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Mabel O. Wilson

Interview by Megan St. Andrew, graduate student in the School of Information and Institute for the Humanities marketing & media assistant.

Mabel O. Wilson, 2019 Norman Freehling Visiting Fellow.
Samuel Jennings “Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences” 1792.

Can you tell us a bit about the project you are currently working on at the Institute?

The primary project I’m working on is called “Building Race and Nation.” It looks at slavery and Native American dispossession and its relation to the building of American civic architecture. At the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama said, “I wake up every morning in a house built by slaves,” and I have been looking at our history to basically understand the contradiction that presents. American ideals which we revere—freedom, justice, liberty, equality—were written by founding fathers like Jefferson, Madison, or Washington who were reliant on the enslavement of others to make their life possible, including the buildings of early America. And further, the land they were building on was dispossessed from Native Americans. So I’m looking at architecture as a lens to understand how our contemporary understandings of racial difference and racial identity and superiority of whiteness is emerging from the triangulation of these relationships.

What led you to this specific topic? Why does it interest you?

I trained as an architect at the University of Virginia (UVA), a school founded by Thomas Jefferson, who people consider to be the first quintessential American architect. At UVA he’s referred to as Mr. Jefferson. And yet, I always heard stories about Sally Hemings, how Jefferson was a slave owner—this is way before histories on that relationship and Jefferson’s relationship to slavery had been researched and written. So I’ve always been fascinated by that.

I also became interested in this topic when writing my first book, Negro Building, which looks at African American participation in World's Fairs. W.E.B. Du Bois, who is a sort of protagonist throughout the book. commissioned two black architects to do a distinctly Egyptian and Nubian pavilion for a performance called “Star of Ethiopia” at an exposition celebrating emancipation in New York City in 1913. For Du Bois, who was a black national and early pan-Africanist, that representation of architecture and historical narrative was critical for this exposition and an ode to black history. I think this was his way to say that we as peoples of African descent have an origin story—the same way the Europeans crafted their origins in Greek and Roman republics through neoclassicism. So intellectually, this is foundational to my current research.

I’ve also been working on a collaborative architectural design project at UVA with a great group of architects, Howeler + Yoon, based in Boston. For two years we’ve been working on a design for a memorial to enslaved laborers at the university. The project was first proposed by students (students have a lot of power!) to really push UVA to publicly acknowledge the legacy of slavery at the university. Slaves built the university and had lived there from 1817 to 1865—-until the end of the Civil War. And before now, nothing was known about that history. So for the last five years, they’ve been excavating that history to figure out who was there, their names, what they did, their hardships, how they lived. I’m a member of a team of architects, landscape architects, and artists who have been working on this project. It breaks ground on March 3 of this year.

Do you have an example of something especially interesting or surprising you’ve learned along the way?

It’s really fascinating to understand how radical the proposition of the United States was in the face of the history of the Christian church and European monarchies. And also simultaneously the enlightenment belief of natural equality was being completely undermined by the development of a concept of racial difference that made white Europeans—certain white Europeans—superior over others. And so understanding that, and how it forms and changes over time, is really interesting because we just take it for a given. White and black. But actually it’s all sort of invented and constructed. And then you ask, “Well, towards what end?” and clearly it's towards exploitation and domination. It just allows one group of people to benefit from the exploitation of another group of people. And how much of that is fundamental to the modern world? We always couch it  as just personal opinion, but actually, like capitalism, like democracy, it is how the modern world emerging from Europe, the West, at that moment, constructs itself and takes over. So now it operates at the scale of the global. And that to me is the surprising thing. And that’s why I wanted to look at this project. That’s why it’s called “BUILDING Race and Nation.” It’s to look at how both race and nation are forming parallel, how the formation of the idea of the self determined and self conscious citizen, the political subject, is parallel to the formation of racial difference.

If you could give humanities undergraduate students (or even your younger self) any advice as they continue to learn and grow into their futures, what would you say?

In an environment that is tending more towards STEM and business, the humanities really offer a lens into understanding what it means to be human and the stakes we have in our society as individuals and as members. And that should always somehow temper the judgements in these other fields and disciplines. I think of Albie Sachs, an activist and lawyer involved with the African National Congress in South Africa and part of the team of lawyers for Nelson Mandela, who was car bombed and lost his arm. He was always an advocate for art, supporting artists and the role of art. I heard him say publicly once, “Without art, I could never have imagined freedom.” We can fight for freedom but art gives us a tool to be able to imagine that freedom. Arts and humanities are the only things that will allow for change, for understanding where we are but also who we could be.