I just returned from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) conference in North Charleston, SC. There, I met some incredible scholarly-sisters. Some of them were also my sorority sisters. One of them was a sister in art of long standing.
I reflect now on it all. My faith in sisterhood, a topic that a University of Alabama undergraduate and I recently addressed as we prepared for an upcoming event on campus, was restored considerably.
I needed this trip. I knew before I left that I would not only moderate a documentary on the anthropologist-novelist-folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, but would make a pilgrimage to St. Helena Island, South Carolina.
Using my own funds, I rented a car and did just that. It was unplanned, but I found myself traveling with two sisters. We took in the history of this sea island where one can hear in the lilt of the voices of black folk our shared past in Africa. Gullah culture is steeped deeply in this place. There, I was overjoyed to see Victoria Smalls, Director of History, Art and Culture, Program Development Director and Assistant to the Executive Director Public Relations, Penn Center, a historic site where the newly freed learned how to read, write and excel in many trades and household skills.
As I had only just addressed the experiences of such people during my lecture on the Reconstruction era in my “American Civilization Since 1865” course a few weeks ago, it was truly a pleasure to walk on these grounds. Here, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a portion of his “I Have a Dream Speech.”
Not far from here, my work was once on display in a day care center for area children many years ago before I returned to college. The nearby Red Too Piano Gallery, owned by my dear friend Mary Mack, was also a joy to visit.
My movements have resonance with the panels I enjoyed, among them one addressing women and migration “at home and abroad.” Deborah Robinson chaired this interdisciplinary panel that featured scholars who contributed to a downloadable book full of essays that push our thinking on numerous types of “migratory events” from the perspective of women.
Given my background in the arts, I was deeply moved by the willingness of at least two scholars present to take up the idea of how “images push the limits of language.”
What a concept in a day when so many think to be scholarly is to resign oneself to use of books to teach and conduct research. Not movies. Not art. Not sound.
As a woman who proudly embraces her ties to expressive approaches to creative and scholarly work, such a concept touched me greatly.
But again, what most touched me was the sharing, the unexpected discoveries and the chance to renew my faith in the possibilities of what can happen when people who look like me can get beyond our differences, perceived and imagined, and heal from so much that cannot even be uttered.
Like Zora, I do as much rejoicing in my refusal of victimhood. I do as much by saluting the light in my sisters who share my journey as they continue on their own journeys. Onward.
May we follow the injunction by Zora’s mother and “jump at the sky.” PS If you are in the greater Charleston area, I suggest The Foolish Frog Restaurant, a wonderful low country waterside eatery on St. Helena Island, and Ravenel Fresh Seafood. Garlic crabs at the latter are to die for! Chili at the former is off the chain. Red rice, a staple Gullah dish, is at both.
Meanwhile, rest in peace, Diahann Carroll. Your work in the 1974 film Claudine, for which you received a nomination for Best Actress, often leaves me in tears. What strength. What talent. A clip from that film will be shown tomorrow in my “American Civilization Since 1865” class in your honor. I will address the Great Depression. My students will learn about the growing role of the government in our lives since 1865 and especially since the 1930s. But the stigma of government assistance is not attached to all people in the same way. Claudine, a mother of six in Harlem, essentially said, “Keep away from me, Mr. Welfare,” demonstrating the desire on the part of many to avoid dependence even in the face of poor choices that leave them stereotyped. With grace and class, you paved the road for many in so many other roles, among them the sixties-era television sitcom Julia. Thank you.