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Nieman’s 80th Anniversary Reunion Weekend

Transcript: Sarah Lewis

Lolly Bowean:  Can a visual image, a photograph, or a painting, alter our attitudes and perceptions of each other? Can an image challenge stereotypes? Can it communicate a historical journey and help us see humanity in each other? Can an image help us to pursue justice and equity? Most importantly, how does visual representation shape our idea of citizenship?

These were questions Dr. Sarah Lewis forced us to grapple with in her prolific course, Vision and Justice, which debuted in 2016. The class was so powerful and so engaging. It was no surprise that it became a core curriculum course for incoming students. It was so powerful and so engaging that six fellows in my class, the class of 2017 enrolled in Dr. Lewis’ seminar. Often, we talked about her lectures from long after they ended. From learning about the earliest portraits of enslaved Africans, daguerreotypes which were commissioned to justify the continued mistreatment into dehumanization of black people brought here in chains to studying how Frederick Douglass became the most photographed American man of his time.

Dr. Lewis’ class covered the many ways a visual image can be used to damage and to liberate. Dr. Lewis is a writer, a researcher, a thought leader. I would call her an art activist. She has been published in “The New Yorker,” “The New York Times,” and “The Wall Street Journal.”

Her book, “The Rise,” is an “LA Times” bestseller. In 2016, Dr. Lewis guest edited a special issue of “Aperture Magazine,” which focused on photography and the black experience.

That issue, which also carried the title, “Vision and Justice,” sold 20,000 copies in less than two months. It became required reading at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Dr. Lewis is an assistant professor here at Harvard in both the Departments of History of Art and Architecture and African and African‑American Studies. She has appeared on the TED Maine stage and on Oprah’s Power List. She served on President Barack Obama’s Arts Policy Committee and has been profiled in The New York Times, “The Boston Globe,” and “Vogue Magazine.”

She has degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and she earned her PhD at Yale. Besides her scholarship and all her many accomplishments, Dr. Lewis is one of the most kind, most generous, and most graceful people you could ever meet. Please join me in welcoming her, Dr. Sarah Lewis.

Dr. Sarah Lewis:  Thank you so much for that kind introduction. It’s such a privilege to be here. I want to thank the Nieman Fellows that I’ve had the privilege to teach. You do so much to enrich the dialogue on this campus and have animated the research questions that will populate the book I’m finishing right now for Harvard University Press.

I want to speak today about the role of culture for citizenship and justice. I want to think a bit about the way in which the idea of literacy itself has enlarged to include visual literacy. I’d argue that we can’t do this without considering the historic role that images have played, as Lolly put so beautifully, in both challenging and liberating our notion of who counts in society.

She has so summarized the course so beautifully that I don’t need to say anything at all after that. I’d like to begin to think through this idea by just showing a short 60‑minute clip, 60‑second, 60‑second.

Male Participant:  We hold these truths to be self‑evident.

Female Participant:  That all men.

Male Participants:  Are created equal.

Male Participant:  That they are endowed by the creator.

Female Participant:  With certain unalienable rights.

Female Participant:  That among these are life.

Male Participant:  Liberty.

Female Participant:  And the pursuit of happiness.

Male Participant:  We, therefore.

Male Participants:  The representatives of the United States of America.

Male Participant:  For the support of this declaration.

Male Participant:  Mutually pledge to each other.

Female Participant:  Our lives.

Female Participant:  Our fortunes.

Male and Female Participants: And our sacred honor.

Dr. Lewis:  This is not meant to be an ad for Ancestry.

Although, why not give them credit for creating this extraordinary piece. I’d like to start with it because of the way in which it uses a visual template to describe this enlarged notion of citizenship today.

Here, you’re seeing John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence, which hangs as it was installed in 1826, in the rotunda of the Capitol. It shows 42 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, presenting it, their draft, at the Second Continental Congress.

The clip shows the journey between those two moments. Citizenship is defined in 1790 here in the United States as being white, being male, and being able to hold property.

Is the jury between these two images in which you see the descendants of the signers of the Declaration of Independence in the precise positions of their ancestors simply a legal narrative? Is it a cultural one as well?

You know my answer. If it is cultural, what are the inflection points on that journey that have enlarged our notion of who counts? This is very much how I teach the class, by considering those episodes. Today, I’d just like to think of the way in which culture has offered a form of data that has allowed us to expand our notion of civic belonging.

This is a very old idea, the importance of culture and specifically pictures for citizenship in the United States. In 1861, here in Boston, near Tremont Temple, Frederick Douglass gave a speech entitled Pictures and Progress about this idea. He is being, as I’m told by the president, recognized more and more.

I should remind us passed in 1895. He was giving a speech that no one expected about what would have seemed like a trifle in the face of that nation severing conflict, namely pictures and their importance for the civic imagination.

As my colleagues, John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste‑Marie Bernier discovered, he is the most photographed American man in the 19th century. Not African American man, American man.

What did he understand about the importance of images for dislodging our narratives, our limiting narratives that contribute to stereotypes about African Americans in particular? He expounded upon that understanding in this speech. That so confused his audience that they were silent but stayed because he was known as a volcanic, prolific orator.

As one journalist put it in 1861 about Frederick Douglass, his will, skill, and style proved to nearly all that this is a man who was cut out for a hero. As a speaker, he has few equals. Abraham Lincoln sought out his advice in the subject of emancipation.

He would though continue to think about the importance of images as he redrafted the speech in his study, as I imagined him doing so here in his final home in Anacostia, three times over the course of his life.

At the end of his speech, he said it might take over 150 years for someone to come along and better explain what I mean about the importance of images for social justice, as we might call it today. My hope is that the students I’m teaching are those who he had in mind and who he hoped would come.

Colleagues I have, such as Deborah Willis and extraordinary photographers, like Carrie Mae Weems, are who he had in mind as well. I’d submit to you today that if we don’t fully understand the importance of images for civic belonging as a concept, it’s because we often only do so during times of crisis.

This is very much the backdrop, of course, of Frederick Douglass’ speech during the Civil War.

I’d like to just give you another case study about this idea that was also born at a similar time. This was in 1831 during a period of deep segregation.

In Austin, Texas, there was a young boy named Charles Black Jr., who just thought at that age of 16, he was young for college, that he was just going to go to a dance and meet some girls. He found himself instead just transfixed by the power of an image.

It was that of this trumpet player whom he had never heard of before, playing with a kind of genius and lyricism that let him know in that moment that segregation must be wrong. He just knew it. Because if there was genius coming out of the body of this black man, that the entire structure of the world around him must be incorrect. He stood and knew it.

The friend to his left, who was from the very same high school he attended, shook his head about Louis Armstrong, as it turned out, king of the trumpet, and uttered an epithet commonly used about African Americans during the day. Charles Black Jr. was sure.

He inaugurates that as the moment in which he began walking towards justice. He would go on to become one of the lawyers that would argue the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education, that outlaw of segregation.

He inaugurates, every year at Columbia and Yale, where he would go on to teach, held that Armstrong listening night to honor the man who created that life‑changing shift.

How many movements began when a work of art and image so shifted our notion of the world entirely that we began to have a different sense of what was possible more times than we can possibly imagine? Although, the Nieman Fellows who’ve taken my class might be able to imagine it as they’ve seen me trot out the various images that give us a sense of this fact.

Whether it’s the image of the Brookes slave ship that contributed to the abolition of the slave trade so impactful was the efficacy of an image, not just argument alone, for showing the graphic with graphic precision, the inhumanity of the slave trade to many other examples.

It is no surprise to me that when we describe the arts, when we describe images that populate not just our museums but increasingly, our pages of either the digital or print newspaper, we often use words to describe that leaves us changed. Stunned, we might say, dazzled or knocked out.

It’s often the case that these private encounters so radically changed our notion of the world that we might say, without them, we could not overcome societal failure at all.

Just for a little bit of levity, I thought I would show this transcript of Martin Luther King’s, which inspired me to consider the idea of art, social failure, and justice. This is an image of his transcript from seminary, which you can see he did quite well in class, A’s and B’s. He did receive two C’s. Can you see on the transcript or guess, public speaking?

He actually got worse, C+ to C. I wonder what that teacher thought when he went on to lead the nation with the power of his spoken truth and what must have occurred inside of King. This certainly allows us to consider the artful way in which he crafted, probably with more difficulty than we understood his prestigious style.

American citizenship has long been a project of vision and justice. We’re understanding this relationship has been crucial for our society.

If I have failed in my talk to convince you of the importance of this, I’ve just flashed on the screen a few images that were commissioned by the government, taken by Dorothea Lang to document Japanese internment, but were then impounded because they conveyed with too much efficacy the inhumanity of the then federally sanctioned policy.

A year prior, “Life Magazine” had just run this ad to allow citizens to distinguish between Japanese and Chinese citizens, to determine who was an enemy and who was not. That is the backdrop against which we have to understand these images. They were being used as a form of data in society. This image too would have been impounded and was.

Just to close, you can understand why I think that it is an understudied aspect of the field, in which Jennifer Roberts and I wrote the part, of course/ art history, to understand its connection between justice and images. When Aperture asked me to guest edit an issue, I could think of no more important theme than vision and justice.

Without sufficient time, I can’t take you through the issue but what I’d like to offer is just an image that constitutes an epigraph. This is taken by former White House photographer, Pete Souza, who found himself with the President when a young boy, Jacob Philadelphia, then just five years old, wanted to ask his one question that his parents permitted him to the President. It was simply, “Is my hair texture the same as yours?”

What does it mean though that at age five he needed evidence that he could be and was very much like the President? I hear at Harvard Tisch this material. There’s one person I’d like to close by thanking. That is my grandfather. I’m named after him. His name was Shadrach Emmanuel Lee. My name is Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, less cool, S‑E‑L. It’s meant to honor him.

In the 11th grade, in New York City, in a public school, in 1926, he had a question for his history teacher. He wanted to know why the world, as he saw it in Brooklyn, didn’t populate his history textbooks. He wanted to understand why excellence was always presented one way.

He wanted to know where Asian Americans were, where Latinos were, African Americans were. Now indigenous, then he would have said Native Americans were.

He was told by his history teacher that African Americans, in particular, did nothing to merit inclusion. He didn’t accept that as an answer. He asked again. He was expelled for his so‑called impertinence. His pride was so wounded, he never went back to high school. He never got a college degree, but he became an artist, a jazz musician, and a painter.

He inspired in me the questions that I’m now, two generations later in this country, asking of my students and teaching them. It’s an extraordinary statement, not just of what’s possible in this country but of the importance of considering the capacity of the questions surrounding this marriage between images and justice today.

Frederick Douglass reminds that the arts are not a luxury, not merely a respite from life but are, in fact, in ways that are often unheralded, the mechanism through which we’ve created the more just society in which we are honored to live.

Often, we discount this fact because the encounters operate in private. What is remarkable about the encounters when they do occur is that they allow us, as Bryan Stevenson might state, to be proximate to one another. Thank you.