President Barack Obama on Wednesday bestowed prestigious National Medal of Arts to famed New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint, Louisiana author Ernest J. Gaines, and Lake Charles-raised playwright and “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner.
“Star Wars” creator George Lucas was among nine others also honored in White House ceremonies.
Obama called it a special treat to honor all the musicians, writers, directors, artists and others who have inspired him and the rest of the nation.
“Frankly, this is just fun for me, because I feel like I know you all because I’ve enjoyed your performances,” Obama said. “Your writings have fundamentally changed me — I think for the better.”
Obama singled out Gaines, 80, who is best known for his novels “A Lesson Before Dying” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” along with singer and pianist Toussaint, 75, for their inspirations.
“Somebody like Allen Toussaint, who is being honored here for his incredible contributions to the rhythm and blues and jazz music of his beloved New Orleans,” Obama said. “After his hometown was battered by Katrina and Allen was forced to evacuate, he did something even more important for his city — he went back. And since then, Allen has devoted his musical talent to lifting up and building up a city. And today, he’s taking the stage all over the world, with all kinds of incredible talent, doing everything he can to revive the legendary soul of the Big Easy.”
Obama then praised Gaines for rising up and thriving after being born into a sharecropper family on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish.
“He did not let that define his future. Instead, he took that experience and used it to help fill in gaps in American literature with the stories of African-American life,” Obama said. “And then, Ernest moved back to Louisiana, onto the very same land he and his family had once worked. And he spent more than 20 years teaching college students to find their own voices and reclaiming some of the stories of their own families and their own lives.”
Afterward, Toussaint called the day historic and said that getting the Medal of Arts from the president was the greatest award he could receive.
“I’m so glad that America treats its own in such fine fashion,” Toussaint said. “It’s absolutely wonderful. And the president and the first lady as hosts, they are impeccable.”
“Me being from Louisiana, I feel all of where I’m from wherever I am,” he added. “As I was there receiving my award, I was thinking of New Orleans and Louisiana, etcetera.”
Although Toussaint, Gaines and Kushner had never met before Wednesday, Toussaint said it is “wonderful” for multiple people with state ties to receive recognition and get a chance to learn more about each other. “When the saints go marching in, here we are,” he said.
Kushner, 56, grew up in Louisiana and graduated from Lake Charles High School. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner for his play “Angels in America,” and has been nominated for an Academy Award this year for his screenplay for “Lincoln.” Kushner first met Obama last year when he visited the White House for a private screening.
“Out of any award I’ve ever gotten, this is the most meaningful by far,” Kushner said of the Medal of Arts. “It’s thrilling for me to be honored by the government of my country and that it’s a national award means a lot.
“I’m incredibly thrilled to be honored by President Obama, who I consider to be one of our genuinely great presidents. Other than Abraham Lincoln, I can’t think of another president I’d rather receive a medal from,” Kushner added.
Kushner also spoke fondly of growing up in Lake Charles.
“It was a great blessing to grow up in Louisiana, and I think it heightened my awareness of the beauty of the world because it’s such a beautiful place,” he said. “I love the people I grew up with. I think being a Southern writer had an enormous impact on the way that I speak and the kind of lyricism that I aspire to.”
Kushner said he also was influenced by growing up in the state during the civil-rights era and witnessing school integration and busing.
“I got to see the federal government in action, and I got to see that you can mandate certain social transformation and that people can surprise themselves with how much more advanced they are than they actually realize,” Kushner said.
The National Endowment for the Arts was established by the Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government. The endowment has awarded more than $4 billion to support artistic excellence, creativity and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities.