The Stargazing program is featured on the entryway table at the Wylie House Museum. Elizabeth "Lizzie" Breckenridge floats amongst the stars on the cover of the program while collecting water in Joann Quinones' piece Lizzie Lives Here. Image courtesy of Ann Schertz Photography.
Old places are an accumulation of history: wooden floors softened by age, glass slightly warped and pocked with air, antiques like a felted top hat, or a cast iron tea kettle blackened from being on a wood stove. Wylie House Museum (WHM), the home of IU’s first president Andrew Wylie, can transport someone back in time with such artifacts, but a recent program at the house took an entire audience back and forth through the cosmos, reflecting on the life of Elizabeth Breckenridge (1843-1910) as if she was a portal.
Possibility and poetry
On April 25, 2023, a standing-room-only crowd gathered in the parlor for Stargazing: Re/Imagining the Life of Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Breckenridge. A Bloomington UnBound Arts & Humanities Platform Project, Stargazing is a collaborative project “to connect Lizzie’s life to our own through her imagined dreams; and to imagine how we all intersect with ideas that stretch boundaries and borders” (from the program booklet). The point is not to tell a fictionalized story of Lizzie, but instead to invite us to feel and connect Lizzie’s life to the fabric of the larger Wylie House narrative, of Bloomington, and of Indiana.
Though many people find museums a trustworthy source of the truth, artifacts of Indigenous and Black people have been minimized or destroyed. WHM Director Carey Champion explained that Breckenridge, a Black woman, worked as a paid domestic servant for the Wylie family for 50+ years. President Andrew Wylie had no servants, but the Theophilus Wylie family, who lived in the house from 1859 to 1913, did: Lizzie Breckenridge. Theophilus was Andrew’s younger cousin and a faculty member who served as IU’s interim president on several occasions. Interested in science, Theophilus and Lizzie both enjoyed astronomy. Champion said that one of the few things known about Lizzie was her love of astronomy. Theophilus also fancied the new art of photography and took the few pictures we have of her.
Using the medium of the graphic novel, Ph.D. student Jeffrey Giddings offers yet another pathway into the portal. Co-President of the African American and African Diaspora Studies Graduate Student Society, Giddings notes that his graphic novel makes history more accessible, more “digestible.” He is illustrating Dr. Maria Hamilton Abegunde’s poems, the Stargazing Suite. In the Stargazing program guide, which audience members received, six of Giddings's panels could be found. Using actual photos from the WHM archives and digital illustration, the graphics depict the beginning of “Whispering into the Light,” one of the four poems featured in Stargazing.
Abegunde, professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies, began working with Lizzie during "Speculative Faultlines/Futures," a 2021 Arts & Humanities Platform Project focused on Bloomington history. As part of that project, collaborators worked on an idea where a point or person or site in history would be a portal with an alternative story or stories to tell. Of course, this brought her to the Wylie House Museum and Lizzie Breckenridge.
Abegunde, a Memory Keeper, refused to make Lizzie an object or a subject. She simply wanted to sit with Lizzie and re-member her. She sat in Lizzie’s room to hear and see vibrations from her life. Abegunde used “multiple Black Studies, speculative, contemplative, spiritual, and artistic frameworks” to connect with Lizzie through time. Abegunde wondered if Lizzie could be her relative. She let go and surrendered to what Lizzie might teach her. Abegunde cherished the sacred of the daily ordinary of Lizzie’s life. And from that, poems came.
Abegunde crafted four poems and Dr. Raymond Wise, Director of the African American Choral Ensemble, composed music for them. Wise, who also serves as Professor of Practice in the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department and the Associate Director of the African American Arts Institute, had not known about the Wylie House previously. He asked the question, “Does sorrow inspire an interest in the stars?”
Seeing music as word paintings, Wise created a song cycle from Abegunde’s poems. The music, which purposely triggers emotion and affect, creates a sense of a person bound to the earth, but interested in the stars. The music evokes a sense of sadness, but wonder. “The first time I heard someone sing these works, I cried,” Abegunde said.
During the Stargazing performance on that late April afternoon, graduate students Kathiana Dargenson and Shenika John Jordan sang the four-song cycle. The audience, star-struck themselves, swayed in and out of time, reaching for the heavens, looking out Lizzie’s window, and falling back to the earthly plane once again. Moved and in awe, tears filled more than one eye. Poetry, music, and voice came together in celebration and connection and exploration of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Breckenridge. Soprano Shenika John Jordan spoke of the unique circumstance of actually being “in the living artifact,” the house.
As remarked by Professor Valerie Grim, Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies, this project helps us realize that “…it is not our job to give people like Lizzie humanity; they already have humanity.” Stargazing: Re/Imagining Elizabeth “Lizzie” Breckenridge makes clear that it is our job to reflect on such a life, cherish it, and to not let it disappear amongst the often missing, invisible, and/or silenced details of history. With Stargazing, we have received a message from the other side of time.