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Perspectives Portraiture

Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast

This podcast features artists discussing works from the exhibition and themes that arise in representations of the Black figure in Western art

Mar 9, 2022

A high-contrast view of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux's

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Hear perspectives of contemporary artists on how Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux and other sculptors of his time represented and, in many ways, mischaracterized the idea of Black freedom in their work. Speakers include painter Elizabeth Colomba, photographer Delphine Diallo, and writer, filmmaker, and activist Fabienne Kanor.

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Narrator: Welcome to a podcast about the exhibition Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which examines Western sculpture in relation to the histories of transatlantic slavery, colonialism, and empire.

This podcast presents perspectives of contemporary artists on how Carpeaux and other sculptors of his time represented and, in many ways, mischaracterized the idea of freedom in their work. They speak to the many obscured narratives from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially as they relate to the Black experience.

Their discussion begins with one particular artwork: the iconic sculpture called Why Born Enslaved! by the French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux from 1868.

This audio tour is sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827–1875). Why Born Enslaved!, modeled 1868, carved 1873. Marble, 22 7/8 x 16 x 12 1/2 in., 132.7 lb. (58.1 x 40.6 x 31.8 cm, 60.2 kg), pedestal: 22 x 18 in., 1298 lb. (55.9 x 45.7 cm, 588.8 kg). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, Wrightsman Fellows, and Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation Gifts, 2019 (2019.220)

Narrator: Imagine a life-size bust of a Black woman. She’s peering over her shoulder and her curly hair is parted in the middle, flowing out in either direction. This is the sculpture Why Born Enslaved! by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.

The expression on her face is serious, defiant even. Her garment has been pulled off her shoulder, exposing her breast. Her twisting pose signals her resistance as she moves against the ropes that bind her arms and torso.

We don’t know the name of the Black model who posed for Carpeaux for this piece. But her presence in the artist’s studio must have had a profound impact all the same.

French Painter Elizabeth Colomba is ambivalent about Carpeaux’s sculpture.

Elizabeth Colomba: I have mixed feelings about the piece. I still think it’s a beautiful piece as an art object. But I feel just because it was um... at a time where maybe France was grasping with with their identity—you know, they had the Revolution, the abolition. It’s a way to redefine who they are, the identity as you know male virility… and French, and Whiteness, so it’s all that.

So, if you’re going to use a piece of art that is going to be so, uh... represent Blackness, it was still linked to the idea of slavery and being chained, still perpetrating the same image and the same idea of what is Blackness for that society.

Narrator: Colomba’s paintings reimagine new narratives for Black figures who have been either sidelined or left out of the history of Western art. She likes to portray Black people in ways Western artists of Carpeaux’s time did not: as free and equal.

Colomba: My practice is about representing Black figures and Blackness in different ways and in contexts where they’re not supposed to be, and uh... I give them center stage and a place where they possess the canvas and they are the hero of their own story. So, that’s what why I like to portray, um, I’m going to call them success stories of historical characters that were into slavery, and that were able to escape slavery and have a full life.

Narrator: Carpeaux was one of the greatest French sculptors of his time, widely praised for his ability to articulate the emotional depth of his subjects. In the 1860s, he received a number of large commissions.

Carpeaux designed a fountain depicting four figures of Africa, America, Asia, and Europe. The figure of Africa had a broken shackle around her ankle. Why Born Enslaved! is a separate bust Carpeaux made based off of the fountain design. For this piece, she is instead bound by rope.

“At the end of the day, the image I’m seeing is a Black woman being bound.”

—Elizabeth Colomba

Colomba: I see a woman… furrowed brow, I would say. Great hair texture, great body, so very muscular… and the rope around her is like she’s, you know, she’s bound still.

Narrator: By 1868, when Carpeaux first modeled the bust, most Europeans had embraced the idea of abolition. But it had only been twenty years since France ended enslavement in its colonies in 1848. Many people, including Carpeaux, remembered a time when Black people were still legally considered property.

Colomba: It’s not that long in between, right? It’s very comfortable to see Black people still bound because it seems like you still have control. There’s still the fear of the image it gives you as the person who was the enslaver, meaning that you see somebody you hurt for generations... you can’t fathom the idea that they’re not going to do something back.

Narrator: Carpeaux made many reproductions of the piece for sale, including a terracotta version.

Over the years, many have interpreted Why Born Enslaved! as a symbol of inclusivity and freedom, even as evidence of Carpeaux’s commitment to the cause of abolition. But we know nothing about the artist’s interest in abolition; it’s possible he had other motivations. At the time Carpeaux created the bust, French support for abolition was a point of nationalistic pride. For Carpeaux, creating a sculpture representing the horrors of enslavement some twenty years after emancipation was achieved in France boosted his profile as both an artist and a patriot.

Colomba: I think he wanted to denounce slavery, and he used the tools he had—art and sculpting—to denounce something that he thought was horrific. Which is interesting, to repossess the idea or take the idea of slavery for himself.

And I think maybe because of the time it was France, politically, was in a difficult situation. Because obviously, they’re losing their colonies. They may be losing power, economical power, it was a way to reaffirm their place in time as male and White and how they’re fitting in this world. And that fight, to a certain degree, it’s like: it’s our fight as well.

I’m torn between the idea of denouncing something, which was I think the intent of Carpeaux at the time, you see it obviously in the title. But at the end of the day, the image I’m seeing is a Black woman being bound.

This bust of this woman, we don’t really know who she is. There’s no name of the model, there’s no story behind her. She’s just this idea that conveys Carpeaux’s conscience and wanting to do the right thing. But it’s still not doing the right thing because it doesn’t give her a place as a person.

Charles-Henri-Joseph Corder (French, 1827–1905). Woman from the French Colonies, 1861. Algerian onyx-marble, bronze, enamel, amethyst; white marble socle, overall on socle (confirmed): H. 37 3/4 x W. 23 1/4 x D. 12 1/4 in., 208.4lb. (95.9 x 59.1 x 31.1 cm, 94.5296kg) [Weight breakdown: head 35.4 lbs, marble bust 173 lbs, marble socle 98.7 lbs]; pedestal (confirmed): H. 41 3/8 x W. 18 1/4 x D. 18 1/4 x 11 3/4 in. (105.1 x 46.4 x 46.4 x 29.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Fund, 2006 (2006.112a–c)

Narrator: Nineteenth-century sculptor Charles Cordier is a key player in Western art’s portrayal of Black women. Sculpting from life, Cordier made one of his most famous works of the period, Woman from the French Colonies. The artist’s descendants have suggested that the same woman who posed for this bust also modeled for Carpeaux’s Why Born Enslaved!.

Cordier’s sculpture, in bronze and Algerian marble, was widely celebrated for its technical intricacies and detailed representation— including the figure’s skin color, facial features, and hair texture. She is draped in colorful marble and luxurious jewelry with gemstones. She wears a headpiece and a flower in her hair.

For photographer and visual artist Delphine Diallo, this work displays inaccurate stereotypes of Black figures that are common in the works of European artists.

Delphine Diallo: I’m French-Senegalese, and I’m born and raised in Paris, and I faced those sculptures very young. From the beginning, even that young, I saw the stereotype; an aesthetic where we have to find this Black woman with a very exotic hair, headwrap, and um... like even the tone of the skin. So, I was always aware of the stereotype of the work.

I knew that that was an interpretation that was not really based on reality. My work is about creating new archetypes for women to feel empowered, to feel strong. I have this obsession with creating a legacy for a new vision for Black women.

How can I create space for a Black woman in front of my lens, to make her alive and herself—beyond being beautiful, having a certain type of stereotype with braids, or headpieces, or anything that people can relate to stereotype?

“I see this more like a trophy of the most beautiful interpretation of a world that they never understood.”

—Delphine Diallo

Narrator: Because Cordier traveled to Egypt and Algeria, many Europeans believed his busts of African people were true-to-life. But he often combined features from different subjects he encountered to create his idealized version of the African figure.

Cordier believed he was creating a new standard of beauty for the previously enslaved. At the time he commented: “My art incorporated the reality of a whole new subject: the revolt against slavery and the birth of anthropology.”

Many of the bust’s features draw on the classical European tradition, from her serene expression to the side-swept draping of her garment. By appointing the bust with these features, Cordier was trying to use the language of European beauty and aesthetics to define something that couldn’t possibly be adequately captured by it—the beauty of Africa and its people.

Diallo: So, the nipple is present. So, I’m questioning this, you know? And some people say: “No, it’s not sexualizing.” I have these questions, like, why through history do you have to see the nipple behind the sheer of a woman?

So those sculptures of Cordier... I don’t think he was interested to know the subject that well. He was probably studying it like in ethnography, traveling the world. So, we’re dealing again with a pretentious male gaze. Empiric vision on someone. For me, a certain lack of understanding of the subject.

Narrator: Although Cordier worked with real-life models, he portrayed them as racialized types, knowing that doing so would appeal to European audiences.

Diallo: It was like a trophy. Yeah. So, I see this more like a trophy of the most beautiful interpretation of a world that they never understood.

Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (French, 1834–1904). Allegory of Africa, modeled ca. 1863–64. Bronze, H. 12 1/2 in. (31.8 cm), W. 20 in. (50.6 cm), D. 6 5/8 in. (16.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gift of the 50th Anniversary Gift Committee (1991.84.1)

Narrator: Imagine a bronze figure of a muscular African man reclining atop the skin of a lion—one of the many symbols Europeans associated with the continent.  The sculpture, called Allegory of Africa by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, dates to around 1863.

After the abolition of slavery in France’s West Indian colonies, French imperialists turned their attention to economic interests in Africa. France, for one, had established a large colonial empire in Algeria, which was a great source of national pride for France.

This figure was part of a commemorative fountain showing French Admiral Bruat presiding over figures representing the parts of the world where he had helped establish French colonial presence: Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. The figure allegorizing Africa appears at the bottom of Bartholdi’s fountain in a subordinate position. Representations of the four parts of the world like this one—and like the fountain that inspired Why Born Enslaved!—celebrated France’s dominance over non-European nations.

It gives painter Elizabeth Colomba pause to see this power dynamic:

Colomba: The feel that I have when I’m seeing this sculpture is: there’s nothing that can project the grandiosity of Africa. It’s a continent with, first of all, so many identities, wealth, and so much richness.

Narrator: Europe colonized regions of Africa, and other parts of the world, in order to extract natural resources. France justified its colonial exploits by characterizing them as “humanitarian missions” that sought to generously “civilize” cultures and peoples they found to be “primitive” and inferior to their own. Art was used to normalize colonial relations and establish notions of European cultural superiority.

One porcelain group by the Fulda Pottery and Porcelain Manufactory represents four parts of the world and dates to the 1780s, almost a century before Why Born Enslaved!. The female figure representing Africa wears prominent jewelry and a skirt made from feathers. She stands next to a lion and carries a cornucopia of fruit. Many of the features, especially the headpiece resembling the trunk of an elephant, appealed to European notions of African exoticism.

Fulda Pottery and Porcelain Manufactory (German, 1764–1789). Africa, from Allegories of the Four Continents, 1781–88. Hard-paste porcelain, 9 7/8 x 4 7/8 x 4 1/2 in. (24.9 x 12.4 x 11.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Estate of James Hazen Hyde, 1959 (59.208.6)

Colomba: There’s nobody behind Africa, but just the idea of Africa. So, meaning: that’s why there’s the headdress with an elephant trunk. And that’s why you have this kind of weird animal in the back, which is, you know again, meant to be a lion, but come on.

Narrator: Allegorical images of the four continents have been part of European iconography since the Renaissance. Each continent was personified as a female figure, dressed up and holding accessories that Europeans associated with that part of the world. While the theme first predominated in print form, it later appeared in ornamental objects like this one, which played a symbolic role for Europeans who displayed them in their homes.

Colomba: People who possess this, uh, sculpture thought that they fully understood what Africa was by having this at home. Or having this around them thinking that “this is Africa,” absolutely, and felt very well about it. You know, you’re cultured, you’re open-minded.

Narrator: As France expanded its empire into this part of the world, objects representing Africa became popular as decorative fixtures, representing the promises of wealth and resources that colonialism would bring.

Josiah Wedgwood (British, 1730–1795). Antislavery Medallion, ca. 1787. Jasperware, Overall (confirmed): 1 1/4 x 1 in. (3 x 2.7 cm); Overall (as mounted, confirmed): 2 1/4 x 1 1/8 in. (6 x 3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Frederick Rathbone, 1908 (08.242)

Narrator: Imagine a small ceramic medallion, depicting a kneeling Black man, wrists in chains, looking up with his hands clasped together in front of his face. The inscription reads: “Am I not a man and a brother?” This famous antislavery medallion was made by artist Josiah Wedgwood in 1787.

Like Wedgwood, many White artists in this period chose to depict the experience of formerly enslaved people by showing them in desperate need of help. Fabienne Kanor:

Fabienne Kanor: I see a man who was supposed to be me, to be my ancestor, kneeling on the ground. He’s got his hands up, begging for mercy. Begging for White help. I see again, a man relegated to just an object. Because without the support of the White man, he cannot be free. So I see a prisoner. I see a White fantasy.

Narrator: Kanor is an artist and professor of French and Francophone studies at Penn State. But above all else, she considers herself an activist, seeking to share untold stories about womanhood, Blackness, identity and colonial history.

Kanor: I come from the French West Indies. My parents were born in Martinique. Coming from this special place, I feel particularly familiar with the kneeling Black figure on this medallion. Actually, I’ve never called it “antislavery medallion.” I’ve never seen it as an effective tool that contributed to the eighteenth century to restore the image of my enslaved ancestors and help them to be free. Instead, I think that I view this image as a visual marker that shows the perpetuation of the myth of Black inferiority.

“What shocks me is all these White artists thought they were showing the truth in representing the oppressed. But the truth is they didn’t know anything about the people they represented.”

—Fabienne Kanor

Narrator: Kanor believes that images that depict Black people as powerless and victimized, like the one on this medallion, continue to have a negative impact.

Kanor: The figure of the good Black citizen, kneeling on the ground and asking for help, is really part of my family album. It is an image that has always had an impact on the behaviors of my family members.

My grandfather, his name is Papa Jerome, was born in Martinique several decades after the second abolition of slavery in the French West Indies. Like his own father, like billions of post-colonized people, my father has internalized the stereotype alleging his inferiority. Like the Black figure on the Wedgwood medallion, he, too, has never got an answer to the eighteenth-century question: “Am I not a man and a brother?”

Narrator: Black people had to surrender themselves to White people in order to be a part of their society. And even though Black people and the formerly enslaved were also part of the abolitionist movement, an object like this medallion was primarily made for White society. It’s no surprise, then, that it didn’t truly capture the full Black experience.

Kanor: What shocks me is all these White artists thought they were showing the truth in representing the oppressed. But the truth is they didn’t know anything about the people they represented. They only used them as arguments for the anti-slavery campaign.

Narrator: Including abolitionist imagery in everyday objects like this allowed people to position themselves as supporters of the abolitionist cause. These were often the only objects Europeans saw that had representations of Black people. As such, they carried a tremendous amount of cultural weight and importance.

Imagine another example: a cut-glass cologne bottle from around 1830.

This bottle’s six-inch size belies the immense power of its imagery. A man in a similar stance as the figure depicted in Wedgwood’s antislavery medallion—kneeling, wrists in chains, begging for mercy—is encased in what Kanor views as much more than a simple decorative object.

Apsley Pellatt. Cologne Bottle with Encrusted Antislavery Image, ca. 1830. Blown and cut glass with encased sulphide, H. 6 in. (15.2 cm), W. 4 in. (10.2 cm), D. 2 3/4 in. (7 cm). Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of the Decorative Arts Council (2001.40a, b)

Kanor: I see that man put in a cage. I see a prisoner. I see a man viewed as an object; as something you use again and again and again. We know that the abolitionists had to popularize the figure of the slave to be freed. The main goal was to make these characters visible everywhere in public spaces, but also in the houses of White people. And it was a noble goal on the surface—we don’t see the unfortunate slave anymore but an exotic, everyday object as shocking as it is useful and beautiful.

I asked myself: for whose benefit was this object created? I assume that the White people who bought it and use it every morning felt happy about their purchase. they probably felt a certain satisfaction to participate in the antislavery movement. I mean, I assume that some must have said to themselves: “I fight against the enslavement of African people and my contribution is this bottle.”

Do we have the original names of all these Black persons who inspired the White artist? Do we know how old they were? Did they have spouses, brothers or children? Were they born in the New World? Or just arrived from Africa? And if they were from Africa, which country in Africa? Which village? Which neighborhood? What did they leave behind them when they were enslaved?

Who can answer my questions? Who can tell me exactly where these people were buried? Are they dead? Or was it just a White abolitionist fantasy?

Edmonia Lewis (American, 1844–1907). Forever Free, 1867. Marble, H. 41 3/4 in. (106 cm), W. 22 1/2 in. (57.2 cm), D. 12 3/8 in. (31.4 cm). Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (67.9.S)

Narrator: African-American and Ojibwe sculptor Edmonia Lewis rose to prominence around the time of the American Civil War. One of Lewis’ works in marble depicts a man and woman freed from enslavement in 1867. She called it Forever Free.

For artist Elizabeth Colomba, it portrays Black liberation in a profoundly different way than Carpeaux’s Why Born Enslaved!.

Colomba: Because of my practice, I sometimes stumble into figures that I didn’t know, and Edmonia is one of them. I was fascinated by the fact that she was a Black woman in sculpture. I was inspired to maybe dedicate a portrait of her, and really paint her as an artist in situ—like an artist really working on her practice. And really give her that stage.

Narrator: When Edmonia Lewis was an art student in Boston, she had trouble even finding an art teacher who would agree to work with her. Despite this, Lewis managed to achieve a degree of popularity in the 1800s that was almost impossible at the time for an artist of color.

Colomba: She was not only incredibly gifted, but received some sort of acclaim while being alive. And she was more popular in Europe, which I think is interesting, also.

Narrator: Forever Free was created in response to an American triumph—the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States in 1865. But Lewis also made sure to represent it as a Black triumph as well: The male figure lifts up a broken chain.

Colomba: It’s a different interpretation from the White gaze of what means freedom. You see a man that is empowered. I mean, you can still see the chain, but it’s broken. His foot is resting on top of the ball of the chain, so it means it’s done.

Narrator: Even so, it was hard for Lewis not to succumb to other societal inequities. Next to the triumphant man, a woman kneels and looks up to the heavens, perhaps in a prayer of gratitude.

Colomba: He’s protecting this woman next to him, which I think is interesting because she’s not… she still needs the protection of a man. She’s still not fully a person that can stand beside him. Sometimes when you’re in a society you accept the idea that, uh, they put upon you. It’s almost like she’s not the master of her destiny.

Jean Démosthène Dugourc (French, 1749–1825). Revolutionary Playing Card, 1793–94. Woodcut engraving, 3 1/8 x 2 1/8 in. (8 x 5.5 cm). Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, Département des Estampes et de la Photographie (RESERVE KH-204 [6]-BOITE ECU)

Narrator: Picture a playing card from the late eighteenth century. It bears the French inscriptions: “COURAGE” and “ÉGALITÉ DE COULEUR,” which roughly translate to “courage” and “equality of the races.” It was part of a larger set of revolutionary-themed cards designed by Jean Démosthène Dugourc in 1794, the year France first officially abolished slavery in its colonies.

Professor, artist, and activist Fabienne Kanor notes the details in its depiction of Black freedom.

Kanor: It’s really interesting to see how the Black French is represented.  He wears the same clothes as some of his fellow citizens in the card game. He’s sitting in the middle of a colonial plantation, as if he had defeated his former oppressor. This victorious image suggests that he is now the master of his destiny.

Narrator: Traditionally, in decks of cards like these, the images of Kings, Queens, and Jacks represent courtly wealth and privilege. Here, however, they’re replaced by French Revolutionary figures and archetypes.

Kanor: They were called “nouvelles cartes de la république française,” and it was designed to show the new faces of French republican citizens. Progressive people were eager to change their society. They were trying to establish new rules and new models.

Narrator: This representation of a Black man stands in for the Jack of Spades. It’s rather exceptional for its time as a work that represents a formerly enslaved individual as autonomous and self-determined. The man carries a gun in his left hand, which symbolizes the uprisings of enslaved populations that brought about abolition. Nevertheless, some of the vestiges of enslavement remain. On the ground is a set of broken shackles, a nod to his life as an enslaved laborer. With sugar cane rising behind him, he sits on a bag of coffee beans.

This card was made three years after the Haitian Revolution began and in the year slavery was abolished in the French colonies, including in Haiti. When Napoleon later restored slavery in 1802, Haiti not only maintained abolition, but then declared full independence from France two years later.

Kanor: On the Black freedman’s card, there are these two mottos… “courage” and “equality of races,” which sounds to me absolutely optimistic, given what happened in the French West Indies. After abolishing slavery for the second time, France granted compensation to former slave owners. Equality of races never really happened.

Narrator: The road toward Black liberation is long, and Kanor suggests that some of the counternarratives, as depicted in this card, were more idealistic than they were realistic. It’s part of a complex history of representation of Black emancipation and personhood that continues to this day. Taken together, the objects in this exhibition offer an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of the Black figure in Western art, and to reimagine its future.

Narrator: This podcast accompanies The Met’s exhibition Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast. It was conceived with the understanding that many of the European artists included within it did not fully represent the humanity of Black people.

When curator and poet Wendy S. Walters considers Carpeaux’s depiction of the young woman in Why Born Enslaved!, she wonders if he had “some sort of nostalgia of having that kind of authority over her body.” How might Carpeaux’s model have viewed her own life? Her freedom? In the poem, Walters meditates on what may have been some of the model’s own perspectives.

This is a reading of the poem titled “In The Gallery.”

Wendy S. Walters:


The woman I’ve been mistaken for
Is not myself, and yet I’ve developed 
An expression of agony to share despite being so long lonely. 

My name, for now, is my body 
Soft in flesh but louder in stone. 
I find my way through years of silences 
after a life surrounded by enemies.

The crowd comes to calibrate beauty 
Their eyes on me, and I am Black. 
By this I mean I own myself
In marble or other measures cast 
To be displayed in passages eternal. 

Take care with those who believe they’re free, 
Who claim the rope is held by someone else,
Who took all they could gather in arms, 
Who built machines to dig up the rest. 

There is a language for this loss. 
None have learned to speak it 
I practice with my eyes closed, 
As if to learn from memory. 


I am one unlikely to be here. 
And so is she who comes after me. 
So is the one after her who owns herself 
Despite a world of superstitions. 

The hall is not quite a cathedral 
Though the crowd’s singing overpowers 
Those sleepwalkers who seek shadows 
Despite the light’s devotion. 

Imagine waking in the midst of a festival 
To look in all directions 
For evidence of the soul’s journey, 
Call it liberty—

See how the room grows 
To accommodate my view.
This is what walls can do.

Narrator: This podcast was produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art with Nina Diamond, Bryan Martin, and Rachel Smith in collaboration with writer Melissa Smith, audio producer James T. Green of Molten Heart, composer Austin Fisher, and narrator Gideon Kimmel. This audio tour is sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies.




Speakers: Elizabeth Colomba, Delphine Diallo, Fabienne Kanor
Writer: Melissa Smith
Audio Producer: James T. Green of Molten Heart
Narrator: Gideon Kimmel

At The Met:

Executive Producer: Nina Diamond
Producer: William Fenstermaker
Associate Producer: Bryan Martin
Production Coordinator: Rachel Smith

Special thanks: Elyse Nelson and Wendy S. Walters

This audio tour is sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

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Writer, filmmaker, and activist

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