Thursday, April 25, 2019
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
“I, too, am America.”
So reads the final line of a classic Langston Hughes poem.
Those words—“I, too, am America”—are inscribed in capital letters across a large interior wall at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture—a magnificent public institution designed by architect Sir David Adjaye, whom we’ll hear from this afternoon.
Speaking at the Museum’s grand opening in September of 2016, this country’s first black president, Barack Obama, repeated those powerful words—as many had before and many since.
“I, too, am America” affirms that the African American story is part of the American story. In just a few words, Hughes’s famous line centers African-American lived experience in the context of an American history steeped in racial discrimination—and it articulates a vision of racial justice. It reminds us that America belongs to “we, the people,” that the American Constitution is living, that all of us—in every generation—must define the American experience.
The premise that the arts—literary, visual, and performance—not only reflect, but also shape the American experience, is what animates the two-day convening on Vision and Justice before us.
And, it’s the very power of art that demands that we collectively contemplate whose words, whose experiences, are shared and amplified in the art around us, and what that means for our democracy.
As Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, I’m honored to host this event. I’m grateful to Professor Sarah Lewis who conceived it; to the Ford Foundation that helped to fund it; and to my colleagues across the University who worked closely with us here at the Radcliffe Institute to organize it, especially our co-sponsors: the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, the Harvard Art Museums, and the American Repertory Theater.
There are many others to thank—including our phenomenal speakers and performers. Thanks to all of you.
Now, we have a packed afternoon ahead of us, so let me close by simply saying: Welcome. I’m thrilled to have you here, and to embark together on what will be—what is—a crucial conversation.
With that, I’m pleased to turn things over to Sarah Lewis. Sarah guest-edited the 2016 “Vision and Justice” issue of Aperture magazine—the seed that blossomed into this convening. She serves as assistant professor in the departments of history of art and architecture and African and African American studies here at Harvard. Let’s give her a warm welcome!