Obama, Patti Smith One of PEN America honorees

FILE - This Feb. 19, 2019, file photo shows former President Barack Obama speaking at the My Brother's Keeper Alliance Summit in Oakland, Calif. Obama’s “A Promised Land” sold nearly 890,000 copies in the U.S. and Canada in its first 24 hours, putting it on track to be the best selling presidential memoir in modern history. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

NEW YORK — Artists, activists, and a former president assembled online for PEN America’s yearly gala, held virtually this year because of the pandemic.

Those honored by the literary and human rights firm included the Chinese organizer and dissident Xu Zhiyong; Darnella Frazier, the adolescent who recorded the death of George Floyd in the hands of Minneapolis authorities; and Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was a key witness during the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Hearst executive vice-chairman Frank A. Bennack Jr. was this season’s Corporate Honoree. PEN also presented a literary service trophy to Patti Smith, who sang the ballad”Construct a Peaceable Kingdom,” along with the Voice of Impact Award to former President Barack Obama, whose memoir”A Promised Land” came out last month. In a taped conversation with the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and former PEN president Ron Chernow, Obama said that the advocacy of PEN and other organizations influenced him.

“I was consistently raising problems of jailed journalists, jailed dissidents, censorship issues, freedom of the press issues in discussions that I would have,” he explained. “There were several events at the moment, as a consequence of us being aware of the plight of a journalist or a dissident, a human rights activist, that making it on the schedule of a conversation I had, that it ended up leading in somebody’s liberty.”