Yale undergrads honor actress Angela Bassett for inspiration, achievements

Angela Bassett
Angela Bassett poses with her Yale Undergraduate Lifetime Achievement Award.

Yale alumna Angela Bassett, an Oscar-nominated actress, director, and producer, has received this year’s Yale Undergraduate Lifetime Achievement Award (YULAA) presented by the Yale College Council (YCC).

YULAA — established by the YCC in conjunction with the President’s Office — recognizes Yale College alumni for their outstanding work in a particular field. It is the only award in Ivy League history that is selected and administered entirely by students. Bassett was chosen to receive the award via a poll last spring of students in the Yale College Classes of 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023.

Bassett is the first Black recipient of the award, as well as the one with the most Yale degrees (she holds a B.A., M.F.A., and honorary doctorate). To date, the award has been presented to President George H.W. Bush ’48, Anderson Cooper ’89, Maya Lin ’81, Jodie Foster ’85, and President George W. Bush ’68.

In a letter to Bassett, YCC president Kahlil Greene ’21 said, “I write to thank you for inspiring an entire generation of Yale students to break down barriers and follow their dreams.”

The two major crises that have defined this year so far — the COVID-19 pandemic and the rampant racial violence throughout the United States — have beckoned us to wield our influence to help communities in need,” Greene added. “With role models like you, students have a clear example of how we can use our Yale education to understand the issues affecting society, advocate for solutions that actually work, and generally make the world a better place.”

While drawn to the stage at a young age, Bassett arrived at Yale with plans to major in administrative science, a business and sociology degree, having been advised by an aunt to not “waste” her Yale education on theater. Bassett eventually decided to follow her own heart, earning a B.A. in African American studies (1980) and an M.F.A. at Yale’s School of Drama (1983). The university awarded her an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 2018.

Bassett, who has appeared on stage, screen, and television, is known for her portrayals of strong Black women. She received an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her performance as Tina Turner in the biopic “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” She played the real-life figures Betty Shabazz (“Malcolm X,” “Panther”), Katherine Jackson (“The Jacksons: An American Dream”), Voletta Wallace (“Notorious”), Coretta Scott King (“Betty & Coretta”), and Rosa Parks (“The Rosa Parks Story”). She has also appeared in such films as “Akheela and the Bee,” “Boyz n the Hood,” “Waiting to Exhale,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” “Black Panther” and “Avengers End Game,” among many others. She is a celebrity ambassador for UNICEF and has been involved in recent campaigns for the Democratic Party.

Normally, students present the YULAA award to the recipients in person, and Bassett was originally scheduled to receive hers this fall at an event honoring the 50th anniversary of the Afro-American Cultural Center. However, the event could not be held due to current circumstances, so the YCC sent the award to her.

In her thank-you note, Bassett wrote: “My days on campus … the experiences, the relationships formed, the triumphs, the challenges are such a big influence on who I have become in the ensuing years since that spring of 1980.

With hand on heart, I am inspired to keep on keeping on. I wish the same for my YCC tribe as you endeavor to make your way in this challenging world … and make your mark.”

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