; and one of the “Best CEOs” by Institutional Investor magazine four years straight. Iger was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in January 2020, and the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in 2015. He’s author of the New York Times best-seller The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of The Walt Disney Company.

“Storytelling is at the heart of everything we do at Disney, and it is incredibly important to us to tell stories that best reflect the audiences we’re trying to reach and the world that exists today,” said Iger. “I’m delighted to accept this award on behalf of all of the extraordinarily talented writers, creators, innovators, and visionaries who make up The Walt Disney Company, and look forward to celebrating PEN America and the outstanding work they do at this very special event.”

Throughout the spring and summer, PEN America will name additional honorees, including the recipient of its PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, bestowed on an imprisoned writer; and the recipient of the PEN/Benenson Courage Award for showcasing unparalleled courage to defend free expression. Prior Courage Award honorees include Darnella Frazier, the young woman who documented the murder of George Floyd; Anita Hill; student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Cameron Kasky, Samantha Fuentes, and Zion Kelly; the Women’s March; Flint, Michigan contaminated water whistleblowers Lee-Anne Walters and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha; and the surviving staff of the French publication Charlie Hebdo, honored in the wake of the murders of 12 of their colleagues. 

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. Headquartered in New York City with offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., the organization counts 7,500 Members in all 50 states, as well as seven volunteer-led regional chapters. Throughout the pandemic, PEN America has remained committed to the principles of free expression, continuing its pathbreaking advocacy while also celebrating literary excellence. In the past year, the organization has launched new marquee research projects; kept the pressure on policymakers in Washington to defend free expression; demanded free speech protections on campuses; led the fight to protect protest rights; and has uplifted emerging, historically-underrepresented voices in its work celebrating writers.


To inquire about table sponsorship opportunities or journal ads, please contact Deborah Wilson at [email protected] or visit pen.org/literarygala.