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Historian Sarah Lewis On Creativity And Failure At Case Western Reserve University

August Wilson, winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement award in 2005, used to begin writing his plays on napkins to elude the fear of the blank page.

And the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King—also an Anisfield-Wolf recipient—was so unsure of himself in front of a group that he received a C+ in public speaking at seminary, only to drift down to a C in the second semester. When art historian Sarah Lewis saw that transcript, it served as a revelation.

“When I saw this at Sotheby’s, I knew I needed to write this book,” Lewis told Seth Meyers last year. “Because if we are not telling the full arc of people’s lives and stories, then we deprive ourselves of the roadmaps we need.”

Her book is “The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure and the Search for Mastery.” Published in 2014, it marked Lewis as a promising public intellectual, profiled in Vogue Magazine under the headline “Brainiac Rising.”

Lewis, 35, grew up in Manhattan and took degrees at Harvard, Yale and Oxford universities. She made her first visit to Cleveland as a Town Hall speaker for Case Western Reserve University.  “This is the first time I’ve been asked to speak on innovation in the context of diversity,” she said, a smile ever-present as she wove parts of her Ted Talk (1.3 million views) into this new terrain.

Lewis started in Cleveland with the story of Charles Black, who at age 16 had his first encounter with genius, accidentally hearing Louis Armstrong play his trumpet in 1931 at an Austin, Texas hotel. The boy was thunderstruck that this genius “was housed in the body of a man whom Black’s childhood world had denigrated.” The force of this incongruity set young Charles on a path that led to the law, and to his joining the team that successfully argued Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

Lewis, as someone who thinks deeply about art, is fascinated with the connection between social justice and vision. She points out in “The Rise” that a very-detailed schematic of a slave ship, circulated in London in 1789, lent a crucial blow to slave trade under the British flag.

Her next book, due in 2016 from Harvard University Press, will focus on social justice and Frederick Douglass. He makes several appearances in “The Rise.” Intriguingly, the great abolitionist characterized injustice as a failure of the imagination.

Lewis said just two sentences she wrote in “The Rise” attracted the most scrutiny from journalists. These lines suggested that she had experienced some power in being underestimated.

“It can be seen as more risky to be a black woman writing about this,” Lewis said, picking her words carefully. “As someone who attends to African American people’s stories, I do know what improbable foundations are all about.”


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