Arthur Mitchell

That you rose to become one of the most celebrated figures in American ballet is a remarkable feat. That you did so within an artistic culture that at the time was marred by racial stereotyping and embedded prejudice defies expectations. For while talent and determination can produce a great artist, it takes still more to become a transformative figure. You have been just such a figure in the world of dance and beyond. Born in 1930s Harlem and faced with the need to begin supporting your family at age 12, your irrepressible talent would demand its place in your life. You danced with the School of American Ballet and later the New York City Ballet, where you performed an iconic and barrier-shattering interracial pas de deux with Diana Adams in Agon. These formative years contained both the pain inflicted by unvarnished racial prejudice and crushing insults and the great gift of learning from the masters George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. Your fortitude and your faith in the power of art have meant so much, to so many. The groundbreaking performances you gave were full of personal courage and artistic innovation and succeeded in exploding the myth that African American bodies were unsuitable for classical dance. And your determination to co-found the Dance Theatre of Harlem in the wake of the loss of Martin Luther King Jr. stood then and stands today as an eloquent call to fulfill the slain leader's dream. In the new artistic space you created, the color of a child's skin would neither limit her horizons nor provoke the type of indignities you had suffered. Through your vision, work ethic, and the example provided by your art, you ultimately triumphed in throwing over rigid custom. Dance Theatre of Harlem proved that the classical art of ballet, created in the palaces of Renaissance Europe, would thrive amidst the grace and flair of Upper Manhattan. Columbia takes great pride in being home to your archives, which tell the story of a life's work inseparable from the culture and history of Harlem. By altering the face of dance, you have shown us the special power of the artistic endeavor: a sometimes subtle, sometimes blunt tool for pushing past boundaries and preconceived ideas of people and life. For your artistic genius and your remarkable resolve to overcome barriers, Columbia is proud to present you with the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.