UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 08 Summer 18 Library
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History (Photo: Vashti Harrison)
Alumni Spotlight

Vashti Harrison and Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

Vashti Harrison (College ‘10) has always been good about finding the heart of a story by exploring its outermost fringes. That in many ways has been her trademark as an experimental filmmaker, a passion she found and nurtured at UVA under the tutelage of instructors and noted film artists like Kevin Everson and Lydia Moyer. Harrison’s own films, which explore themes that include the beauty and mystery of her Caribbean heritage, have won her great acclaim and earned screening spots in the New York Film Festival and The Virginia Film Festival, among others. This year, she proved that film is only one of the tools in her storytelling toolbox with the release of her first children’s book, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. The project came about as a result of a challenge Harrison gave herself in February of 2017 to explore and refine her passion for drawing, which had been nurtured at UVA through drawing and printmaking courses taught by Akemi Ohira Rollando and Ebony Patterson, among others. Later, as a grad student at Cal Arts, Harrison focused largely on cinematography, but snuck into classes by some of the industry’s most legendary animators. In early 2017 she revisited this passion by committing to drawing something every day. She was inspired in part by online challenges such as Inktober,which called for artists to paint something in ink every day during the month of October, and MerMay, in which artists had to come up with a different mermaid image throughout the month of May. Rather than join one of these efforts, Harrison forged her own artistic path by vowing to contribute a drawing and story for each day of Black History Month that would honor a different woman’s story and accomplishments. “I felt like I was hearing the same stories over and over during Black History Month since I was a kid,” she said. “So I really wanted to focus on some parts of these stories that you don’t hear that much, or names that have not necessarily made their way into the mainstream.” She quickly decided to focus on women. “I really like drawing girls, so that was an easy choice for me,” Harrison said “I also thought about how when Carter G. Woodson started what was then called Negro History Week in 1926, his thought process was to highlight the histories of the long-neglected throughout history. I felt inspired to share the stories of Black women in particular, whose stories have been doubly neglected throughout history.” She posted the first of these “secret histories” to Instagram in the early morning hours of February 1, 2017. The subject was Sojourner Truth. “I had known about her as an abolitionist and a women’s rights activist. But when I read her story, I was overwhelmed with the beauty and passion and the human element of it,” Harrison said, recounting the tale of how Truth lost her son to an upstate New York slave owner who sold her five-year-old son to an Alabama plantation owner in advance of the coming reality of emancipation. Sojourner Truth would stop at nothing, becoming the first woman to successfully sue to win her child back. “I was so overwhelmed with the beauty and the power of this story that I had tears streaming down my face as I posted it,” Harrison said. “I really felt inspired to tap into this human moment that I felt so empathically drawn to and I wanted to push this connection of these women as human beings rather than historical figures.” She contacted her agent to talk about the possibility of a book, and a deal was in place with Little Brown before the month was over. “They wanted the book out by the following Black History Month, which meant submitting content by early September. The book was in stores by December 5.” Harrison tackled the deadline with lessons she learned at UVA. “Kevin Everson always talks about the importance of treating artmaking like it is your job, because if you don’t do that, you are not going to have the confidence to show your art to people.” 

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