Opening Doors: Melanee C. Harvey (GRS ‘17)
Melanee C. Harvey
a Scholar of Black Arts Movement Artists
They are determined to use their experience, influence, and positions to help make their business, organization, and world more inclusive. They are breaking barriers—and then reaching back to help those behind them overcome the same hurdles. They are BU alumni, faculty, and staff—of every race, ethnicity, age, and gender—and they are “Opening Doors” for the next generation.
Melanee C. Harvey was an undergraduate at Spelman College when she decided she wanted to be a historian of African American art—like one of her guest professors.
“Just to see a Black woman embody what an art historian does—I was, like, that’s what I want to be,” Harvey recalls. The guest professor was Lisa Farrington, a leading scholar of African American art who would go on to become associate dean of fine arts at Howard University. “I remember very audaciously going up to her one day after class and saying, ‘I’m applying for graduate school and I just want you to know, I’m going to be like you one day.”
Today Harvey (GRS’17), who holds a master’s and PhD in American art and architectural history from BU, is a scholar of Black Arts Movement artists, an assistant professor of art history at Howard University, and programming coordinator and committee chair of the university’s James A. Porter Colloquium on African American Art and Art of the African Diaspora. The leading forum for scholars and curators in the field, the colloquium is named for the pioneering Howard professor known as the father of African American art history.
A 2020-2021 Paul Mellon Scholar at the National Gallery of Art Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA), Harvey is working on a book on the art and architectural history of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. She is also contributing to a forthcoming anthology on American art (Unforgettable: American Artists Reconsidered, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2022) alongside her former BU advisor, Patricia Hills, a College of Arts & Sciences professor emerita of American and African American art, and several other of Hills’ former doctoral students.
Harvey is part of a team of scholars—including Farrington, the role model who became her mentor—at Howard and CASVA who are working, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to create a pipeline for careers in museums and arts-related organizations for HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) students and those from other underrepresented institutions.
Bostonia talked with Harvey about how she became interested in the history of African American art, the role Farrington and other mentors have played in her career, and her current role as a mentor to her students.
Melanee C. Harvey
Bostonia: Can you talk about how your early childhood in Dayton, Ohio, shaped you?
Melanee C. Harvey: Growing up in Dayton, I had access to the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, which is about 40 minutes from Dayton. My dad, the Rev. Louis Charles Harvey, was president of Payne Theological Seminary, one of the few African American seminaries in the United States. The seminary is literally down the street from Wilberforce University, the oldest HBCU in the country; both institutions are run by the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, which I’ve studied in my work.
Growing up in this space—understanding the history, the seriousness, I think, of this legacy that we uphold—was a very big part of me taking academic life seriously, and understanding it as a kind of cultural work for generations to come.
Bostonia: What got you interested in art?
Melanee C. Harvey: I credit my mother, Dr. Sharon Jefferson, with shaping the aesthetics of our domestic environment when I was growing up. She decorated our home with framed reproductions by Claude Monet and by Varnette Honeywood, an African American artist who graduated from Spelman. A lot of her work deals with African American life. The two images I remember—one of three women in a beauty shop doing each other’s hair, and one of a Black church, with the choir and the minister and the audience.
One of the recent projects I worked on was thinking about the life of Alma Thomas, who was the first Black woman to have an exhibition at the Whitney Museum. She was a schoolteacher most of her life, and she would always encourage her students not to be defined by the violence and racial discrimination. She would tell them, “You have to create the beauty that you want to see in your world.”
And I think that is a mantra that extends across generations of African Americans. How do you deal with a world that is pushing you into a box? One way you do that is by controlling your own interior space.
I think that there’s this multigenerational tradition of African Americans investing in the aesthetics of their home as a kind of sanctuary space, a reprieve from the things that they encounter in the world.
Bostonia: What was your experience at Spelman College like?
Spelman transformed my perspective. My first year I took a required course on the African diaspora that introduces students to some of the foundational historical writings of African American culture. It completely shifted my life. It gave me an understanding that there was literature, and a philosophical way to view the world, that did not leave me feeling victimized but that instead empowered me. It just lit me on fire.
We would read Audre Lord and Patricia Hill Collins, and I wanted to be one of those women who are coming up with new ways to view the world that would shift how we understand our condition. The renowned historian Anne Bailey taught the class. She transformed my life because I could see myself in her.
Then, I think it was my first semester, I took art appreciation and it was just over for me. I knew that I wanted to double major in African history and art, with a focus on art history. I just feel so indebted to Spelman for everything they introduced to me. We would do class trips across the street to Clark Atlanta University, where we would get to see these beautiful murals [Art of the Negro] painted by Hale Woodruff that documented the evolution of Black aesthetics. [Woodruff, who was the state of Georgia’s first art professor and founder of the Atlanta University art department and permanent collection, painted the murals in 1950 and 1951].
My sophomore year at Spelman, because I was interested in research, I was selected to be a part of the United Negro College Fund Mellon Mays program, which brought students from HBCUs together at Emory University to prepare them to pursue higher degrees and return to the academy as faculty.
I also did another graduate school preparatory program, the Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers, at [Phillips] Andover Academy. I knew I wanted to be a professor at an HBCU, that I wanted the next generation and future generations of Black scholars to see me in the same way that I saw Lisa Farrington.
Bostonia: And then you came to BU…
I had the great luck of having Patricia Hills, who is a feminist scholar of African American art and is now a professor emerita, really believe in me as a scholar. She was dedicated to taking seriously the applications of minority students. When I got to BU, there was one other African American student ahead of me in the program. I think I was the second African American student in the [history of art and architecture] program.
There’s the social dynamic that comes along with the kind of intellectual competitiveness in graduate school that minority students coming from an HBCU aren’t always prepared for. It takes a while to get your footing to be able to navigate that. Pat [Hills] created this community of students of color who could support each other.
She also ensured that I had the proper professional opportunities. I spent two years working in the Boston University art galleries. I learned how to install shows, how to do loan agreements, those very practical things.
Pat also connected me with the African Studies Center. I was a graduate assistant there, and that gave me the opportunity to curate history exhibitions and work with scholars like Linda Heywood. I did struggle, acclimating to Boston—you know, coming from Atlanta, a majority African American city—but I had so many good opportunities before me that it was just like, how can I not take advantage of this?
I’d gone to Spelman and I became a kind of specialist in Black art. And then you come to a place like Boston University, where, “Omigod, you don’t know John Singleton Copley? You don’t know John Singer Sargent?” And I’m like, “I don’t, I’m going to learn. But do you know Romare Bearden [Wheelock’34]? Do you know Justin Morris?” A lot of my white peers, they knew the art historical language and canon that I think at the time BU was promoting, and I’m coming in with a whole other set of names and knowledge.
So I had a lot of bumps in the road and obstacles where I had to demonstrate perseverance. At the same time, Patricia Hills had imparted to me just how much the field of African American art needed to be developed and advanced. And I knew I wanted to be a part of that.
Bostonia: How did you get to Howard?
I mentioned my interest in Howard to Pat, and she told me that Howard has an annual art history conference, the James A. Porter Colloquium—it’s the oldest continuous forum for African American art—and why don’t you check it out? The department paid for me to go down to D.C. and participate. I fell in love. I was, like, I want to be at this place. Some of the seminal thinkers in terms of African American art from the 20th century taught at Howard. Alain Locke, who led the Harlem Renaissance, taught at Howard.
As the former chair of the department of art, James A. Porter was the first individual to write a comprehensive textbook on African American art. I aspired to, and still aspire to, make a similar impact as have Alain Locke and James Porter.
Bostonia: How do you think about your role as programming director for the colloquium?
I’m always thinking about that new graduate student who’s just wrapping up their dissertation and needs that opportunity to publicly present their work, or thinking about that new cutting-edge artist or art historian who will bring a whole new earth-shattering methodology to the art community and our students at Howard.
Bostonia: Can you talk about your work with your mentor, Lisa Farrington, now Howard’s Gallery of Art director, to create pathways to careers in museums and other arts organizations for Black students and other minorities?
Dr. Farrington and the dean of the Center for the Advanced Study of Visual Arts, Dr. Steven Nelson, came up with this brilliant idea of starting a two-year paid internship for Howard students that would give them entry into the museum world. At museums, you’re bringing all different types of skills, whether it’s HR skills, budgeting skills, fundraising writing, public relations—all our students can benefit from all of that. That’s a program I’ve been working on developing with our partners at the National Gallery for the past year.
Bostonia: So this is how you’re opening doors for a new generation.
Yes, and I can’t speak highly enough about the work Howard has done even before this program. Some of my students have gotten amazing opportunities—one now works at Swann Auction Galleries as an art administrator. Another graduated from Howard and went on to get her master of art at Tulane. Other students have gone directly into museum administration work. I have a student who is working at the MFA in Boston.
I’m really passionate about mentoring. I want to continue to be an example for others that you can pursue graduate degrees. And in art history, it is possible. Look at me, I did it. And I’m the second or third generation of Black people who have been doing this. When I think about my students keeping me up on what they’re doing, it lets me know that I’ve made some type of impact on their life, in the same way that Dr. Lisa Farrington and Patricia Hills and others have made a resounding impact on my life.
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