By Robert Gibbons
As I started on this journey with the Lewis Latimer House as a Museum Educator, I wanted to determine how to interpret a legend for a modern audience. I asked myself the question, how was I to leave my fingerprint on a house that had fallen into disrepair and through generosity and benevolence, it was saved. So this is my query.
As I started researching him, I began googling all the definitions I could find on light. The word incandescent popped up in one of my engine searches. But it had several definitions that gave it a literal and a figurative meaning. The word incandescent could be my taking off point. The word incandescent was used to describe the light bulb, but what about incandescense to describe Latimer’s life, legacy, and person?
Born of parents who were enslaved, Latimer was blessed with a natural curiosity and a bright, intellectual precociousness that would make him a legend. That would make him a scientist-inventor and a renaissance man. And here we are in 2014, in the capitol of the lit world and I am not sure how Lewis would interpret this modern lighting dynamic. His birth of an idea was a literal and metaphorical lighting bolt, a modern technological advancement blazing with a desire to improve the daily lives of others. It is no wonder that he would be attracted to electricity.
From my vantage point, I am a person of the modern age; a person that has all the privileges of illumination and the benefits of hundreds of other everyday amenities, freedoms, and liberties powered by light that Lewis Latimer never knew in his lifetime. I cannot imagine an environment so addicted to the medium of light; to being able to survive a few minutes, or forgive hours, without street lighting that Latimer helped to install in this city as well as in the cities of London and Toronto.
As New Yorkers, we live in a city where night can look like day and there is no pure visual of the darkest midnight. There are visible signs on each corner of Latimer’s legacy. Every deli, bistro, and restaurant that is illuminated, bears his fingerprint. He was on the cutting edge and the advent of a new century receiving his first patent and publishing first his book before 1900. By sheer will and determination he invented himself as a Renaissance man before there was a documented Harlem Renaissance! He dared to not be conventional. I am an admirer of the will of his spirit. And for the internal fortitude that unearths such an incandescent spirit that must have been embodied by Lewis H. Latimer. May his historic house entice the curious, the technologically savvy and history buffs alike with enlightenment. It is the historic marker of a legend. Step into his light with me.