Questions Sarah Lewis often asks herself:
What are we failing to see? And how can we understand it?
This is how “Vision & Justice: The Art of Citizenship” was born in 2016.
Designed by Lewis to explore the correlation between representation and American personhood, the Harvard class allows students to see how art has been used as a tool of protest and a tool of supremacy. Even in its infancy, the course was special.
Lewis is an art historian, a critical thinker, a visionary. She’s not a household name. But she has earned such respect and love in art circles that someone like the artist Carrie Mae Weems might drop by one of her classes, take photos with students, and talk about the power of pictures. She might give them a private tour of her latest exhibit.
That is the power of Lewis: She studies art and the culture. She teaches art and the culture. She loves art and the culture. And its makers love her, too.
The class, at first an experiment, quickly became part of Harvard’s core curriculum. Journalists would regularly drop in to capture her lessons. Her teachings became synonymous with the summer 2016 issue of Aperture, the acclaimed quarterly photography journal.
That issue, which Lewis guest edited, was inspired by and named after her course, “Vision & Justice.” Each page explored the role of photography in black American life — an Aperture first.
Soon after, she curated a Vision & Justice art show at the Harvard Art Museums. The exhibit illustrated how art functions as a tool of identity. Works by Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Gordon Parks, and James Augustus Joseph VanDerZee captured the black American experience.
Three years later, her course has grown into “Vision & Justice: A Creative Convening on Arts, Race, and Justice,” which will be hosted by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard on Thursday and Friday.
Lewis, 39, an assistant professor at Harvard in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Department of African and African American Studies, won’t be the only master teacher at the inaugural event.
Some of the world’s most celebrated black creatives, from Ava DuVernay to Wynton Marsalis to Weems, will discuss the role of the arts in identity and justice.
More than 150 years ago, Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Boston on “Pictures and Progress.” In his lecture, he talked about access and photography, noting that the humblest servant girl could possess a more perfect likeness of herself than noble ladies could purchase 50 years prior.
“It is evident that the great cheapness and universality of pictures must exert a powerful, though silent, influence upon the ideas and sentiment of present and future generations,” he said at the Tremont Temple in 1861.
He knew the significance of agency. It’s why Douglass became the most photographed man of the 19th century. He was constantly pictured in suit and tie, near books or writing, purposely distinguished. He intentionally used pictures to provide a counter-narrative to denigrating stereotypes of blackness.
His visual literacy inspires Lewis today. She carries it with her as she teaches her students. His face graces the cover of the complimentary civic curriculum, a special Aperture edition of “Vision & Justice” she compiled for this week’s conference. Her hope is that the gathering of minds upholds the Douglass legacy.
“Seeing has become a mode of reading the world,” Lewis says. “We make meaning of what we see through conditioned sight, and the question becomes what conditions the mode of seeing? When it comes to race and equity, this has become increasingly important to understand.”
As an undergraduate at Harvard, she didn’t have a course that explored black representation the way “Vision & Justice” does.
“It was a plea for what my younger self would have wanted to be taught when I was at Harvard and a way to expand the contributory function of art history,” she says of the class she created. “It was also an experiment. I didn’t know how it would be received.”
But people were buzzing about it before the course was open for enrollment in fall 2016 — the final months of Barack Obama’s presidency. Everyone from photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier to social justice activist Bryan Stevenson popped into her class to guest lecture. The seats in the classroom downstairs in the Harvard Art Museums were full.
But she wasn’t teaching hype. She was feeding souls.
In her class, students critically examined the way the arts were used to marginalize black people, Native people, Asian people, and people of color, period.
I know. I was among the first “Vision & Justice” students. And the day Lewis had us meet her in the Peabody Museum to see the Zealy daguerreotypes changed me.
At the height of “Make America Great Again” campaigning, we stared at images made to illustrate black inferiority. Commissioned in 1850 by racial scientist and infamous Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, the photos were meant to prove white supremacy. Slaves were stripped naked and forced to be photographed in the name of polygenesis.
To look at the images of Delia and Renty is to look at hostage photos, reminders of the agency America never meant for black folk to have. It was impossible not to see Eric Garner and Sandra Bland and the humanity continually stripped from black people. We saw ourselves.
It hurt in ways that felt older than me, ancestral ways that emotionally exhaust the spirit and simultaneously fuel you with a fervor to flip the script.
“The medium of photography and the moving image has this dual path,” Lewis says. “It was used to honor human life, but it was also used as a weapon to denigrate. Through the history of racial science, we see how images were used as tools to just make normal the racial hierarchy that we’re still working to break apart today.”
In that same class, she amplified the beauty and power of black representation.
We saw ourselves in the Pete Souza photograph of the 5-year-old boy touching Obama’s hair to see if it was like his own.
We did not need to search for our wonder and loveliness in Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Lewis allowed us to love ourselves in the way Awol Erizku celebrated our magic when he made “Girl With A Bamboo Earring.” We, too, are beautiful.
And that’s the underlying message of so much of Lewis’s work: Black beauty and black joy are a revolution. Representation, by us and for us, for everybody to see, is our resistance. It is a tool to destroy the hierarchy.
Pushing back against erasure and misrepresentation is rooted in her family tree.
As a student in 1926, her grandfather was expelled from a Brooklyn high school for asking where black people were in the textbooks. He never returned to school. He became an artist and a jazz musician, painting the world he wanted to see in those books, making the music of our people.
“I never understood that he was really asking the question that here, two generations later at Harvard, I’m asking,” Lewis says. “What’s the role of visuality for determining who counts and who belongs in society? So my name is Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, but it’s meant to honor my grandfather, Shadrach Emmanuel Lee. He’s the North Star for my work.”
Lewis, for many of us, is a shining star burning bright in the growing constellation of black excellence. And the “Vision & Justice” convening is her ultralight beam.
Two days and dozens of our brightest thinkers and creators exploring identity, justice, and art?
May they ignite a path of righteous representation for generations to come.