Late into the last evening of a sprawling two-day conference on art and race and culture and citizenship—and on the possibility of achieving justice—artist Hank Willis Thomas turned to the crowd in Sanders Theatre and sort of chuckled. His brain, he said, was “thick with ideas,” which he was clearly still working to absorb, and he thanked the audience for sharing the moment with him—by which he meant the whole long, thrilling, strenuous, powerful, time-dilated thing. Then, after a second’s hesitation, he asked everyone assembled to turn to the nearest stranger and give the same thanks, and for a moment, Memorial Hall was full of churchgoers in pews, speaking to their neighbors.
Willis Thomas wasn’t wrong: last week’s Radcliffe Institute event, Vision and Justice: A Creative Convening—which drew hundreds to Radcliffe’s Knafel Center and Sanders Theatre, plus nearly 2,500 viewers online—was as overwhelming as its organizers intended. Partly that was sheer volume: roughly 15 hours, altogether, of performances, videos, photographs, panel discussions, and talks. And partly it was star power. There was filmmaker Ava DuVernay, of Selma, A Wrinkle in Time, and 13th, on stage with Fletcher University Professor and PBS documentarian Henry Louis Gates Jr., talking about her forthcoming project, a miniseries on the Central Park Five. She had been introduced by film executive Franklin Leonard ’00, of Black List fame. And there was Chelsea Clinton interviewing author and pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha about the Flint water crisis. And New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb discussing the intertwined American histories of citizenship and racial narratives. Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Ar.D. ’09, gave a breezy, kinetic performance with three bandmates at 9 a.m., before sitting down to discuss cultural citizenship—and to share a funny story about Benny Goodman—with Harvard president emerita Drew Faust and director of the American Repertory Theater Diane Paulus. Poet Elizabeth Alexander, RI ’08, was in the lineup, too, along with author Claudia Rankine, artist Carrie Mae Weems, rapper Swizz Beatz (Kasseem Dean), and civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, J.D.-M.P.A.’85, LL.D. ’15.