For our Fall/Winter 2020 issue, the ‘grown-ish’ star reconnects with her former Harvard professor to examine the narrative threads of the past, and weave a vision for a world full of hope, beauty, truth, and equality
The hotly contested presidential election had been decided only weeks before, and a group of allies, Black and white, gathered in Boston’s Tremont Temple to commemorate the first anniversary of the state-sanctioned killing of a martyr to the fight for justice. United in their grief and purpose, they were determined to further the conversation on America’s constitutional promise of liberty and justice for all. And then the hecklers arrived: A mixture of working-class bruisers and elites—some Harvard students among them—charged into the hall. Wooden canes became batons, chairs were thrown and smashed, and cries of “Treason! Police!” filled the air as a Black man took the stage. A few minutes later, police arrived and escorted the man out the door. Later that night, several Black men would be beaten in the street.
While seemingly torn from the 2020 headlines, the scene above occurred much earlier—on December 3, 1860. The contested election was Lincoln’s, the martyr was the abolitionist John Brown, the hecklers were wealthy merchants— and the ruffians they hired—whose business dealings relied on an enslaved South, and the Black man was the famous author, orator, and publisher Frederick Douglass, who had escaped slavery and rose to become one the nation’s most influential intellectuals and abolitionists. This ugly episode in American history was on my mind as I waited anxiously for Harvard associate professor, art historian, author, and leading expert on race and representation, Sarah Lewis, PhD, and her former student, the activist, actress, and producer Yara Shahidi, to join our Zoom call five days before another hotly contested election—one that would see the first Black and South Asian American woman elected to the second most powerful position in our nation’s government, thanks in large part to the hard work of Black community organizers.
A year to the day after Douglass was forcibly removed from Tremont Temple, he returned to the same stage to deliver his “Lecture on Pictures”: “Man warms, glows, and expands only where [he] sees himself asserted broadly and truly,” Douglass declared about halfway through his speech. He understood, even then, the power of the picture in the collective imagination as it pertained to the perception of Black Americans, and harnessed it to create a counternarrative to foil the dehumanizing and racist caricatures and photographs that were so common in the media of that era, long after it, and up to today. Over his lifetime, Douglass posed in front of the camera more than 100 times, becoming the most photographed American of the 19th century, and in doing so, created what we would now refer to as a personal brand: gallant, well-dressed, commanding, and serious.
Douglass’s lecture and his masterful use of photographic imagery inspired Lewis, who held curatorial positions at MoMA and the Tate Modern in London, to create Vision & Justice: The Art of Citizenship, a course that is now part of Harvard University’s core curriculum, and later manifested as a two-day conference headlined by some of today’s most famous Black thought leaders and creatives. Aperture magazine invited Lewis to guest edit an entire issue which she focused on photography, race, and justice, earning the 2017 Infinity Award for Critical Writing and Research. In her introduction, Lewis wrote, “The centuries-long effort to craft an image to pay honor to the full humanity of Black life is a corrective task for which photography and cinema have been central, even indispensable.”
Perhaps no one understands the power of visual storytelling better than Shahidi, who, as a freshman in Lewis’s class at Harvard, was filming her groundbreaking Freeform show grown-ish, the successful spinoff from the acclaimed ABC prime-time hit Black-ish. That same year, in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, Shahidi founded Eighteen x 18, a platform she created to encourage first-time voters to get to the polls. Now a bona fide producer with her own production company, Shahidi is poised to play a major role, to paraphrase Lewis, in advancing the visual literacy that continues to impact the relationship of race and the quest for full citizenship.
Reunited for the first time in over a year, Lewis and Shahidi fondly recall their time at Harvard, pay homage to the Black leaders of the past, discuss their artistic inspirations of the present, and share their vision and plans to usher in a future where both representational truth and political power will triumph in a nation that has changed so much—and so little—since Frederick Douglass posed for his last portrait.
Yara Shahidi: I remember seeing your name on the [course] list and being, like, Oh my goodness, look at this kismet, because I’d been waiting so patiently to be in your class [Vision & Justice]. Every class that I’ve been in with you was really a meditation, because I had never spent that much time with art, and I remember gathering around and looking at something, and it made me realize how many times I am not just sitting, and looking, and allowing for observations to come to me, not only about the world around me but about myself. How many times was I not letting myself get that space?
Sarah Lewis: Thank you, Yara, for reminding me of why I think teaching is a calling. I’m teaching a course now entitled American Racial Ground that looks at how artists are working in this era of the Stand Your Ground law, including artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, Hank Willis Thomas, Dawoud Bey with his Underground Railroad series, and even cultural agents like the lawyer Bryan Stevenson with his Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I think what excites me is the discovery of the capacity of the arts and culture to animate our notion of who counts and who belongs, and to explode the limitations of an idea that’s been opposed by living in a democracy built on slavery and stolen indigenous land. Are there any works or any moments that you can remember that made you think differently about the work of culture for justice?
Yara: Well, your talk on groundlessness, and there was this piece by Amy Sherald that you had shared. If I had seen it without context, I don’t know if I would have placed two and two together. I’m so grateful that you brought Bryan Stevenson’s work into the conversation. A lot of these conversations happened right as we were launching the production company [7th Sun Productions], and not only does it have me looking at law school applications now, but it also helped demonstrate the bridge between the role of social justice and art.
The sentiment of the production company begins with this idea of what happens if we allow brown and Black people to just be on screen. I’d always deeply resonated with Catcher in the Rye, much to my own surprise later in life, because looking back, nothing about Holden Caulfield traipsing through New York feels indicative in any way of my experience. But I liked the plotlessness of it; he wasn’t serving anyone’s purpose. We’re fortunately witnessing a renaissance of Black art in all forms, and at the same time—in media, in particular—it feels like we fall prey to Black people having to serve a purpose versus just being allowed to exist in their fullness because that is our right to exist in our fullness. So, yes, we want representation! But how are we being represented? What stories are still not being told because they’re not as packageable? It’s been wonderful to let go of what is easily sellable and replace it with what I wish to see in the world.
“Yes, we want representation! But how are we being represented? What stories are still not being told because they’re not as packageable? It’s been wonderful to let go of what is easily sellable and replace it with what I wish to see in the world.”—Yara Shahidi
Sarah: Production is a practical term, but it really is a heuristic for an incredibly foundational idea. Much of the excitement I have about your company and what’s going to come from your future projects is that you’re going to shift a paradigm, and you’re part of a larger development in terms of feeling that we are entitled to shift paradigms. So much of the beauty and the terror of the American project is that we have to constantly live in an imagined future. There’s an unrest about our journey; it’s a quest to live out a promise in our principles that we always strive to uphold.
Yara: When I’m thinking of this industry at large and the moment that I’m now in, I am sitting in gratitude because I entered this world at a time in which community has really taken precedence. I’m thinking of not only the community that you foster through Vision & Justice, but also Black-ish and having Kenya Barris looking at this 17-year-old and seeing a collaborator when he had every right as the creator of a show to see me as an actor. It feels very indicative of this larger time of art recentering in community.
Sarah: How do you see community as it relates to youth and civic activism?
Yara: A few years ago, I was talking with Harry Belafonte, and he kept making references to James, and I was like, ‘You mean James Baldwin, the person I have a shrine to in my room?’ And he kept talking about the tightness of that community. So many people in our generation no longer have the literal sense of proximity to community, but what is replacing that is a more global mindset. As we watch a whole new generation of youth leaders, we see that social media has been oriented as a way of building community. What made voting an exciting area to focus on in terms of my civic engagement wasn’t that I thought it was the solution to all of our problems, but because I could get all sorts of people in a room. My first gathering for Eighteen x 18 had environmental activists, racial justice advocates, immigrant rights advocates, all in a room talking about how we can shape society, and looking at how all of these conversations are interconnected. I feel like I’m speaking for Gen Z when I say that our circles of care are pretty broad. We either fall into certain intersections ourselves or we have friends who fall into other intersections, so even if it doesn’t pertain to you, you still care about it deeply. That has really shaped what we understand our political obligations to be.
“What excites me is the discovery of the capacity of the arts and culture to animate our notion of who counts and who belongs, and to explode the limitations of an idea that’s been opposed by living in a democracy built on slavery and stolen indigenous land.” —Sarah Lewis
Sarah: I’m reminded of the loss of some of our leaders in this year—Congressman John Lewis foremost among them— and the fact that the last conversation he and I had was at Selma. He asked me to speak with him about the function and role of art for justice, and I was inspired to think rather differently about community because of him. I brought images of the great civil rights photographers in order for us to discuss, and so many of them had been his roommates. Danny Lyon, for example: He would joke about not wanting to trip over the darkroom materials in the bathroom. That proximity which Bryan Stevenson speaks about, that intimacy with activists as comrades in a larger struggle, is really crucial. And technology is allowing for that in a new and powerful way.
Are there projects that you’d like to discuss that are on the horizon or things that you are interested in exploring?
Yara: One thing that I’ve been fascinated by for a while is what it means to be a global citizen. What does it mean to be an American? It feels like such a loaded term. I’ve found myself in conversation with so many people who live around the globe, and it was really fascinating when they tied the word ‘American’ to me. As much as I’m a Minnesotan, a Californian, there’s something about that word in particular that just felt completely inapplicable to me.
The world has definitely been at a halt, and it’s made us take seriously these things that we could push past even a year ago. There’s a current that connects not only the state-sanctioned violence we’ve seen here, but also the state-sanctioned violence in Nigeria. So what does global citizenship look like in a digital age? What does it look like to push past statements of solidarity? What does it look like when we’re no longer just posturing on Instagram or Twitter? How do I live in solidarity with many communities?
I had heard [Angela Davis] speak about Palestine at an event when I was 16. It was the first time somebody had connected for me the Black Lives Matter movement here and what it means to stand in solidarity with movements elsewhere in the globe. It made me think about being Iranian and realizing that people see me as a young Black girl. Unless you’re very familiar with me, you may not be like, ‘Oh, that’s a young Iranian girl.’ I’ve always been extremely proud of both of my cultures, but there’s a cultural identity, a social identity, and a political identity that’s connected to both of my upbringings. What does the evolution of this identity look like? I’ll say things if I know the repercussions will only come back to harm me, but I’m in another sphere of politics where there is a potential for my family to be harmed because of something I have said. This brings in another level of awareness that I have to intentionally cultivate. This is where I need allyship because I’m not in a place where I can speak about some things. So global citizenship is at the forefront of my mind. I have a fear of messing up in the public sphere, but I’m pushing for growth and trying to let that go. This is going to be the era of messing up as I experiment in ways to be engaged in the world.
Sarah: Remain fearless. It only serves you. I was reading your conversation with Angela Davis and was so taken by your focus on the imagination. You mentioned that the strategy of white supremacy is to take away the potential of the Black imaginary, and we’re in a moment now of world building. Then you rounded this out by talking about how this election is an opportunity to reclaim our space for imagination. What I find so powerful about what you’re describing is that this moment has occasioned a way to newly imagine both your own community and the global community as defined along new identity lines, new lines of alliance that are based on shared concerns and allyship.
Yara: Absolutely. It’s funny because I’ve been reflecting on how bored Sir Isaac Newton had to be to come up with calculus. I’m genuinely intrigued by how unburdened someone has to be by the world—how few obstacles there have to be in one’s life—to have this space to create something that hasn’t been seen before. I’ve been reflecting on what white supremacy looks like, and we’re in a phase in which we’re taking conversations on abolition and reimagination seriously. It’s no longer just reform, but about engaging in a deep conversation about what a world that isn’t based in the structures we’re familiar with looks like. That can be quite scary, but it requires this other level of space and imagination. When thinking about the obstacles of just existing day-to-day for so many people living in certain minority communities, whatever their intersection may be, that space isn’t naturally given because you have to be so grounded in your presence.
In that conversation, I was reflecting on how we reclaim imagination. I acknowledge the privilege of being a part of a production company, such that there’s value placed on my ideas in a way that isn’t given to many people. Even within production, there is a hierarchy determining which people and whose imaginations are genuinely valued and whose have to be justified and anchored. If this hierarchy exists in a space where we’re literally being paid to be creative, then in spaces in which there is no value on creativity overtly, there is even a steeper hierarchy of who’s given that space.
Sarah: I want to empower anyone reading this to arrogate to themselves the potential to create the way that Isaac Newton created calculus. Instead of critiquing the entitlement that we often discuss in the context of gender and race—who feels entitled to do what—arrogate to yourself that entitlement to create. I was thinking about this because I had a near-death car collision since I last saw you.
Yara: Oh my goodness, I’m so glad you’re okay.
Sarah: It was a profound experience. There was a divinity in it, a clarity that came from realizing that I wasn’t excited to be alive so that I could critique something. I was excited to be alive so that I could create something and bring joy through that to myself and to others. I think it’s important to underscore your point about the productive state that comes from that sort of abstraction as it relates to activism now. Let me make it more concrete. You and I have discussed Frederick Douglass. And here he is at the height of the Civil War inaugurating the ideas that we’re talking about today. The stakes couldn’t have been more dramatic for him, living in a time in which culture is justifying the inhumane treatment of Black and brown bodies on American soil. The Civil War is being fought to perpetuate slavery, and there he is, offering the most abstract speech possible…
Yara: Taking pictures of himself.
Sarah: …Taking pictures of himself to become the most photographed American man. One could say, ‘Well, he’s got a lot of time on his hands.’ No, he doesn’t! That is an activist strategy to inaugurate a new way of being through what I call representational justice. That was such a radical act. Yes, his speech was misunderstood. But he creates a model that we’ve all been inspired by. All that you’re creating is what he hoped for. At the end of that speech, he said it might take over 150 years for someone to come along and better articulate what he meant about the power of images for American progress.
“We’re taking conversations on abolition and reimagination seriously. It’s no longer just reform, but about engaging in a deep conversation about what a world that isn’t based in the structures we’re familiar with looks like.”—Yara Shahidi
Yara: There’s a deep history about the importance of art that was central to conversations on equality. The idea of creating something productive is really beautiful, and a space that I want to sit in. We live in an environment that fosters critique, and I’ve tried to figure out the fine line between productive critique—something that moves a product or an action forward—and stagnant critique.
Brittany Packnett [Cunningham] likened activism to being on a moving walkway. It’s not enough to stand still; you have to be actively running the other direction. Highlighting the importance of action has been invigorating, but it’s still confusing trying to figure out which movements are going to push us forward while not allowing myself to sit in what is wrong about something for so long that I do nothing.
Sarah: One of the ways I think that activism is often misunderstood is that it’s not fully equated with education. I find that people are looking to you as a model for what it means to be a young activist who is focused on education, who’s going to talk about James Baldwin on Instagram. Have you found inspiration with new texts, with new authors, or with new cultural workers?
Yara: Well, I have to credit my family with showing me the power of informal education. They like to call me the educational guinea pig in the family—I think I was in a total of 12 schools. One thing that anchored my education was that it didn’t just happen in a classroom. It happened in the present and with my family, and—you even speak about this—just how often society overlooks lived experience as expertise.
I would also have to point to all the folklore I read growing up as being so fundamental to my learning. A lot of African folklore. I had every version of Cinderella except the Hans Christian Andersen one. There’s something about the fairy tales that set up the foundation for me, believing in the power of inclusion, because I felt very enfranchised growing up. The world was reflective of my family and my friends based on how my parents presented it to me, given that I was watching TV only for an hour on Saturday, and it was Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, where Whoopi Goldberg was Mother Goose and you had all of these iconic actors of color reprising all of our favorite roles. So the cultural curricula that I grew up with has been foundational in terms of how I viewed the world.
Sarah: We have so few collective touchstones in our contemporary society, and folktales and rituals were one of the main ways that people could come together and mark moments of development in one’s individual life and the passing of time from childhood to adulthood. I was obsessed with studying Joseph Campbell’s work The Power of Myth. That was introduced to me by Wynton Marsalis, who, because of his work as a jazz musician, really understood how music operated to bring people together, even in a time of segregation and in ways that made me want to understand the power of culture and the arts to do what rituals had once done. Are there rituals that you’re creating for yourself right now?
Yara: I’ve been trying to give myself the ritual of reflection. My mother’s encouraged me to actively write down and archive my life. My life has been archived by the Walt Disney Company, by Instagram, and through many places, but it’s been empowering to figure out how I choose to archive. What do I choose to save about my days?
I’m also a huge podcast nerd, and I love listening to stories. There’s something about podcasts—listening as a ritual, versus seeing in a time in which there are so many images presented to us that it’s easy to consume with no intention. I didn’t realize how normalized it was to take images of our own trauma, especially right now. [Trauma] was so easy to come across on Instagram, on Twitter, on all of these public platforms, on covers of magazines. So many young people have been talking about the importance of trigger warnings because people should have the right to understand what they are about to intake, especially if you’re already enduring trauma.
And yesterday was Frank Ocean’s birthday, which may sound random, but that’s a national holiday for me. I listen to a lot of Frank Ocean. He used Kerry James Marshall’s painting A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self for the artwork for his album Lens. When I was listening to it, I was reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is the same story.’ So all of my notes in there are connecting different chapters to different Frank Ocean songs. There’s something I really enjoy about connecting different mediums.
Sarah: For me, the ritual is meditation. I have to find a way to let myself feel clearly about being a vessel for what’s coming through, whether it’s writing, whether it’s teaching. I always start with meditation, which sometimes means earlier wake-up times than I want, but the day will go in a much rockier way if I don’t meditate. Every time.
And getting inspiration from other artists, visual artists, in particular, is really important. There are so many artists that are providing inspiration to me, particularly now. Certainly Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley, Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae, Carrie Mae Weems, Lena Waithe. Arthur Jafa, Shirin Neshat—there are many. The question that many of them are asking, and Kerry James Marshall articulates most clearly, is that we have to constantly recover the capacity to imagine ourselves as the ideal.
Yara: Tyler Mitchell has been documenting what we’ve been going through in such a beautiful way and highlights the ability to capture the imagination. I loved his recent cover of AOC for Vanity Fair. It was so fitting. Renell Medrano is somebody that I’m really lucky to have worked with on a couple of projects. I was familiar with her work because of the amount of time she spent with Dapper Dan, documenting his work and legacy. And Phillip Youmans—I think Ava [DuVernay] is distributing his film, and I’ve been lucky to get a sneak peek of what’s coming next. And even the photographer for this story for Document Journal, John Edmonds…. There is something so nice about an art form that requires us to take our time, and he captures such beautiful work.
Sarah: Tyler Mitchell, yes! John Edmonds is fantastic. He and I are in conversation at the Brooklyn Museum in January. I admire his work. I love that he’s photographing you for this issue. I should add that Simone Leigh has been an inspiration for a very long time. And one of the beauties of this moment is that we were able to celebrate her being the first Black woman to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.
Meg Thomann: Do you think we’re going to see equity in the art world first, or do you think we’re going to see it in terms of representational power in government first? Is it going to be art imitating life or life imitating art?
Yara: I’ve never seen government keep up with the pace of art, historically. Not to be a pessimist, but it feels as though art predicts where we’re moving, and especially after such a long conversation on imagination, I feel like we’ll need art as a guiding source to begin the imagination. And so many community organizers are artists.
Art is such an elite space, which makes it feel like we haven’t achieved full representation yet, but there are so many people who are actively making art out there that the representation is being developed as we speak. Yeah, I think the answer is art and then government.
“[Trauma] was so easy to come across on Instagram, on Twitter, on all of these public platforms, on covers of magazines. So many young people have been talking about the importance of trigger warnings because people should have the right to understand what they are about to intake.”—Yara Shahidi
Sarah: Art and culture have always led. I think it’s why Frederick Douglass staked his claim to the productive power of photography ahead of political action as what would be required for American progress. It was a visionary idea, and I believe in it. Look at the journey of American democracy from the Naturalization Act of 1790, when the legal definition of citizenship entailed being white, male, and able to hold property, to the current day. That journey is not simply a legal narrative of laws later passed to explode that limited definition. It’s also a cultural narrative. It’s a cultural journey. And what we’re really talking about here are the episodes along that journey that house our capacity to define who counts and who belongs as all of us. The work of culture did that ahead of law. I mean, ultimately, what law is, [and] what justice is, is a recognition of our prior failures as a society or as individuals. The failure to recognize others or recognize our own capacity. It’s a matter of seeing us as constantly able to correct ourselves.
Meg: Earlier, Yara was talking about social media, and those platforms are really a reflection of each creator’s personal vision for what they want to see in the world and how they would like us to interact. Of course, those tech titans, and the people who are at the top of their companies, are overwhelmingly white and male. And, Sarah, you have said, ‘What we share, the algorithms that determine what we see—all of this is urgent for the creation or elimination of common civic space in our democracy. I think we need some technology that alters our devices into thinking we have other identities, just so that we see the world through that lens.’ Is that possible, given the way that technology and social media are ruled by algorithms? And do you think we need an algorithm designed to promote empathy?
Sarah: Joy Buolamwini’s work here is really crucial. She started the Algorithmic Justice League, and the reason I was thinking about this idea of experiencing technology as someone else is because as a dark-skinned Black woman coding in the lab at MIT, she had to literally wear a white mask in order to experience that technology neutrally. She had to do that because the bias of technology wouldn’t recognize her brown face through facial recognition software. Now, you might think it just creates a difficult experience in terms of technology. It’s not just about that. Algorithmic bias results in unequal outcomes for loan applications. It results in much of the racial bias we are decrying as activism right now. It’s embedded in so many of our systems. Do I think it’s possible? It needs to be possible. I’m encouraged by some of the tech titans who have come to me in the last few months from big companies who read the piece I wrote in The New York Times who now are looking at this and asking questions. [They’re] incentivized, unfortunately, by capitalism, to see whether they can create better products that will eliminate some of the bias, and be perhaps the first to market with it. I would love it if that were possible.
“Ultimately, what law is, [and] what justice is, is a recognition of our prior failures as a society or as individuals. The failure to recognize others or recognize our own capacity. It’s a matter of seeing us as constantly able to correct ourselves.”—Sarah Lewis
Yara: I remember you sharing in class, and it’s a fact that really stuck with me—the idea that Kodak developed the ability to see different browns, not because they physically couldn’t see brown people, but was it wood manufacturers?
Sarah: Yeah, Kodak only did it because wood and chocolate manufacturers complained about not being able to show their goods. Lorna Roth’s research on this is so important.
I have so many questions for you, Yara, and I don’t want the conversation to end. Normally, during this time of night, because of the pandemic, my energy gets really low, but I am so uplifted and inspired right now. This might be a heavy question, but mindful again of the leaders who have passed, [like] Congressman John Lewis and Maurice Berger, who was a mentor of mine…. They began their work at around your age. Fifty years from now, looking back on this moment, what do you hope your legacy will be?
Yara: First, I have to credit the leaders who had everything to do with the freedoms and the tools that I’ve been given as the reason why I do what I do. Right now, there is a very serious conversation about participation in systems. Sherrilyn Ifill, [president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund,] gives a wonderful definition of infiltration and the idea of being aware that we operate within systems that have been used as a double-edged sword to empower individuals but to oppress communities, and being mindful of one’s mission so that even though you’re operating within said infrastructures and systems, you’re still orienting your greed or action toward good. And so there’s the question of infiltration, and there’s a question of burning it all down. I don’t know, quite honestly, which way I lean. [I’m] acknowledging that I’m fully participatory in so many of the systems I sit and critique. I’m hoping that regardless of how I choose to participate in this movement, I help create space for imagination. This move to being a producer is that desire coming to fruition. My ability to tell stories no longer has anything to do with the stories that I can or can’t tell, and has everything to do with my ability to collaborate. I’m hoping to continue to be one of the many people to help carve out space for creativity, untethered by what we’re so familiar with right now.
Sarah: Well, I think it is a clear answer, no matter how you carve out this space, whether it’s through Sherrilyn Ifill’s definition of infiltration or whether it’s the fire of purification, ultimately…
Yara: Whether it’s the fire next time.
Hair Nena. Make-up Emily Cheng at The Wall Group. Manicure Emi Kudo at Opus Beauty using YSL Beauty. Photo Assistants Frankie Carino, Caleb Thal. Stylist Assistant John Mumblo. Set Design Jon Anthony. Producer Madeleine Kiersztan at Ms4 Production. Special thanks to NFS.