On this episode of Dare to Lead
Join me for Part 2 of a conversation with one of my favorite thinkers and writers, Dr. Sarah Lewis. We’re talking about her book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure and the Search for Mastery. I first talked to Sarah on our November 30 episode about the creative process and the difference between mastery and success, but the conversation was so thought-provoking that we had to record a second episode. This time, we talk about the impact of protecting creative time and the power of surrender. We also talk about aesthetic force and the role of imagery in creating change.
Listen to the episode
The gift of failure is a riddle: It will always be both the void and the start of infinite possibility. The Rise—part investigation into a psychological mystery, part an argument about creativity and art, and part a soulful celebration of the determination and courage of the human spirit—makes the case that many of the world’s greatest achievements have come from understanding the central importance of failure. Written over the course of four years, this exquisite biography of an idea is about the improbable foundations of a creative human endeavor.
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is the Dare to Lead podcast. In today’s episode, I am talking with one of my favorite thinkers and writers, Dr. Sarah Lewis. This is part two of a conversation. We talked for the first time on November 30. But I was so obsessed with her book—I remain obsessed with her book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery—that one conversation was not enough. In our first conversation, we really dig into the difference between mastery and success, and in this conversation, we talk about the impact of protecting creative time, and we also talk about—I’m laughing because we talk about the power of surrender, which just on face value is something that does not sound good to me. But what I realized through this conversation is that it’s actually an essential part of my creative process. I just have never thought about it like that before. But per usual, Sarah walks us into the concept, tells us some great stories about what surrender is and isn’t, and now I get it. As Sarah says, it’s not about giving up, it’s about giving over. We also talk about aesthetic force and the role of imagery in creating change.
BB: So glad you’re here. This is just, to me, an incredible conversation with a very amazing woman. OK, let me tell you about Dr. Sarah Elizabeth Lewis. She is an associate professor at Harvard University in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and in the Department of African and African American Studies. She is the founder of the Vision & Justice Project. Dr. Lewis has published essays on race, contemporary art, and culture with forthcoming publications, including a book on race, whiteness, and photography, which is going to be out by Harvard University Press in 2022; a book on vision and justice by Random House; and an anthology on the work of Carrie Mae Weems from MIT Press in 2021. She also has an article focusing on the groundwork of contemporary arts in the context of stand-your-ground laws, which is available in the winter 2020 Art Journal.
BB: In 2019, she became the inaugural recipient of the Freedom Scholar Award, presented by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, to honor Lewis for her body of work and its direct positive impact on the life of African Americans. She is just an incredible, again, thinker and writer and someone that gives us language for really some of the quiet, mysterious experiences that give purpose and meaning to life. Grateful to have her on, and grateful to have you here. All right, I’m back with the amazing Dr. Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, and this is part two because, I think, Sarah, the best way to explain it is, we got into part one and it was just too much to talk about.
Sarah Lewis: I’m thrilled to be with you again. This is exciting. Thank you. It’s an honor.
BB: I have received so many comments on social media, but also calls from friends and texts from friends, that—there was this—you know, always the qualitative researcher—this thematic analysis on the comments and the texts is, “I listened to it, it took me a week to unpack it in my head, and now I can’t get it out of my head.” Basically, they said you blew their minds.
SL: It’s amazing to hear that. I am stunned to hear that. I have my own friends who know me so well listen to it and found out things about me they didn’t even know, so it’s a testament to your skill as an interviewer too. It’s exciting. Let’s see what we get into today. Yeah.
BB: Yeah, so for those of you all who have not listened to the first episode, so this is part two. In the first episode—and we’re really using Sarah’s book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, as the arc. This is where my questions are coming from. So it’s one of my, I think, one of my all-time favorite books on the secrets and mystery around creativity. It’s one of those books that you read and you think that the secret inner life you have as a maker or a creative is just yours, and then you—not only does Sarah give it language and let you know you’re not alone, she brings beautiful history and current research into it. So it’s just an incredible book.
SL: Thank you, Brené. Again, writing alongside your work was what sustained me through the process, so it’s—to me, it’s still surreal that we’re sitting here talking about it together, so thank you. Yeah.
BB: Isn’t life interesting that way? I love it.
SL: It’s beautiful that way. Yeah, yeah.
BB: So in the first episode, we talked about why the word “failure” doesn’t quite capture the often-transformative experience of falling and beginning again. We talked about the concept of blankness. We talked about the difference between success and mastery, which is—just so many people talking to me about their learning there. We talked about the power of setting audacious goals that are right outside our grasp. I wrote it down to hang it in my study. Did you see it? I wrote it on a little notepad. And then I just took a picture of the notepad and put it up on Instagram, and people were like, “Oh, yes, the goal that’s right outside their reach.”
SL: That’s right. The gift of the near win. Yes. Yes.
BB: The near win. I want to dig into some other concepts and learning from your book that have been really important to me. And I want to start with my least favorite.
SL: [Chuckle] OK.
BB: OK. You’re going to have to walk me through this.
SL: Let’s see.
BB: The concept of surrender.
BB: So you write, it’s page 87, “There is no way to measure surrender’s impact. We know its efficacy when we see it. After the deep pain of coming close of failures of all kinds, we break open enough to contain, invite, and triumph over more.” Tell me about the concept of surrender.
SL: What you’ve read is the final sentence or two sentences of the chapter on surrender, right? So I guess we should take people back to the beginning. This was maybe my least favorite idea too, in that it was the most difficult to grasp. And it came to me. It wasn’t something I birthed—that is to say, after researching for so long, I realized that I had to talk about it, because it was the missing ingredient, the missing piece. By surrender, I’m not talking about, just to top-line this, quitting. This isn’t about giving up. What I learned is that—and this is a story really about this Arctic explorer, but really explorations of all kinds—is that there does come a point when you are striving for that audacious goal, when you have to not give up but give over and surrender to something greater assisting you and perhaps being the goal that you really did have in mind but didn’t dare state.
SL: “Surrender” was the best term I could come up with for it. The framework of the story—every chapter relays a story that gets to a main idea—came to me because of the power I found in talking to Ben Saunders for years. He’s this incredible Arctic explorer, one of the few people in the world who’s gone to the North Pole solo and on foot and now the South Pole as well. And I spent two years, at least, interviewing him, wanting to understand how he was able to embark on these kind of superhuman feats of 200-pound sledge on his back over ice sheets that are, in total, the size of the United States, Antarctica, without any companionship, support, over ice sheets that were breaking apart. As he was trying to move in one direction, they would move against his intended direction. All sorts of obstacles physically and psychologically that would have seemed to just damn anyone to kind of an internal frustration and make them quit. But Ben Saunders didn’t. And it’s not as if he’s built differently, physically speaking. It’s not as if he’s superhuman in that way. He’s like you or I, and I wanted to know how he did it.
SL: And after getting to know each other for a while, he said, “You know, I can’t think of another word besides ‘surrender’ to describe,” where he found, as he put it, “the fortitude to endure.” At that point, I said, “Well, what do you mean by surrender?” And he offered me this vivid anecdote, and I’ll never forget it. He described how he would, at night, pitch a tent after walking on those breaking ice sheets for up to nine, 10 hours, and he would go to sleep, get the rest he needed for the next day, and he’d wake up, check his GPS, and he could see oftentimes that he had erased his gains from the entire prior day just by sleeping.
BB: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. All of his gains were erased because he was shifting as he was sleeping, so it took him back to where he started?
SL: Exactly. Exactly.
BB: Oh, God. OK, OK.
SL: Exactly. Exactly. So imagine—so many of us have that kind of feeling of pushing a rock uphill, and then resting and realizing it’s rolled back down. This is what he was dealing with in the most extreme possible scenario. And once I realized, through the images too, what he was dealing with—remember this is also the Arctic, it’s sub-50 degree temperatures, etcetera—I heard him say, in that moment, he couldn’t think of anything other than surrender, meaning, he realized in that moment there was no use struggling, there was no use in being frustrated. What good would that do in the middle of the Arctic to kind of shake your fist to the heavens, right? You’re not in control. You’re not in control.
SL: And it’s the most extreme example of that. And so he realized that he had to focus on what he could control. Meaning, he had to surrender over the control and the power that the elements did have to it and train his mind to instead engage with what he could embark upon, which was to put one foot in front of the other, to remain positive, to consider all the ways in which he had actually persevered in that prior day. And all of that, that helped me understand the psychological fortitude that it took to arrive, as he finally did, at the North Pole. The way that I came to understand it myself had to do with studying or talking to Wendy Palmer, this American martial arts expert. She studies aikido. Aikido is maybe the best way to kind of understand the physics of what Ben Saunders is talking about.
SL: If you’ve ever seen any film where a martial artist has absconded from some attacker and moves and finds himself in a position of greater power and force and is able to then take them all on, you’re seeing aikido at work. It’s not one of the martial arts that requires attacking someone. It requires redirecting incoming, things that you don’t want to be coming your way, and finding a new position from which to master your own sense of power. And Wendy Palmer took me through a couple of different exercises, but what it really is training you to do, your body to do, is to do the opposite of what the primitive response is, which is to tense up in a position of danger, to instead relax and have the ability to be in touch with all of your faculties, with all of your inner resources. And that’s really what Ben Saunders was doing out there on the ice in those moments.
SL: He was living out that art of aikido. He was surrendering so that he could understand what his body did need to do in a given moment. And others, besides me, psychologists, physiologists, can discuss what is happening to the body under extreme stress that prevents us from being our optimal selves, right? But surrender allows us to benefit from the wisdom of all those studies. Meditation does. Other things do too. And I think that it may be the most difficult concept for particularly Americans to embrace.
SL: In many ways, we want to feel as if we are in control of our path, which might be over breaking sheets of ice. We want to feel directed. But there are ways in which surrender is helpful. I think it allows us to regroup, to redirect, and to kind of marshal or husband our inner resources. The final thing I would just add about this, and it’s maybe where I was more reluctant to go in talking about it, but I think as a nation we’re all there. I think grief, frankly, is the most accessible way to understand what surrender is about. I write about having lost a dear friend in The Rise in that chapter on surrender because she helped me to understand what that could mean for my life.
SL: This friend and I, we share the same birthday. We look nothing alike. We went to college together. She’s the sort of person who would suck the marrow out of every day. She’d leave you feeling more energized about anything you’d talked about. And she died when we were in our twenties trying to save her cousin who was drowning in a pool, but she couldn’t swim herself. And she was alone in this house babysitting, and she jumped in to save him. And I always wonder what she thought in that moment, but of course there is the physical act of surrender, giving over, honoring his life as much as her own.
SL: But when she passed, everything that we had talked about, all the different dreams that I had only dared tell her were—I realized what I needed to be brave enough to surrender to in order to fully live, in order to fully live and honor her, honor my life. And that became quite literal for me. I would not have embarked on writing The Rise if not for that act of surrender, for example. I mean, there’s nothing in my path that told me writing a book about failure as a African American woman who’s in grad school studying art history was the right thing to do, but I felt that it was being put on my path and that I had to kind of give over to it, in a sense. And I say, collectively, I think we’re experiencing this because of the way that COVID has just taken so many loved ones from us whose lives and whose sense of purpose in their own life is, I think, giving us a new way to understand how we can give over to something larger and ourselves.
BB: I think the idea of giving over and not giving up—so when I start to write a book, it’s been the same process. I’m probably—I guess this is working on my eighth book right now. Nothing good comes until I surrender to the book and to the process, because I really try to control it. And I always say, “This book’s going to be different. I’m actually going to control this one. I’m going to predict the structure of it. I’m going to—” And it’s so scary to me, Sarah, to surrender to the book, because then I don’t know where we’re going, and I have lost some control, and I become part of the book and part of the process, not standing over it, but I’m in it, and that can sweep me away sometimes. How much of surrendering is letting go of counterfeit control?
SL: Oof, what a brilliant term for what so many people are duped by, counterfeit control. I mean, that’s it. How much of surrender is about giving that up? I think everything. And here we’re getting to kind of the magic, I think, of the beauty of what makes this truly my favorite concept in the book. Once you give up that counterfeit control, you’re really then finally in the true driver’s seat of the creative process. You’re finally living out what that co-creation can feel like. And it’s exhilarating, it’s mysterious, and I think can be daunting because—when you say that when you’re writing your book and giving up control that you don’t know where you’re going, is that because you sense that there is kind of another force sort of working through you, kind of with you, giving you ideas, insights, etcetera?
BB: Yes. The only way I thought about this when I was rereading it before our conversation today, it’s when I—at church, when we talk about the mysteries of faith, I go to a place of trusting in the emergence of the data. I go to a place of—it’s actually moving from being an agent of control to an agent of change, and it’s completely mystery-based. I can’t describe it. Your work comes the closest, but I can’t—and I love it. I love that place.
SL: Yeah, yeah.
BB: But I don’t like to go. I don’t like getting on it, like a roller coaster. It’s a fun ride, but I—in line, I’m just like, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this?” Like—
SL: You’re saying really reminds me so much of what I was struck by in Lewis Hyde’s work, when he writes about the distinction between work and labor. “Work is what you do by the hour,” he says. “But labor is endeavor that results in a gift. One that you can’t put a monetary value on. Which is why I think the arts are effectively in the kind of gift economy. You pay a price for a ticket at a concert, but you are not actually equating that experience with what it really has meant for your life, to remember spirituals or churches—there’s no way to quantify that. And so I think part of the reason for that is because of what surrendering allows for in terms of your own creative capacity.
SL: You can, in the end, embark on a journey that results in something eternal, something that lives on beyond you. We haven’t even talked about some of the artists that are in The Rise that live out that journey, but it’s all because of this co-creative act of surrender. When Ben Saunders was out on the Arctic, he would oftentimes use the word—and I caught him using the word in the interview. He would say, “When we were out there.” And at first I was confused and I thought, “Ben, I thought you were alone. [Chuckle] You told me you were alone.” He said, “No, I guess it’s—” It’s a way for him to feel that sense of companionship, but I think it’s also hinting at what he did feel within, which was assistance from all that is effectively helping him there.
BB: Yeah, I believe it. It goes from my least favorite concept to the one that I revere and believe in the most. But it’s a fight. I still fight it every time.
SL: Yeah, I was rereading the chapter too, and I don’t reread my work very often—maybe the first time I’ve read the book from start to finish in preparation for talking to you after it was published. But I talk a little bit about Hooke’s law in writing surrender. And it’s just a quick colon, but I love it. It’s the force of an extended spring is equivalent to how far it’s stretched.
BB: Wait, say it again. Say it again for us.
SL: Well, I mentioned that Ben Saunders was living a bit out Hooke’s law, which is that the force of an extended spring is equivalent to how far it is stretched, but I, we’re living that now, too. [Chuckle] But to convert our own energy and operate at full force, often we must first surrender, and that’s what brought me to the idea.
BB: What is your personal experience with surrender?
SL: Man, how long do we have? [Chuckle]
BB: No, let me just—let me call a thing a thing. You are a Black woman at Harvard. The vulnerability inherent in surrender has risk attached to it. Yes or no?
SL: Oh, absolutely. Yes, yes, yes. It’s interesting, I wrote The Rise before coming to Harvard. I was a grad student, so I had the protective cover of being able to do whatever you want so long as you get the dissertation done. [Chuckle] And that was a beautiful thing. It would probably be very hard to write this book now, it’s true, although I hope to write another one, of course, soon, like this. But, yes, it’s hard. There’s so many expectations on me because of my identity that it can be hard, but I don’t—but I think, Brené, what I’ve come to see about surrender is that it’s actually more of a risk to not try it, to not actually do it than it is to fall into that way of living. And again, I really didn’t intend to bring it up when we spoke for the first time, but I just felt so comfortable in talking to you about it, that I did. That near-death experience taught me everything that I need to know about surrender.
SL: It’s—I don’t think there’s any more powerful example that I could have been given. To be in, objectively, a circumstance that should have resulted in my death, but to, in that moment, have had the experience of what surrender meant despite being in this car crash, I think that, of course, the outcome shows me the benefit. The miracle is that I lived. The miracle is that precisely what I prayed for took place. I was saved. And I mention it because I really—I wish everyone listening could just have my experience, the images, the pictures of what was happening in my heart and mind in that moment. It was just so clear to me that every cell of our being and every second of our day, we have so much more provision and protection and guidance than we are cognizant of in our waking hours, when we are trying to go about our to-do list and days. I just… [chuckle] Oh my gosh, so I do live out the idea now.
SL: And it’s taken me definitely some time. But I think, maybe, what would be more helpful for me to mention is that I definitely find that I segment the days a little bit around it. Yeah, I have to do my to-do list too. I have to take action in this forward-momentum-seeking way, but I definitely give myself periods of extended time to write and to ruminate that allows for the deep dive that surrender requires. So for five hours I can feel as if I’m in another dimension, another time, writing, doing what I need to do, and then can pop up in the afternoon and go out and do my errands and seem as if I’m just living in the world the way everyone else is. And if you study the lives of so many different artists, as I know you have too, you see that that’s a routine that people embark on that they don’t always talk about. You have to find that embryonic safe space in which you can surrender or else your life would just simply won’t have the same kind of juice, meaning, force, clarity, expansiveness that it could. And that’s what it’s all about.
BB: Your use of “embryonic” was something that people really brought to my attention. The need, the fragility, the need for protection, the need for the cocoon, the need to create the space for mystery and surrender. That is—yeah, it was very impactful for me. Our conversation was a springboard for me making huge changes, I think, in the way I work and structure my days.
SL: Really? Wow.
BB: Yeah, because listening to you, in our first conversation, tell that story about that car accident and how narrowly you survived that—like, I don’t want to have to have that. Do you know what I’m saying?
SL: I do.
BB: If y’all could see us right now, we’re on Zoom. She’s shaking her head and pointing at me right now. I don’t want to have to have that.
SL: That’s right.
BB: To be in reverence for surrender.
SL: Makes sense.
BB: Does that make sense?
SL: Yes, yes, yes. I’m so—that means so much. Oh my God. If that experience I had can have shifted things for you in that way—beautiful. Yes, because one shouldn’t have to go through that. That’s the whole point, right? So, yeah, finding ways to just claim the life as the gift and the present that it is, that’s exactly, that’s exactly it.
BB: All right, let’s talk about, while we’re on, what I would consider, Beauty and Awe. This was another real soul-shifter for me. Let’s talk about aesthetic force and the role of beauty and change. I want to read something to you. I’m on page 98. I’ve read this to both my kids. I’ve talked about it. So can you just give me, before I read this, “aesthetic force,” simple definition?
SL: Aesthetic force: internal shift that happens because of the power of the arts, oftentimes, that really shifts your critical awareness and perception of the world.
BB: So here’s what you write. You tell a story, starting on page, the bottom of 98, “How many movements began when an aesthetic encounter indelibly changed our past perceptions of the world? It was an abolitionist print, not logical argument, which dealt the final blow to the slave trade. The broadside of “Description of a Slave Ship,” 1789. The London print of the British slave ship, Brookes, showed the dehumanizing statistical visualization with graphic precision how the legally permitted 454 men, women, and children might be accommodated, though the ship, Brookes, carried many more, up to 740. The contrast between reality and the image it conjured in the mind was intolerable enough to abolish the institution and was the evidentiary proof of slavery’s inhumanity used in parliament hearings.” Wow. So it wasn’t the logical arguments against slavery and the systemic dehumanization of people. It was this image of a slave ship. Is this an example of aesthetic force?
SL: Absolutely. For me, what’s exciting to consider is how the arts, not rational argument alone, have dramatically changed the course of civil rights and justice around the world. But it’s an old idea that the arts are a way to get us to see past our blind spots, which is really what motivates me writing about the power of aesthetic force. Aristotle said, “Reason alone is not enough to make man or woman,” I’d add, “good.” Rational argument alone isn’t enough to convince people of the need to change their beliefs. And so the passage you just read is about one such work of art. Here is the broadside showing statistically how one could put that many men, women, and children in the hull of the ship as slaves. And the image alone did what an argument could not—showed the inhumanity of slavery—and is widely credited with being the image that forced the end of the slave trade. There are many examples, and I think that we oftentimes don’t honor them because the shift that can happen is so private, and oftentimes only later becomes public. Can I give you an example?
SL: So this idea came about when I learned of the life of Charles Black Jr. He’s, at the time, young, just got into college, wanted to meet some girls at a dance in Austin, Texas, and so he goes. And he finds himself just struck still by the power of this trumpet player whom he’d never heard of before. It turns out that it was Louis Armstrong, king of the trumpet at the time and still remaining. And he knew in that moment, in 1931, that he was listening to genius and mastery and fine lyricism and total control, but in that moment, the recognition of that fact—Louis Armstrong being a Black man—told him that segregation just must be wrong.
SL: Charles Black Jr. was so struck by the genius of Louis Armstrong that he understood that the world around him had just gotten everything wrong. And so to his left was a friend from high school who recognized that genius about Louis Armstrong too, but he just shook his head about him and uttered an epithet used about African Americans during the day and he walked away. Charles Black Jr. went on to become one of the lawyers for the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed segregation in the United States. And he credits that particular moment with what occasioned that life-changing shift in him—listening to that piece of music by Louis Armstrong.
SL: He would go on to become a constitutional law professor at Columbia and Yale, and he would hold this Armstrong listening night to honor what this man had done for him. So when I ask at the start of that passage—how many movements began when an aesthetic encounter indelibly changed our past perceptions of the world?—that’s the kind of experience I’m talking about, that Charles Black Jr. had, that the description of a slave ship occasioned. And we can go on about different examples. But the public force of those private moments oftentimes takes place so far after the fact that we don’t honor the very thing that resulted in that catalytic change, that aesthetic force.
BB: I want to ask a complicated question.
BB: A couple of complicated questions.
BB: Do you know if we know whether aesthetic force is more powerful when the imagery is beautiful versus when the imagery is offensive or painful? Are both images of awe and beauty and wonder, aesthetic force that can lead to change, as well as images that are horrific and dehumanizing, are those of equal aesthetic force?
SL: Yeah. It’s an important question. I think what motivated my writing on this idea was that we do tend to focus more on the impact of dehumanizing images or propagandistic images than we do images that have force because of what we might call “beauty,” although that’s always like a contested term in art history, but beauty, we could say. And so I wondered about images that were of a different vein completely. I wondered if we had really missed the whole phenomenon by only focusing primarily on propaganda as it relates to impact in mass culture, and the answers that we had—now, Frederick Douglass is the thinker who discovered, you could say, the impact of this idea on American life. He wrote about, in the speech entitled “Pictures and Progress,” the power that photographs and pictures of all kinds were having on the hearts and minds and critical imagination of Americans during the Civil War.
SL: Now, it’s the last thing you would have imagined he would have talked about in a Civil War speech, but he continued to redraft this speech, committed to the idea as he was over three times over the course of his life. And in that, it’s interesting. I bring him up because I don’t—I agree with him, that it’s not necessarily the beauty of the image but the way in which it can ignite what he called a thought picture—what we would call maybe the critical imagination, the moral imagination—in whomever is looking at it. And it can be different for everyone, and should be different for everyone. So I think what matters more is the impact and the elasticity that it creates in someone’s inner landscape to see the world anew. That might be an image that’s sublime, that’s beautiful. It might not, depending on the person’s experience. But there is that for everyone, I think, and it’s why I think the idea is universally applicable, and why Charles Black believed in it so and Douglass did as well.
BB: Yeah, reading about Fredrick Douglass’ speech on—there was a line—tell me what the line was, I hope you remember. It was something like trying, asking people to try to catch a glimpse of a flower—this is the image I had in my mind—that was coursing down a strip on the back of a horse or something like—it was—do you know what I’m talking about?
SL: Yeah, you just about got it. That’s nearly it exactly.
BB: I can’t remember whether it was Frederick Douglass or you paraphrasing, but it was—it also spoke to me about not just the power of aesthetic force, but the fleeting nature of it often, and the need for focus.
SL: Yes. Well, I think that that’s what made the speech so stunning, surprising to the audience, and so potent today. He was asking the audience to slow down, to get still enough to focus on this precise idea, when all they wanted to do is to rush headlong right into thinking about the impact of combat and force to create America’s new union. And he was asking them effectively to be on the back of a rushing horse and pause to look at a flower, right?
SL: You’re saying, “What is that going to do for us?” Well, actually, it could change your whole view of the world around you. Wallace Stevens has this poem that’s entitled “The Jar Upon a Hill” that’s sort of about this idea too, that something as small as that can actually change your view of the entire world. And he was making this argument not as a whimsical, kind of fanciful one. He was living out the power of this idea. He was becoming the most photographed American man in the 19th century, and did become that exactly. Not for reasons to do with vanity at all, though he was this prodigious, powerful orator who women were falling for left and right. He was doing this because he understood that the power of his self-possessed image in front of the camera could act as a counternarrative to push back against racist stereotypes that had fatal consequences for Black lives. So he was thinking about it as it relates to a human rights project effectively, but—so that’s really where he was going with the speech.
BB: He must have just been a polymath, Frederick Douglass, because it doesn’t matter what I’m reading, he comes up in it. Do you know what I mean? Whether it’s aesthetic force, whether it’s oratory skills, it’s just—I was at—I was interested in this, whether it’s—I know that you can’t say beautiful images because you’re an art historian of the highest magnitude. I, however, can, because I know it is controversial. But sublime, positive imagery versus negative energy—what wields the most aesthetic force?
BB: And I ask it for this weird thing. I’m going to try to connect some dots and it may—you may be, like, “I’m not following,” or, “It’s a bad-made connection,” but I think about Rosalind Hudnell, who was one of the first chief diversity officers, and she was at Intel. And she has a quote that I think about all the time that says, “You can’t lead diverse teams if you don’t live a diverse life.” And I think about how true that is for me, and I believe that as someone who studies leadership.
BB: I think the aesthetic force of leading a diverse life—and sometimes, you don’t have control over your geography, but you certainly have control over the books and the films and what you consume, right, the aesthetics that you consume—is because I led a diverse life—like, do we see enough Black love, Black joy, Black poetry? Do we see enough aesthetic force of not just the dehumanizing images that we’re fighting against, which I understand are important too, but is there a case to be made that evenly we need to see Black excellence, Black love, Black joy?
BB: And I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you what this reminds me of, Sarah. I posted, like we do all the time on Instagram, a quote from my work about the basic tenets of love are to see and be seen by each other. And the stock image we picked was a young Black man with his son, and people were like, “Wow.” Like it was extraordinary in some way. Do you understand what I’m asking? Like, is positive aesthetic force also a mover?
SL: I love this, and I think the answer is yes. What I haven’t said I probably should now—the aesthetic force gets us to examine our unknown unknowns, the things we don’t know we don’t know about the world. The world around us, the people around us. And number two, yeah, aesthetic force, the power of the arts, oftentimes are the only avenues that many have to meeting people, interacting with people other than themselves in this increasingly kind of siloed world a lot of people live in. So if your media diet or set of images you’re seeing when we’re all able to go back to museums safely, etcetera, don’t contain images of people unlike you, I think that your own worldview is going to be impoverished as a result, right? So I was interested in that.
SL: So the images that you’re describing, the way in which it impacts diversity and excellence and inclusion work, sorry, is also why I’m so privileged and honored to be part of the department at Harvard of African and African American Studies. The measure of excellence, I think, there that’s set as a standard is just extraordinary, but what I contribute and what I’m continuing to write about and to think through is certainly the example and the counternarrative force that the arts about and made by people of African descent can contribute to civil rights and human rights. And this is what Douglass was thinking about and how he sort of created the headwaters is what we’re talking about here.
BB: Yeah, it’s incredible to me, and am I making this up, because I’m hoping for it, or is it true that some of your future work will be at this intersection of aesthetic force and social justice and anti-racism? Is that—did I make that up?
SL: No, you’re not making that up. That’s exactly right. So Vision & Justice is the project that came after The Rise, and that’s a project that looks at what I’m calling representational justice, which is exactly what you’ve just described.
BB: Oh my God, I have goose bumps.
SL: Yeah, this is the importance of the arts. Artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Deborah Willis, Hank Willis Thomas, LaToya Ruby Fraser, Lorna Simpson—all these extraordinary artists who have lived out Douglass’ highest hope for what the arts could do for our sense of racial justice and what he would call some American progress. So that’s come out as a compendium on Aperture, but the books I’m finishing now just extend that idea. They’re a kind of closer analysis. So one book, an article just came out related to it is looking at, well, the disproportionate killings of Black and Brown people in the U.S. under stand-your-ground laws, which are in 33 states at this point, and the responses that it has occasioned on the part of artists to interrogate what we actually mean by ground—who has the right to stand their ground? Which is like a colloquial term that actually has disproportionate outcomes in terms of who’s privileged and protected.
SL: So it’s looking at artists like Kehinde Wiley, Theaster Gates, and Ava DuVernay, and many, many others. Bryan Stevenson and the EJI Memorial that we’re—
BB: Ooh. Yes.
SL: Right? Yeah. Those that have been lost to lynching. So that book is coming out. A book on whiteness and the collective regime of images that’s been used to shore up the idea of what whiteness actually is, even though we know it’s a constructed, kinda fabricated term. And then a book on the idea of vision and justice. I have three books coming up all on this topic, so your wish is my command. Yes. Yes. It’s all coming.
BB: God, we’re so lucky and I’m so excited.
SL: Aww, you’re sweet, thank you. I’m really thrilled to. But that chapter on aesthetic force is what birthed the clarity of the argument, the—and it’s not as if there hasn’t been work done on the importance of the arts for civil rights in particular, but to think about it as far back as work happening through abolitionist circles in the Civil War, such as Frederick Douglass’, is new, so it’s exciting.
BB: You know why I’m interested in aesthetic force? It’s because I’m an emotions researcher, and you cannot separate aesthetic force from affect. It’s not exactly what we see, but it’s what we believe about what we see and how it makes us feel that to me contains the aesthetic force.
SL: Yes. Again, Douglass’ speech is one to study—”Pictures and Progress”—and he was offering you his own thesis about the emotional impact that a work of art can have, and he was describing the critical distance between the mind at the outset before seeing the image and where it goes after seeing the image. That critical distance is what he thought Americans needed to be able to process and critique the world around them anew. I don’t know that there should be such distance between studies about affect and the arts. I think what you’re actually forcing me to see is that so much of what I’m writing about is driven by that frustration or as driven by trying to become a bridge between those two fields in effect. I would love to be able to study, in a qualitative sense, the impact of the arts on various modes of behavior, and that might be coming in the decades ahead. We’ll see. Yeah.
BB: I want to ask questions about aesthetic force because I think one of them makes me hopeful. One of them scares me. So the hopeful question is, From images of George Floyd to images of the insurrection, the violent insurrection at the Capitol, those images changed people. When you’re in social work, you study that it’s not a very long walk—it’s a disturbingly, shockingly short walk—from dehumanizing language to violence. We study that. So we study systems theory. So when I hear rhetoric, I very quickly say, “Oh God, violence is forthcoming.” It seemed that some of these images that we’ve seen—even kids being separated in these cage-like holding cells—reality-checked amorphous policy and rhetoric in a nonnegotiable way.
SL: That’s right. That’s right. It did. It did. I spent so many—the minutes of that day and subsequent days just writing because it lives out the thesis of everything I understand that images can do in terms of their efficacy. Yes. I mean, tell me more. Yes. [Chuckle]
BB: And that’s why I think we cannot underestimate not just artists, the way we—that most of us laypeople, not you probably, but the most of us lay-people think about artists—we can’t underestimate the power and the courage of photojournalists as well, right?
SL: Oh, absolutely. Right. And there’s a double-edged sword to this, though. Yes, the honor that we must constantly give to our artists, our photojournalists, you really can’t overstate it. On the other hand, and this isn’t anything to do with their work, the question about consumption and the ethics of spectatorship and viewing, that’s another topic altogether. And it’s not to say there’s not—there’s a ton of scholarship on this, there’s a ton of writing on this, from Susan Sontag to Susie Linfield—Frederick Douglass, too—thinking through whether or not there is, say, a bystander effect with imagery has been kinda one thesis. Are people paralyzed to act, for example, by seeing too many images of violence or racial terror?
SL: I think the example, though, of George Floyd in the video footage of his public lynching, effectively, so galvanized people because it was incontrovertible. The dehumanization that was on display, the social—the racial order that was being embodied, enacted, and lived out through that heinous violence. I, myself, did not deliberately watch it, though. I didn’t need to see—I understood exactly what was taking place in those 8 minutes and over 46 seconds because the template hasn’t changed for the last 400 years, the way in which we are living through what Saidiya Hartman would call the “afterlife of slavery.” We’re still living out the—as Bryan Stevenson puts, the narrative that the South retained despite losing the Civil War about who’s on top.
SL: So this, the way that images, I think, come in to help in the context of public discourse is by swaying the hearts and minds of those who might be on the fence about whether this is really happening, who might not actually understand the kind of whistle dog tactics of racialized rhetoric, as you were describing, right, and offer, effectively, evidence to the public, put into the court of public opinion to say, “Is this just?”
SL: And the George Floyd video certainly did that. I think the video footage of Eric Garner’s killing in broad daylight in Staten Island being strangled to death as he’s stating, “I can’t breathe,” for illegally selling cigarettes in 2014 had the same chilling impact on people. But I think the difference with George Floyd, though, is that, because of the state of the pandemic at that time in the severity of the lockdowns, we were all in our homes, largely, and still are, but gathered around the kind of campfire of the computer screens in our homes and our televisions, and so that became the daily diet and offered a rare moment in which we could coalesce around a fact, around an event, instead of just moving ahead with the 24-hour news cycle. The Capitol insurrection and George Floyd’s unjust killing, yeah, occupied my thoughts constantly for the truth that they bear out regarding the impact of images, yes, but about the work that we’re constantly up to in this country to fully honor Black lives.
BB: The part—I said there was one part that I thought was helpful, but there’s one part that I really—scares me and I wonder how you come down on this is the constant re-traumatizing of, specifically, Black people. I worry about the incessant traumatizing, and I worry about desensitizing. And I just believe, I believe so deeply in aesthetic force that I believe we have to be careful, not only in what we produce—but we can’t control what’s produced—but maybe what we consume. I don’t—do you worry about it at all, the desensitization and the trauma?
SL: I think about it all the time. Absolutely. I have to, also, as I teach this material. I think on this point, Elizabeth Alexander has a great set of essays. One of her most recent is published in The New Yorker, entitled “The Trayvon Generation,” or was it “The Trayvon Martin Generation”? I need to find it quickly. [Chuckle] Have you read it or seen it? No?
BB: No, I haven’t. But we’ll find it and link to it.
SL: OK. So this is an extraordinary piece that’s thinking through the impact of growing up with the steady imagery diet of these instances of racial terror and the impact that it’s also having on artistic output. She’s looking at a Kendrick Lamar video, for example. But that is something that she analyzes. Many have as well—thinking about just, again, the ethics around the arena of these, that these violent images create for all of us. I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, I think what the Capitol insurrection has shown us is that some people still do need the images, and will not be swayed by anything other than that cold, hard fact in front of them, and that there are many of us who don’t need to see any more to know the truth of this country and what work needs to happen. And I think that both things are equally true. And so for me, what it makes sort of requisite is that we honor the self-care practices that need to be in place for those who have already seen enough imagery, right? So—
SL: Right? Who might not want to be on Instagram and constantly scrolling past the image of violence that—and on the other hand, having different arenas for those who still need those images. And I don’t know if it’s making sense. I haven’t quite thought through what this kind of bifurcated society and what it needs might look like in real time in terms of technology, but I do think that being shielded from those images is important for one’s own mental health or emotional health, and I don’t think that sequestering people from them is going to be helpful for those who still need to see them. So yeah, it’s difficult.
BB: It’s hard for me sometimes as a teacher because I think I subject students to a lot sometimes, and then—but even within a classroom, not just the world, right, Sarah, within a classroom, some people need to see it and some people never needed to see it to know it exists because it’s their lived experience. And so it is—maybe it’s about when you’re in a position of authority, like a teacher or a parent, maybe you set that permission out.
SL: Mm-hmm. Yeah. There are all kinds of guidelines. I have really clear guidelines for myself as I teach my courses at Harvard about this. I don’t think, though, that I—or I wonder if they can really be mapped onto the public sphere, right? So, for example—
BB: No, right.
SL: To get back to your question, if there are two categories of people—those who really do need the images to see them, and I have students like that, and those who don’t need to see anything more to understand how George Floyd could have been killed in that way—I think that some of the tactics I use can apply. One tactic I use is that if I need to teach, say, about the history of lynching, and I have to, you can’t not—it was only up until, what, 1952 in which we had a year go by in which there was not a case of an African American person being lynched in the United States? And this is quite recent history. And the work that Equal Justice Initiative has done to unearth the thousands more that are now known is just extraordinary.
SL: And these people should know, these are not lynchings that took place because of some sort of vigilante justice that was being enacted for some crime that really was committed. This was the crime of being Black. These were just activities people were going about their day and then it was violating a kind of social order and therefore this person was put to death. Those were the vast majority of the cases. But when I’m teaching about lynching, for example, I will—if I know, say, it’s a sea of students who haven’t seen any of these images, and these images were used by municipal parts of the government to suppress leadership, Black leadership, for example, to kind of give—to terrorize communities—
BB: Oh yeah.
SL: Because these documents are important. These are effectively our civic documents and were oftentimes commissioned by mayors, by governors. So I’ll show an image of the body and the surrounding crowd. These were oftentimes public spectacles advertised as events to take your family to. This was an American pastime. So when they—they have to see the image. And I’ll flash it on the screen for maybe three to five seconds, not more than that, and then I’ll crop off the part that is the most, I think, heinous to see, the body, the hung body. But what’s left from that, what’s left below are the sea of white faces who are staring into the camera with complete impunity, without any fear of the fact that they are all accomplices to a murder.
SL: Kerry James Marshall, the artist, has a stunning piece called “Heirlooms and Accessories” that’s located in the collection of the Smart Art Museum, if you link to that, or you see that—he has a just masterful discussion of his decision to in this painting focus on the sea of the crowd below and not the Black, oftentimes man’s, body above in the photographs, because he wanted to talk about the way in which that kind of comfort in being an accomplice to that kind of violence is an heirloom, is being passed down from generation to generation. This is so much of what we all need to understand so that George Floyd killing does not come as a shock.
SL: Right, so there are ways I do it in the classroom. I just don’t know if you know MSNBC is going to put up an image of a body and then crop it for the rest of the time, so that’s why I’m pausing on your question, because I think the classroom allows for different tactics to emerge, but it’s also why education is so key, why we can’t just use the work that happens in the court of public opinion to educate. We need to focus on what we do.
BB: I had a graduate student one year do a project, and it was on lynching, and it was only the white audience responses, and so we didn’t know what these folks were observing and pointing to and smiling about, and so we went through the presentation and this joyful—like, what is this going to be? And then the end of the presentation was the same photos in context, and talking about aesthetic force, I found it hard to not get physically sick. It was almost like disbelief and so—it is why education is so important. It is why I appreciate you walking me through a lot of this on aesthetic force, because I think it’s just so important, and I appreciate so much how you write about it.
SL: I really have to say, I also appreciate very much how you and the audience you have here in this great community are kind of insistent on going there, having these conversations about race, racism, white supremacy, and increasingly I’ve had a lot of my friends talk to me about how you’ve opened their eyes about different aspects of this whole collective conversation, so I’m glad that we can have it here together. There’s so much more to say about it, yeah.
BB: There is. We edited and made a different quick-fire question because we asked you the first one, so I’ve got new ones, but before we go there, I want to have a short conversation about—is it Shadrach Emmanuel Lee? Your grandpa.
BB: He got himself kicked out of school. You want to tell us why?
SL: [Chuckle] Yeah, he did. Yeah, in New York City, 1926 public school, 11th grade. He asked his teacher a very simple question. He just wanted to know why the world around them wasn’t reflected in their history books. He wanted to know why excellence was just being presented one way. He wanted to know where African Americans were, Asian Americans were, Latinx folks, Indigenous folks were. And his teacher told him that Black people in particular had done nothing to merit inclusion in those history textbooks, and he just didn’t accept that as an answer, and so he kept asking the question, and he was expelled from high school for his so-called impertinence. He never went back to high school. He never got a college degree or GED, of course, but he became an artist, created in those paintings the images that he expected he should have been able to find in those textbooks.
SL: So Shadrach Emmanuel Lee is my grandfather. My name, Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, bears initials, SEL, that’s meant to honor him, and I’d like to believe that in some way I am, two generations, later teaching at Harvard the very topics he was being expelled for asking about. It makes me well up every time I think about it. His picture’s right behind that candle in the front, so he planted these questions in my heart and mind. What is the real, the force of the creative function and the arts for justice, large J and capital J? And I think it’s my life’s work to continue to write about it.
BB: I just thought, wow. Would I love to have him on the podcast to talk about not only his work, but your work and what he—wow. And a musician, right?
SL: Yeah, he’s a jazz musician too. He played backup with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. He played upright bass. He was so cool. He was just that epitome of like the jazz cool idea we have in our mind’s eye, and he was so hopeful too about what I might do in the arts, but when he died, I was in college and I thought I was going to become an artist myself, a painter, and I think the last thing he said about me—I can’t remember our last conversation, but my mom showed him one of my paintings and he said, “Oh, I think she’s got it. I think she’s got it.” That was so sweet.
BB: Thank you for sharing him with us. I loved that part of the book. I could just—I bet his heart prints are all over this book, aren’t they?
SL: Oh my gosh, I’m really welling up here. Yes, and I think his finger prints are part of why we’re having this conversation as well. He gave me so many gifts, and I hope that I’ve given some of them to people who read the book and listen to our conversation.
BB: No, there’s no question. I feel like I got a gift directly from you and in some way directly from him, so I’m grateful for that.
SL: There’s one other just thing I want to add, though. I think that my grandfather gave me a sense of also the gift of what it means to be underestimated, you know? And in that question he was asking, I don’t think the teacher would have expected that he would go on to do what he did. It’s not to say he was a well-known artist, but there’s always this dream in all of us, and we never know if the thing that actually propels us to live out our purpose is going to come from encouragement or if it’s going to come from that naysayer or that experience—
BB: Oh a wound. Yes.
SL: That wound. Right, so he reminds me of that too, in a beautiful way. Yeah, it gives me hope, and it kind of embraced for all of life circumstances.
BB: Thank you for sharing him with us.
SL: Thank you. Thank you, Brené.
BB: You ready for your rapid-fire?
SL: Yes, but I don’t want our conversation to end, but—yes, yes. OK.
BB: OK. You, Sarah, are called to be brave, but your fear is real, you can feel it right in your throat. What is the very first thing you do?
SL: Get still and ask for guidance.
BB: Last TV show you binged and loved.
SL: Oh, Bridgerton. [Chuckle]
BB: Oh, it’s so good, so good. Yes, yes.
SL: It’s delicious, that show. Oh my God.
BB: It’s so delicious. Oh God, it’s so good. Favorite movie, or one of your favorite movies.
SL: I like things about bravery and the other side. Like, Gladiator, Meet Joe Black. I love Selma. There are tons. I like works with that kind of theme, uplifting, yeah.
BB: That counts. You don’t have to have one. I think it’s so unreasonable. A concert that you’ll never forget.
SL: Watching Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra performing on the road about 10 years ago. I think there’s just so much magic in it. I’ll just never forget it. I can remember every second about every aspect of that concert was beautiful.
BB: Favorite meal.
SL: Oh yeah, something I had at this great restaurant in Mexico City—oh, I can’t even remember the name of the restaurant, but I can remember [Chuckle] how delicious all the food was. Because every meal came with some kind of sensation I’ve never had before. It was just great. Oh, Pujol. Pujol. That’s what it was.
BB: Yum, what is that?
SL: I don’t even know, it’s some restaurant everyone said I had to go to, had to go to. And I’m not a foodie, but it’s one of those restaurants, it’s really hard to get a reservation. I managed to get one, and it came with maybe eight to 10 courses. It’s some gastronomical delicacy place and concoctions you never heard of and things, but it was just a high art. Every plate that they brought to me—the service was great and everything.
BB: I will say, do not underestimate the food or the art in Mexico City. OK, here’s a personal one. What’s on your nightstand?
SL: I actually, I mean, truth be told, I don’t have a book on the nightstand right now, because I’m writing about 12 to 14 hours a day. So the last thing I want to do is read when I go to bed. I want to watch Bridgerton when I go to bed.
BB: That’s awesome. So just the remote.
SL: Just the remote and a candle. Thank you very much.
BB: Perfect. That’s perfect. OK, a snapshot, just a snapshot, of an ordinary moment in your life that brings you joy.
SL: Walking by the river under a kind of tree that lets the sun like dapple the light through the grass, maybe in New York City next to my apartment there or in Cambridge. Walking, having just enjoyed someone’s company and a good spate of writing, a good moment of teaching, just being grateful to be alive, be here, contribute.
BB: Beautiful. Sarah Lewis, thank you so much. It is just always such a pleasure.
SL: Likewise, Brené, you’re just a gift. I just don’t know what I did to get so lucky that we could have these conversations. I hope we continue them. You’re really—
BB: Oh, yes. You have three more books. I’m thinking that’s at least six more podcasts.
SL: Yeah, here we go.
BB: I’m going to have to really work on the rapid-fire. Like, sexiest guy on Bridgerton. Like, best costume.
SL: Right? We know the answer to that.
BB: We know. [laughter] That’s done.
SL: Who is this guy? Oh my gosh. Anyway. I digress.
BB: Who is that guy? That’s like—that is the question. All right, thank you so much and I appreciate it, I appreciate you, and I appreciate your work.
SL: Likewise. We can go everywhere in this conversation, didn’t we? Yeah, we always do.
BB: Yeah, we did, and we ended up on Bridgerton, so can’t go wrong.
SL: I know. I love it. Thank you, Brené.
BB: You’re welcome.
BB: I hope this was a meaningful conversation for you. For me, every time I talk to her, something clicks, and the click is followed by a pretty big change in my life and in how I work and in how I think about myself as a creative. I loved our conversation about letting go of counterfeit control and giving over to something larger while not giving up, just this whole concept of aesthetic force. And I think it’s because I’m such a lover of beauty, of art, of music, and how that hits with the intersection of aesthetic force and emotion is such an important thing to me. So just always incredible conversations, and we’ll have more with her on Dare to Lead. I know we’ll have her back again and again.
BB: You can find Sarah on Twitter at @sarahelizalewis and on Instagram at @sarahelizabethlewis1. Her websites are www.sarahelizabethlewis.com and www.visionandjustice.org.
BB: Church bulletin at the end: The Unlocking Us podcast, an incredible conversation with Melinda Gates, who is a philanthropist, a global advocate for women and girls, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—we talk about empathy, the power of story, and about her book, The Moment of Lift. It’s been called everything from a mission statement to a mandate, to a manifesto. It’s a call to action for gender equity. A reminder that starting this week, Unlocking Us will be exclusively on Spotify, so make a plan to start listening to us over there. You’ll find a really cool hub that we’re building that’ll have mini-mixtapes, my music, podcasts, kind of all things Brené, Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead. All right, y’all, stay awkward, brave, and kind.
BB: Dare to Lead is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, by Weird Lucy productions. Sound design is by Kristen Acevedo, and the music that you hear is the Suffers. The song: “Take Me to the Good Times.”
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