Dr. Stephanie Williams – Accessibility, & Contemporary Art

As part of my interview series, I wanted to chat with my very dear friend, Dr. Stephanie Williams. Stephanie is a brilliant and kind woman. We met while both working at the Art Institute of Chicago and were instant, fast friends. She is also a scholar, a Chicagoan, ethnographer, author of Wanda Wants a Wheelchair, and owner of the blog, People Who are Differently Abled.

I’ve always wanted to hear more about her Ph.D. dissertation, where she explored the image of African American viewership in Contemporary Art. She’s been kind enough to chat with me and agreed to share some of her life with me here. Please, take a look at my fascinating friend!

How would you describe yourself? Art historian, author, sociologist, ethnographer, petite drumstick, or anything beyond those labels?

How would I describe myself? I would describe myself as a black woman who is disabled who (only to people who know me and people I want to shock) happens to have a pHd…i put black woman first because these mean the most to me and disabled because this is also important to me…it’s  funny that these are obvious to anyone who sees me, but having a doctorate in sociology is not!  I would not say that I am an author. I don’t know why.  I guess because an author to me has people clamoring after the book.

  • What were really important events that made me study at Harvard ,or any institutions? How do I  feel about my scholarship now?
Well first, I earned my PhD in Sociology of Culture. This means that I studied how culture  (The plays/musicals, dance,  museums, etc.) plays a part in or doesn’t play a part in the way that humans live their lives. I read an article about Maxwell Anderson who was the former president of the Whitney Museum, in NYC. I cold called him, introduced myself,  and said that I would like to interview him for my research. I explained that my dissertation was going to be about whether or not an individual visited a museum if that had a huge impact on her/his life. I had no idea what my dissertation was going to called,  it ended up being called, “Art Museums and High Culture in the Lives of Middle class African Americans” I had to look it up, as I didn’t remember it 🙂 I couldn’t believe it,  but he invited me to come to the Whitney in order to interview him! During my last year at Penn, I tried and I tried to get a job,  with no luck. I didn’t want to go to Max (Maxwell Anderson) again…but I told him that I was having a difficult time getting a job and I read somewhere that Skip (Henry Louis Gates) was on the board of the Whitney and could he put in a good word for me if I applied to his program at Harvard? He said sure…I was elated when I came home to the acceptance letter! I remember that I had to pay for housing myself and so I got a job – good thing that I could walk well back then!
Considering that I don’t work now and no one of importance seems interested in my dissertation, it seems that it was done for naught. I’m glad that I did my dissertation, but I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I’m proud of myself for completing it and for going through the rewrites and the psychological games that my advisors played.  Having gone to Penn was instrumental in getting the jobs that I did have. But, since I can’t walk without the help of a walker today, I have sunk so far down…people assume that I don’t have any education. It’s more my fault. I should do more to make my education known. I am volunteering now, that’s a huge move for me. [Editor’s note: I’m super proud of you!]
  • Explain your dissertation, etc? 
My dissertation is called “Art Museums and High Culture in the Lives of Middle class African Americans” add the words “a sociology of culture study” and you have the meaning! What it means is: a study of how people understand/or don’t understand what they deem to mean high culture in their lives. I only interviewed middle class black people (I judged this by their jobs) because according to the research the middle class and higher are supposed to be the purveyors of high culture.

Thank you, Stephanie!

Reads & References



Posted with Stephanie’s permission. Edited only for visual flair and formatting.