Arts & Culture

Two views of disparate cultures

6 min read

Fletcher Fellows Jones and Leeds lecture on their forthcoming books

Art historian Kellie Jones, the child of two writers, grew up in the 1960s and 1970s on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was a place of cultural ferment, creation, and comparative racial freedom. Jones is exploring new visual and literary ways to convey her personal history. Legal scholar Stacy Leeds, an expert in tribal law, once served on the Cherokee Supreme Court — the youngest ever to do so, and the only woman. She’s investigating the little-known history of black slaves once owned by Cherokees.

Jones and Leeds told their stories this week (May 18), with scholarly twists, in the Barker Center’s Thompson Room. The occasion was the inaugural Fletcher Fellowship Lecture, sponsored by Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

Jones — the daughter of poet Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and poet/memoirist Hettie Jones — called her rich and unfettered upbringing on the Lower East Side “a great gift.”

It was a place and time for “creative people of every stripe and creed,” said the Yale-trained scholar, whose first classroom — aptly — was in the Church of All Nations Preschool. “The notion that people lived their lives and possibilities was just a given.”

Across the street from the four-story tenement Jones grew up in was Cooper Union, where talented artists could study for free. All around her was what she called “the great rainbow of downtown New York culture”: the lofts, studios, and homes of dancers, painters, sculptors, poets, archivists, early environmentalists, and musicians who jammed free jazz.

In Newark, New Jersey — “another universe, across the river,” she said — were her working-class grandparents, her father’s black nationalist program, and a thriving black arts movement. “We learned about culture as a powerful tool,” said Jones.

She realized she had a unique story to tell about a unique moment in time — “two decades of cultural commentary,” she said. “This is it, I thought to myself: My inheritance.”

Jones arrived at the notion of a “community archive,” shared storytelling that allows the artistic community she grew up with — her artistic family at least — an opportunity to “create and theorize their past.”

Her book, “Eyeminded: A Life in Art and Writing,” will appear next year.

Leeds — a professor at the University of Kansas School of Law — is looking at her own culture, too, though in a broader sense.

Her book, also out next year, is “Sovereignty and Consequences: Cherokee Legal History and Freedmen.” Leeds is sifting through a little-known corner of her tribe’s history — the legal fate of the slaves once owned by the Cherokees and the legal standing of their descendants.

In 1838 and 1839, most Cherokees were forcibly removed from ancestral lands in the South to “Indian Territory,” in what is now Oklahoma. On this forced migration westward, the “Trail of Tears,” Cherokees brought with them about 1,000 black slaves.

Tribal law abolished slavery in 1863. Three years later, black Cherokee freedmen were granted tribal citizenship, along with some adopted Delaware, Shawnee, and even some inter-married tribal whites.

Granting citizenship opened a question that has now resonated for more than a century, said Leeds: Are descendants of those freed slaves part of the Cherokee Nation?

The 1866 decision also illuminates a period of tribal history that “roughly mirrors Reconstruction in the South,” she said. The tribe’s allegiances were divided along North-South lines, federal meddling was rampant, and there were even attempts to formalize racial segregation.

Confounding the issue, said Leeds, were attempts by the federal government — starting in the 1880s — to suppress Cherokee tribal governance. By the turn of the century, federal law forced tribes to cede their communal land and redistribute it based on a tribal census, the so-called Dawes Rolls.

The land allotment had one ironic consequence, said Leeds. “There really was a place in the United States where freed slaves received 40 — or more — acres of land.” (“Forty acres and a mule” — the great federal promise to blacks in the reconstruction-era South — never materialized.)

Fast-forward to 1970, the start of a new era of revived tribal governance among Native Americans. In the Cherokee Nation, at first, the self-described freedmen were allowed to vote — but then by the 1980s were stripped of that right.

They lacked a required “quantum of blood,” said Leeds. (The Bureau of Indian Affairs, based on ancestry documents, furnishes an official Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood.)

In 2006, Leeds — by then on the Cherokee Supreme Court — wrote the majority opinion in a case that reinstated the voting rights of Cherokee freedman. (Registered freedmen number about 2,800.)

But a year later, in an emergency election, that decision was rescinded, opening the tribe to charges of racial discrimination.

The controversy is alive and well, said Leeds. Legal challenges are pending in tribal court, and in two federal court cases.

But the freedmen question is more than an interesting question of civil rights in race relations, said Leeds. It also invites renewed arguments about federal control over Indian law.

It’s well established, legally, that tribal citizenship is an internal, tribal matter, she said. But freedmen argue that tribes are ultimately subject to federal control, and may be violating international laws related to the rights of indigenous peoples.

On the other hand, tribal governments argue they have the right to exercise sovereign decisions.

“I urge caution on both sides,” said Leeds.

It’s dangerous to argue that the federal government has ultimate control over tribes, she said. That would validate past wrongs and treaty violations visited on Indians by the U.S. government.

But “sovereign actions, even if internally legal,” said Leeds, may bring upon Indian nations unintended consequences that are “political, ethical, and spiritual.”

The Fletcher Fellows

Named for Alphonse Fletcher Sr., the nonresidential Fletcher Fellowships are underwritten by investment strategist Alphonse Fletcher Jr. ’87, chairman and CEO of Fletcher Asset Management Inc.

They were established in 2004 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision. The first fellows were named in 2005; there have been 36 since then.

Two 2008 Fletcher Fellows lectured at Harvard May 18. The other two will lecture at Stanford University next week.

Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, J.D. ’84, is a legal scholar specializing in race and gender issues. She teaches at both the University of California, Los Angeles, and Columbia University.

Historian Clayborne Carson teaches at Stanford University. He is founding director of Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

The 2009 Fletcher Fellows:

Emily Bernard, who teaches English at the University of Vermont, Burlington, is a visiting scholar in African-American studies at Yale University. She is a noted essayist and an authority on the Harlem Renaissance.

Rachel Devlin, a historian at Tulane University, is an expert on girlhood, race, sexuality, and cultural politics. She is a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History.

Llewellyn Smith is founder and president of Vital Pictures Inc., an independent film production company specializing in documentaries on U.S. race relations and social justice.

Keivan Stassun teaches physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University and is an adjunct faculty member at historically black Fisk University. He is involved in initiatives regarding underrepresented minorities in astronomy and space science.