In 1926, high school junior Shadrach Emmanuel Lee asked his Brooklyn public high school history teacher why their textbooks featured no African Americans. Lee’s challenge of early 20th-century representations of excellence was met with a simple justification: African Americans had done nothing to warrant their inclusion. The question so disturbed Lee’s teacher that the young man was expelled.
It was Lee’s interrogation of the discriminatory narratives he saw institutionalized within his own life, as well as his career as a jazz musician and painter, that would lead Sarah Lewis, his granddaughter, to orient her scholarship around the intersection of art and justice.
At 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, August 20 in the Amphitheater, Lewis will offer a seminar-style lecture on race and culture within the United States. Her talk will be a “distillation” of the “Vision & Justice” course she teaches at Harvard University — a class that was incorporated into the school’s core curriculum after the award-winning Aperture issue of the same name, which Lewis guest edited, earned nationwide acclaim in 2016.
Inside the final week of Chautauqua Institution’s 2019 season, Lewis’ lecture lives next to a morning lecture from trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, as well as performances from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Lewis described speaking during a week spotlighting Marsalis — who performed at her April 2019 “Visions & Justice” event, a “creative convening” that featured Carrie Mae Weems, Ava DuVernay and Bryan Stevenson — as “so exciting.”
“Jazz has played a part in getting America to understand itself more fully,” Lewis said, noting that her own syllabus includes examples of the genre’s impact on advancing social justice.
An alum of New York City’s K-12 Brearley School, Lewis received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, where she studied the history of modern and contemporary African American art. Armed with a Master of Philosophy from Oxford University and a Ph.D. from Yale University, Lewis has served on President Barack Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, and has held curatorial positions at The Museum of Modern Art and London’s Tate Modern.
Her book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, is “an atlas of stories about pioneering individuals” — the product of a “unique” process during which Lewis interviewed approximately 200 individuals and scoured scholarly journals for unusual anecdotes about “conversions,” or corrections from past mistakes. Lewis acknowledged that it’s “not common to write a book about failure,” and characterized the book as “deeply personal, emotional and spiritual.”
“Learning from failure was the one topic I had not been taught at Harvard, Oxford or Yale — these great institutions,” Lewis said. “If you don’t learn to manage failure, it can unravel everything else. I wrote The Rise for myself. I never expected it would become the book that it did.”
Just as she reconsidered moments too quickly judged as defeats in The Rise, so too did Lewis re-frame American photography in her seminal “Vision & Justice” Aperture issue. Organized around Frederick Douglass’ understanding of the importance of images in the struggle for dignity and equality in a culture of white supremacy — a concept he outlined in his Civil War-era speech “Pictures and Progress” — “Vision & Justice” is a compendium of how art “expands who counts and who belongs through culture.”
“(Douglass’) idea is that an image that moves you or me creates a kind of imagined picture of possibility,” Lewis said. “It’s the distance between the picture you’re seeing and the new view that you have of the world that can make the difference between progress or not. For every person, there’s a different image that will impact them. The dynamic is what’s so important. That’s the thing that counts.”
Looking ahead, Lewis hopes technology and increased support for the arts will “help break down the silos within our community” and that “the arts continue to let us understand what we don’t know we don’t know.” But humanity will continue to create for progressive ends.
“You can’t move past the technology of the soul,” she said. “I think artists today are doing what they’ve been doing from the beginning of time, which is to force us to see what we would rather shy away from. I don’t think that’s changed in any way.”