Letter by David J. Roxburgh, Chair, on behalf of the Faculty and Staff of HAA

June 18, 2020

Dear Members of the HAA Community,

We, the Faculty and Staff of the Department of the History of Art and Architecture (HAA), affirm this truth: Black Lives Matter.

The past several weeks have been painful beyond measure, and it is difficult to put into words the sense of outrage and sadness we feel from the acts of intolerable and violent racism culminating with the recent police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, Sean Monterrosa, and the many others whose lives have been taken through racist acts, including Ahmaud Arbery. We want to acknowledge and address the fear, pain, frustration, and exhaustion you may be feeling. We stand in solidarity with the protests against police brutality and systemic racism suffered by communities of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

As a department we have work to do to understand the living legacy of systemic racism and white supremacy, and how to recognize, combat, and dismantle these power structures. Many of us work in fields and are a part of communities that have systematically been subject to the long history of white supremacist racism. We must bear witness to and take action against these excruciating events of inhumanity and their root causes.

Several of our faculty members and courses in HAA take up these issues, either in their early histories or their present manifestations. For example, the work of our colleague Sarah Lewis on art and racial justice has been inspirational, in particular her “Vision and Justice” project, which includes, all under the same name, a course at Harvard College, a conference convened last year at the Radcliffe Institute, and a special issue of Aperture magazine. Suzanne Blier has been a leader in promoting the African contributions to world art and locally in raising awareness of institutional histories and collection formation at the Harvard museums and the local history of slavery. Shawon Kinew has grounded her teaching and service at the university in the intellectual traditions of indigeneity and Anishinaabe ceremony. Tom Cummins and his colleague Alejandro de la Fuente (History Department), have established a Getty Foundation funded project Afro-Latin American Art that will gather scholars from throughout America to articulate issues of race, representation, and vision from a broader perspective. These courses and projects are ongoing initiatives that recognize the need for art history to address issues that are ever present but which are too often silenced or ignored. It is incumbent upon all members of HAA to engage in self-reflection and consider what more we can do, individually and collectively, to work for equality and racial justice.

Words are empty when not connected to action. At its best, the history of art and architecture can articulate the role of visuality and visual representation in shaping discourses on race, social justice, decolonization, and subject formation. What history shows us is that our visual and spatial culture, and not law alone, has led to this racial crisis and our focus on police brutality. Law and culture together shape our social narratives and can be used to justify biases, prejudices, and stereotypes with deadly consequences.

As a community of scholars and researchers, we must build upon our existing initiatives inside and outside the classroom and recognize that we can do much more. We will be spending the summer discussing new actions for the short- and long-term. For the time being, as a beginning, we will pursue the following:

The department takes seriously its role in shaping the field of history of art and architecture. We will strive to make future department sponsored and co-sponsored lectures and conferences diverse and redouble our efforts to seek diversity in hires and in the formation of cohorts.

We seek to initiate curricular change in ways that engage more robustly with issues of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. This change will include such important foundation courses in our department as the Sophomore Methods Seminar, but will also affect a broader cross-section of course offerings and treatment of related subjects in existing courses. We will also explore ways to further connect our course content to a much greater extent to social issues in the communities outside of Harvard.

We will establish more avenues of communication between faculty and students, and between the department and community members. We will develop a new graduate and undergraduate student liaison committee that meets regularly with faculty to discuss issues relating to the curriculum and building community among our members.

We commit to understanding our history as an institution and the ways it has benefitted and continues to benefit from racist practices. This means understanding our institution’s role in the violent histories of colonization of Indigenous peoples and the profiting from the enslavement of people of African descent.

In order to generate a more diverse cohort of students in the HAA concentration, and the Humanities more broadly, we will approach recruitment differently, which means not only relying on concentration fairs and other forms of Harvard College-wide recruitment (e.g. Visitas). As we focus on diversifying the students who come into the HAA concentration and who take an interest in art history and museums, we will work to provide more meaningful experiences for students of color who enter our community and to develop pathways into the art world more broadly.

We are actively exploring ways to ensure that the signs and spaces of the department reflect racial and ethnic diversity and a broader array of interests.

As a Department, we support calls for the reform of Harvard University Police Department (HUPD), Harvard University divestment from privately-run prisons, anti-racism training across the university (which includes but is not limited to implicit bias and diversity training), appointments in Ethnic Studies at the university, and other measures that ensure that the university is not enabling racism inside and outside our communities.

This is only the beginning. HAA needs to listen and learn. And these initiatives should be informed by as many members of the HAA community as possible, especially our graduate and undergraduate students, so we therefore welcome suggestions you may have that will help us to promote equality and racial justice as a Department. Updates will be provided about the measures outlined here as well as other future initiatives.

David J. Roxburgh, Chair, on behalf of the Faculty and Staff

of the Department of History of Art and Architecture

Further Reading:

The HAA Department will develop a disciplinary specific bibliography of recommended reading.

To download a free copy of Aperture magazine “Vision and Justice: A Civic Curriculum,” with 31 texts on “intersections of race, technology, and justice” and bibliography through 2016, visit:

Aperture magazine “Vision and Justice: A Civic Curriculum,” with 31 texts on “intersections of race, technology, and justice” and bibliography through 2016.

Harvard African and African American Studies Faculty Reading Recommendations

Afro-Latin American Art: Building the Field