When Judy Pryor-Ramirez was applying to become executive director of Emerson’s Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research, she spent more time researching the Center’s namesake than she did working on her cover letter and resume.
That fascination continued when Pryor-Ramirez came to Emerson to lead the Center in 2016–2017, and is ongoing today, when, as the first Elma Lewis Scholar in Residence, she is digging into Lewis’s speeches, letters, interviews, and records to tell the visionary alumna’s story through a black feminist lens. She hopes to turn it into a book or film.
“I found that the work that’s been written about her and the way she’s been presented has been very descriptive,” Pryor-Ramirez said. “I kept looking for something that spoke of the intellectual history she left us.”
Pryor-Ramirez was in town on Thursday, February 22, to present some of her research thus far to faculty, staff, students, and at least one former student of Lewis herself. The conversation was sponsored by Writing, Literature and Publishing.
Lewis was born in Boston to parents who had emigrated from Barbados and were followers of Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, who advocated for political and economic empowerment for the African diaspora, Pryor-Ramirez said.
She graduated from Emerson in 1943 with a degree in literary interpretation and recalled being essentially ignored by her all-white classmates. A dancer, initially she thought about heading to New York City to work in the theater, but realizing the lack of good opportunities available to black women, decided against it.
In a move that would set the stage for a lifetime of self-determination and community building, Lewis opened the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in 1950. She followed that up in the late 1960s with the National Center of Afro American Artists.
These institutions didn’t just teach African American children in Boston dance, drama, and art; they united people around a common cultural heritage, according to Pryor-Ramirez.
“[Lewis] worked to create a space for her people, for her community, in the context of the arts,” she said.
Pryor-Ramirez said she’s been “playing around” with the concept of Black Girl Magic—a hashtag and concept used to convey black women’s power and resilience—to “position Elma Lewis in black feminist culture.”
Based on her research so far, Lewis never used the terms “feminist” or “black feminist” to describe herself, Pryor-Ramirez said. But using the work of black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins as a framework, Pryor-Ramirez said she sees Lewis’s artistic, intellectual, and organizational work as fitting right in.
Lewis epitomized three hallmarks of black feminist thought, she said: self-definition; “lift as we climb”—advocating for other blacks and connecting her work to their struggle as a whole; and “spheres of freedom”—creating safe spaces for herself and her community (i.e., the School of Fine Arts and NCAAA).
She taught arts and job skills to men in prison, with the goal of giving them employable skills as stage managers, carpenters, and technicians when they got out. She formed a parents’ group to help support young graduates of her schools once they got to New York to pursue their careers.
She fed “her” children, nutritionally, artistically, spiritually.
“Art was a vehicle [she used] to raise the consciousness of young people and reverse negative self-image.…” Pryor-Ramirez said. “She really wasn’t hung up on articulating her feminism in a particular way; she just did it, and to me, that’s Black Girl Magic.”
Karen Gibbs Clarke studied with Lewis after school as a young girl in the early 1970s. She and her sister were enrolled in METCO, a program in which Boston children of color attend school in suburban school districts, and her mother decided that spending all their time in Brookline, they were in danger of losing their sense of selves.
“My mom, she loved the arts, and she noticed that we were having identity problems because we were taken out of the community,” Gibbs Clarke said. “She got us involved in the program, and we were black and proud.”
Gibbs Clarke and her classmates did African drumming and dancing alongside selections from Babes in Toyland, a musical mashup of European fairy tales. She was taken to see Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity, which the NCAAA stages annually, and gradually learned to overcome her shyness. She remembered Lewis as an intimidating, but caring, woman.
“She wanted you to be your best, and in order to be your best you had to work hard,” she said. But, “I felt good there. I learned a lot of my first experiences about self-identity at a young age.
“I feel very proud to have been a part of her vision.”