This online conversation with Celeste-Marie Bernier, Judith Butler and Isaac Julien, explores the impact of the women in Frederick Douglass’ life on current pursuits of justice.
While widely acknowledged as an icon of abolitionism, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) is less understood as an early figure in the intersectional pursuit of human rights, a dissonance which informed filmmaker and artist Isaac Julien’s immersive moving-image installation Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass (2019). In this wide-ranging conversation, Julien is joined by the celebrated philosopher and educator Judith Butler and acclaimed Douglass scholar Celeste-Marie Bernier to examine the role of the influential women in Douglass’ life and their overdue recontextualization as pioneers in the history of civil rights. Butler’s renowned scholarship in the fields of philosophy, ethics, feminism, queer and literary theory guides her moderation of the conversation.
Currently the Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature at University of California, Berkeley, Butler’s theories have compelled generations of activists, artists and students to grapple with notions of gender performativity, individualism and power. As professor of United States and Atlantic Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Bernier specializes in the literatures, histories, politics, visual cultures and philosophies of women, men and children living in the African Diaspora. Julien worked closely with Bernier on Lessons of the Hour’s narration to construct “tableaux vivants” that reimagine Douglass’ relationships to Anna Murray Douglass and Helen Pitts, his first and second wives; Ellen and Anna Richardson, who raised funds to purchase Douglass’ freedom and supported his return to America; the suffragette Susan B. Anthony; and feminist activist and translator Ottilie Assing. Their inclusion as representatives of certain ideals of equality asks us to reevaluate the biases inherent in the historical record.
The West Coast premiere of Lessons of the Hour at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts (October 14, 2020 – March 13, 2021) is joined by an exhibition of Julien’s related photography and selections from the McEvoy Family Collection that further explore questions of identity, justice, history, and image-making in the film. New Labor Movements, a resonant original program of film and video shorts curated by Leila Weefur, explores contemporary visions of America and concepts of transnational Blackness. Online conversations with these artists and invited thinkers and scholars take place throughout the run of the exhibition. Admission to the exhibition and conversations is free.