Edmonia Lewis and Me

The following post is a mix between a conversion narrative and an intellectual biography of the creator of this site–me, Antje Anderson. You do not have to be curious about me, and it is true that this verges on white-centering: it’s all about this white woman discovering how important it is for her to learn more about a Black Americans sculptor. You are completely in your right to feel very “duh” and “it’s about time” about this, and if you do, please feel free to skip. I decided, though, that it is also okay for you to BE curious about how I came to discover Edmonia Lewis and how this site fits into my own journey. I end with acknowledgments; skip forward to get to those.

Prelude

I am a former professor of English literature. I taught at two predominantly white liberal arts colleges for over 20 years after getting a Ph.D. in the 1990s. I taught mostly canonical works, specializing in British Victorian literature when I could, but mostly teaching everything, kitchen-sink style: introduction to literature, composition, surveys of British and western literature, occasional interdisciplinary courses on literature and history. Around the edges of this teaching, I tried to mildly question the canon, by way of “also” including an array of texts by women writers, by nonwhite writers, by LGBT writers, etc. I thought of myself as well-informed about these issues and as a little left of the white-bread (and white) liberal. This was partly because I originally came from Germany in the 1990s, and what counted as politically mainstream was considered much more emphatically left-wing in the US. I thought I was doing a good job making my typically conservative students rethink some of their ideas about society, literature, history, and their own place in it.

Then, in 2018, I left this behind for a host of reasons, but not because I was unhappy: I had loved this job. But I was also excited to try something new and go back to graduate school, this time for art history. A two-year program to get an M.A. looked like a good way to explore a brand-new field that I had always loved as a museum-goer and lover of art and visual culture, but never explored as an academic. I wish I could say that this is where I was introduced to Edmonia Lewis, but the story is more complicated than that: While the courses I took and the research I plunged into like it was an ocean, my own mare incognitum, prepared me to understand much better what I was to learn about her and her art, my M.A. program, both by institutional and personal choice, actually prevented me from finding her. Three moments of encountering Edmonia Lewis that belong to key moments (beginning, middle, end) of my art history degree highlight this contradiction.

Act 1: Beginning

In order to be admitted into my M.A. program, I was asked to take series of on-line survey courses in art history–because I truly had never formally studied it and lacked the usual undergraduate credentials and credits that are standard prerequisites. In the spring of 2018, before the start of my program that fall, I started with a standard survey “Renaissance to Modern Art,” and I did learn a lot. But it was by far the most canonical course I had ever taken in any field. I was listening to video lectures and reading my textbook, and toward the end of Chapter 27 on art from 1800-1870, in the three pages on American art, there was an inset about “Edmonia Lewis, an African-American Sculptor.” She had not been mentioned in the video lectures, and I always wrote down which artists were specifically mentioned only in the textbook, especially the handful of female artists. So I put a parenthesis in my lecture notes: “African-American FEMALE sculptor” and wrote down the only work that was discussed, Forever Free, from 1867. I was trying to pay attention to the handful of female artists that we were covering. To be honest, I I did not expect to encounter any Black artists at all before the 20th century. But because she didn’t come up in the course lectures, the quizzes, or exams for the course (not to mention in the list for our comprehensive exams that fall), I promptly forgot all about her. Sculpture was not my thing (I thought). American art was not my thing (I thought). Looking at questions of race and racism in art was not my thing (I thought).

Act 2: Middle

This is why the name Edmonia Lewis did not ring a bell at all when I encountered it again, exactly half-way through my Art History degree. I was inside a scholar’s dream: doing research for my thesis on site, in Florence, during a ten-day trip to Italy with the help of a graduate-student research grant. I had decided to take advantage of my old field in exploring my new one: I was retracing the steps of British women writers and art lovers who came to Italy to see the “Old Masters,” and I was visiting Florence’s English Cemetery, to see the tomb of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who had lived in Florence for many years before her death in 1861. I was asking the elderly woman in charge of tiny office at the cemetery gate a question relating to my research. Here is what I wrote in my travel journal: “We ended up talking about various British and American women who were able to do unusual things in Florence, and I could have spent a lot more time asking her about her research—she helped an art historian named Mary[lin] Richardson to research a black American sculptor named Edmonia Lewis, a friend of Frederick Douglass’, who worked in Florence and Rome and apparently sculpted a Cleopatra who is in the Smithsonian (and whom I am sure I’ll come across in one of the books about British and American expat women I have sitting at home).” So there she was again. I had clearly forgotten that I read about her the previous year. At least I already knew at this point that she would come up in some of my reading. But because Americans in Italy were not my focus, I put her out of my mind. Her name doesn’t come up once in hundreds of pages of notes I took on my readings over the next year for my thesis.

Act 3: End

But at least the name finally stuck. And this meant that in the summer of 2020, after I had completed my thesis, when I heard her mentioned again, I finally had a frame of reference. I was attending a roundtable discussion at a virtual conference, and one of the scholars, Jennifer de Vere Brody (Stanford), mentioned that the book she was writing about African-American expats in Europe would have a chapter about Edmonia Lewis. I was excited to hear that she would include a sculptor in her book. But the larger point of the discussion and of the conference was a wake-up call: 19th century studies, especially as it focuses on Europe and Britain in particular, has not truly engaged with the research and the insights that comes from 19th-century Black studies and African-American studies, but relegated them to the realm of “special topics.” The context was literature (my old wheelhouse), and the inequities between the different fields can be put in very simple terms: If you study a 19th-century African-American novelist, it’s a matter of course that you address whether he or she is influenced by Dickens (or Emerson, or Plato, or… ). But the question of whether Dickens read any African-American writers, and–more importantly–the question of why he might very well not have, doesn’t get asked. Knowing about that African-American novelist is not expected from the 19th-century scholar, either–it is not part of the field so much as a sub-specialty.

Of course, this hit home for me, both regarding my old and my new field. Not only did I know that I had huge gaps in my knowledge of African-American literature of “my” time-period “because that’s American literature, and I ‘do’ British lit,” and that I had not really made an effort to change that in my research or my teaching. It was actually worse with art history, and Edmonia Lewis was a case in point. I knew of Lewis, but I did not know anything about her. I had no context for her, and nothing in the standard art history curriculum I had been immersed in for the past two years had encouraged me or required me to take notice of her. Even though I started on my degree knowing that I wanted to pay those who were on the margins of the Western canon of art or excluded from it, I hadn’t been able to get away from the canon, and I had not done due diligence when it came to probing tricky questions of race and the baked-in biases of the discipline, which marginalized Black artists. To me (as to so many scholars in many fields who were not as slow as I was at beginning to see what I had been blind to) this became part and parcel of the changes I was making to see and draw attention to internalized and institutionalized racism and white supremacy, and to the ways in which I had been complicit with it.

Sequel

So the upshot was that I set myself the task of discovering as much as I could about Edmonia Lewis and about the many contexts I was lacking to understand her life and her work. I had already decided to take more classes, because I had never had the opportunity to take a survey of American art before 1945–before it became both dominant (yet another hegemony) but also more diverse (subverting that hegemony at least some of the time). And now I made up my mind that I would take advantage of the two-part survey of American art (in a classic two-part series: from its beginnings to the end of the Civil War; from the Civil War until WWII) to study her work, and to figure out a way to spread the word about her that would go beyond a narrow field, or even beyond academic disciplines and classroom teaching. Over time, I figured out that one way to try to do this would be to make this website and to keep working on it, so here we are. I would like to reiterate that this is a work in progress and that my goal is to learn more than it is to teach the little I do know. It is also important to me that this is not only a public-facing, open-access project without any direct institutional affiliation, but also one that to has not drawn on any institutional resources that could have otherwise gone to a BIPOC scholar.

Credits

This was in many ways a solo project, product of a pandemic and of not holding an academic position (“independent scholar” is a very fancy word for not being paid for one’s work). But I could not have begun this work-in-progress on Edmonia Lewis without the many, many people whose research, teaching, and friendship inspired and encouraged me to keep plugging along. So I wish to thank:

  • The scholars who are listed in the “Scholarly Sources” section of my Resource page, and many others whose work gave me a larger framework for my thinking about the history of race and racism in the 19th century and beyond. I am eternally grateful to their work on Lewis and the many contexts for her work that they brought to our attention. And I am grateful that they allowed me to learn from their writing (and the occasional podcast or zoom lecture) without having to make extra work for anyone.
  • The curators who have begun to preserve, restore, and document Lewis’ work, especially at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which has the largest collection of her work, and which is so generous with its digital displays, especially at a time when we cannot go see art in person. Once I can, this page will include a photo of me with one of Lewis’ sculptures, none of which I have been able to see in person.
  • My art mentor and former thesis advisor, Wendy Katz, who is teaching the American art survey that allowed me to explore Lewis (and now Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller), and who encouraged me to push this project beyond the boundaries of coursework, while also exposing me to new perspectives on 19th-century American art.
  • My Victorianist friends, whom I did *not* consult at any point during the gestation of this project, but who have everything to do with it. I want to especially thank Ryan Fong for his role in pulling together the Virtual Dickens Universe of 2020, but also for his amazing ability to call people in, not out–me personally and the entire discipline of Victorian studies–when it comes to internalized racism and marginalization of BIPOC in the field. And I want to thank Helena Michie for writing, a propos of her own blog, how urgent it feels to write right here, right now (in 2020, but also in 2021). Every time I wanted to scrap the entire thing as useless, thinking of her blog prevented me from doing that.
  • My past, present and future fellow students of art history, who are always ready to nerd out with me on any and all aspects of art history, and always so encouraging because, like me, they know how much more there is to learn and explore: Chris Askew, Chris Goedert, Ashley Owens, and Louise Reeds.
  • My friends and family members who were willing to listen, nudge me, and educate me as I was spewing unbaked thoughts and wrestling with questions raised by the history of race, racism, and white supremacy in the US and in Europe, including the antiracism reading group I am honored to be part of, Kiara Williams from ChangeNowLNK, my friends Jay Lathon and Carol Ann Johnston, and my children, Kai and Kati Anderson, who have encouraged me all the way to bring this project to fruition.
  • And last (but NEVER least): my spouse, Mark Bauer, who has listened to me agonize about the content and the technical specs of this project, and has helped me more times than I can count with the latter, so I could focus on the former.

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