Anita Hill, Bob Woodward Receive PEN America Awards

2019 PEN America Literary Gala- Richard Robinson, Dr Anita Hill and Bob Woodward-Getty-H 2019
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

John Oliver hosted the annual gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Tuesday night.

Lupita Nyong’o presented Anita Hill with the PEN Courage Award at the PEN America gala on Tuesday night. At the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Nyong’o spoke about Hill’s courage in speaking out in 1991 in Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings and how Hill has inspired Nyong’o to share her own stories and speak out.

“She had no safety in numbers. She was one woman calling 'time's up' decades before the wider society was ready to blow the whistle,” Nyong’o said. “She made her accusations against a man who would sit on the nation's highest court and wield power for decades to come. Twenty-eight years later, amid an unstoppable wave of personal revelation and truth-telling that emulates Hill’s initial heroic act, a paradigm shift is occurring. With the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement, we can speak together.”

Hill took the stage and spoke about her family heritage and her maternal grandmother who was not taught to read and her mother who instilled in her a love of the written word. She also looked back on the trials in 1991 and said that she would absolutely testify again if given the chance.

“In 1991, under an intense political and media scrutiny, I shared more of what it is, a whole experience, the entirety of an experience of being a woman, a woman in the workplace in particular,” Hill said. “But I was also sharing the experience of what it’s like to be black and, finally, to be a black woman facing sexual harassment. I testified but soon learned that my right to speak freely about the truth in my experience was in fact limited.”

John Oliver hosted the event, opening the evening by speaking about the opulence of the room and joking that he’ll know America is doing OK when America can be angry about unimportant things, like "Anne Hathaway."

He also spoke about the 2020 election and likened voting for President Trump again to eating a Tide Pod. “Once I can kinda understand. Maybe you didn’t understand quite how bad it was going to be. There was a sense of morbid curiosity for what it can actually feel like,” Oliver said. “Eating two Tide Pods? You are just a fucking asshole.”

The evening also honored award-winning journalist and author Bob Woodward with the PEN America Literary Service Award. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Caro presented Woodward with the honor, commending him for his on-the-ground, relentless reporting and his dedication to gathering facts and seeking the truth.

Woodward reflected on President Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal, which Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke in The Washington Post, and he also looked at where the country has come politically since then.

“Now, 45 years later, President Donald Trump publicly exploits the divisions in this country without restraint. The Trump rallies are primal amphitheaters. He has turned hate, in his own way, into ammunition for personal and political warfare,” Woodward said, before Bernstein joined him onstage for an embrace.

Alec Baldwin presented his neighbor and friend, Scholastic CEO Richard Robinson, as the Publishing Honoree. “Dick is someone who exemplifies PEN America’s mission — a mission that resonates deeply with me personally as we continue to fight for a free press and to acknowledge the importance of freedom of thought and creative expression,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin also read a personal note from Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling for Robinson. “You’ve centered your life and your business around the fundamental belief that every individual child should be enabled to develop their potential to the fullest possible extent, and that a key part of that is the ability to read, and to discover other worlds through stories. I’m just one of the people who is incredibly grateful to you for having made this your mission,” Rowling wrote.

Robinson thanked Baldwin on his introduction, saying seeing his family across the hall in the morning gives him hope as he heads off to work. He also spoke about the importance of child literacy and Scholastic’s dedication to this mission.

“We have been banned in schools in the '30s and '50s for being too soft on communism; in the '40s and the '60s for promoting liberal views on race, civil rights and the Vietnam War; in the '70s for articles on student rights — not a popular subject in schools; in the '80s and '90s for climate change; and in the 2000s for the Iraq war,” Robinson said. “Despite these controversies and temporary bans, schools have relied on our balanced approach to help the young gain basic knowledge about their world, with the larger goal of helping kids know how to build and maintain a fragile democracy.”

Finally, the evening honored journalists Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan with the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. The honor is given to imprisoned journalists, and these woman have spoken out about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Al-Hathloul’s sister and brother Lina and Walid Al-Hathloul accepted the award on their behalf.

“The idea of knowing she is not forgotten, and that people still stand with her, is the strongest breath of freedom she can inhale when everything else has been made to break her,” Walid said.