The American Academy of Arts and Letters was founded in 1904 as a highly selective group of 50 members within a larger organization called the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Over the years the two groups functioned separately with different memberships, budgets, and boards of directors. In 1993 the two groups finally agreed to form a single group of 250 members under the name of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Members are chosen from the fields of literature, music, and the fine arts. Members must be native or naturalized citizens of the United States. They are elected for life and pay no dues. New members are elected only upon the death of other members. Among the current African American members are Kwame Anthony Appiah, Rita Dove, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, and Kara Walker.
The American Academy of Arts and Letters recently inducted 12 individuals into the 250-member honorary society. Of the 12 new members, two are African Americans.
George E. Lewis is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University in New York City. Professor Lewis came to Columbia in 2004, having previously taught at the University of California, San Diego, Mills College in Oakland, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2002. A graduate of Yale University, Professor Lewis studied composition and trombone at the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
Lynn Nottage, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and a screenwriter, is an associate professor in the theatre department at the Columbia School of the Arts. Nottage is the co-founder of the production company, Market Road Films, which has produced projects for HBO and Showtime as well as independent productions. She is a winner of a MacArthur “genius award.” Nottage is a graduate of Brown University and the Yale School of Drama.