Each year, the NYU Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award is presented to someone within the University community who embodies King's "vision of peace, persistence in purpose, and inspirational action."


photo: headshot of Deb Willis

This year's recipient is Deborah Willis, University Professor, chair of the Tisch's Department of Photography & Imaging, and director of the NYU Institute for African American Affairs and the Center for Black Visual Culture. A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, Willis is both one of the nation's most prominent historians of African American photography and a noted art photographer herself. Two of her books—Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery and Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs won NAACP Image Awards.

NYU News asked Willis to reflect on her work and King's legacy—and for some reading recommendations for this Black History Month—before the presentation of the award at the 2020 MLK Week univeristy-wide event on Thursday, February 6.

What does NYU's MLK Week Humanitarian Award represent to you?

This week means to me to refocus my work on memory and activism. It is also my birthday week, and ever since I was a young child, Black History Month celebrations focused me on my identity. It's important for me to see this campus galvanize as we rethink Dr. King's mission on the concept of a “beloved community.” In his words:

“Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies—is the solution to the race problem.”

“The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

How has the American civil rights movement—and King's legacy in particular—influenced your work?

I was an undergraduate student when Dr. King was killed and I will never forget the emptiness I felt going into my class in an attempt to unravel my hurt. I tried to make photographs and tried to listen to music, but I felt then and still feel that my research and writings on photographers who were documenting the movement's activities were crucial to my understanding of visualizing the quest and desires for black people to vote and live in their communities without fear. I spent my entire career retelling their stories in order to show how the civil rights movement transformed my understanding of what it means to love.

As you said, you've devoted your career to the history of African American photography and visual culture. If someone were looking to explore that field, where would you suggest they start?

Make photographs and create a visual diary of the experiences they document.

Consider the Hank Willis Thomas collection All Things Being Equal, and the For Freedoms project—a platform for creative civic engagement, discourse, and direct action inspired by artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (1941).

Read Sarah Lewis’s Vision and Justice issue of Aperture magazine. For me, it helped shaped my understanding of Frederick Douglass’s writings on the power of the photograph and how to express humanity when being photographed—and of how visual legacies are preserved, shared, and explored in the photographer’s studio or through the photographer’s lens.

I also address these themes in my books Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography and Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present.

Any other recommended reading or viewing for Black History Month?

Robin D. G. Kelley's Boston Review essay Black Study, Black Struggle for the Boston Review is the first required reading on the syllabus for my "Black Body and the Lens" course. It talks about what it means to love the work produced by black scholars, activists, and artists.

I'd also recommend Rosalyn Terborg-Penn's African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920.