Art Works Blog

Art Talk with the Anacostia Community Museum

Washington, DC

Gullah community members take part in a "ring shout" in Georgia, circa 1930. Photo courtesy of the Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

The Anacostia Community Museum may be located in Southeast Washington, D.C., but the communities it explores stretch far beyond the District’s boundaries. The museum’s current exhibit, Word, Shout, Song: Lorenzo Dow Turner Connecting Communities Through Language is no exception. Installed through July 24, Word, Shout, Song showcases the Gullah culture and its unique dialect, whose very existence is a testament to the strength and breadth of the African diaspora. Largely found along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, Gullah songs and traditions survived a trans-Atlantic journey, a century of slavery, and years of modernization. It was Lorenzo Dow Turner, perhaps the first African-American linguist, who first realized the “baby” English of these coastal communities was rooted in African ancestry. The exhibit documents Turner’s research in the 1930s, and the field work he conducted in the South, Africa, and South America, often lugging a hundred-pound recording device along with him. To learn more about the bridge between language, culture, and community, we spoke by e-mail with Alcione Amos, who curated the exhibit, and Portia James, the senior curator at the Anacostia Community Museum.

NEA: Why did the museum decide to mount this exhibit?

PORTIA JAMES: The museum decided to develop this exhibition because we wanted to highlight the work of Lorenzo Dow Turner, whom we knew to be an important and undersung person who had contributed much of the initial scholarship that undergirds African-American studies today. Also, we had received a gift a few years earlier of some of his papers, artifacts, and photographs from his widow, and we thought it would provide a great opportunity to showcase the collection.

 

NEA: How do you think this particular exhibit resonates with Washington, D.C., and Anacostia in particular?

 

ALCIONE AMOS: To my delight, this exhibit has resonated with diverse segments of the Washington area community. African-Americans were delighted to see part of their history portrayed, especially one that was not well known. In the process of working with the exhibit, I found out that the Washington area has a large Gullah community. They have supported the exhibit by coming with their families and sometimes organizing groups to come from South Carolina and Georgia to visit the museum. They are also very interested in the programming related to the exhibit. But what surprised me the most was the appeal of the exhibit to young people. I have seen groups of elementary school children from Anacostia come to visit the exhibit and show great interest in what they see. I also have encountered teenagers from a high school in Bethesda who were given the assignment of visiting the exhibit and of writing papers on their experience. This cross-town, cross-age (we also have lots of seniors coming through), and cross-race appeal of the exhibit has been a wonderful surprise to me.

NEA: What do you see as the museum's role in the community?

JAMES: The museum focuses on contemporary urban communities. By basing much of the museum’s research and documentation on local/surrounding urban communities, we show the linkages between global matters and local concerns. Community engagement and active participation is at the heart of this project. Core to the work of the museum is the belief that active citizen participation---in the recovery and preservation of cultural and historical assets, in cultural and arts activities, and in community advocacy---is an important and powerful instrument in creating and maintaining a sense of community and civic ownership.

 

 

NEA: This exhibit traces the generational, cross-continental survival of both language and song. What do you think this says about the power of words and music?

AMOS: I think the words we have heard from our elders and the songs we learn in childhood stay with us forever. I personally have experienced this as I remember what I heard from my mother in Brazil---where I was born and grew up---to this date. But I think the exhibit transcends even that. It shows that people who were subjected to the dehumanizing process of slavery were able to keep some of the culture from which they were taken against their will. One of the sections of the exhibit, perhaps the most emotional to me, is called the “The Song that Made the Roundtrip to Africa.” It tells the story of an African song that survived for generations in a family in Harris Neck, Georgia, being passed from generation to generation by the women. After a while they did not know what the words meant, but they knew the song was important. It was a link to their past that could not be snatched from them, even by the horrors of slavery. The song was recorded in 1933 by Dr. Turner, rediscovered by scholars in the 1990s, and finally went back to its origins in Sierra Leone. Think about the power of this song!

NEA: How do you view the relationship between language and culture or community?

 

AMOS: Language is the expression of your culture. For instance, there are some expressions and sayings in Portuguese, my mother tongue, that do not make any sense when they are translated into English and vice versa. Only if you know the cultural context would you understand the meaning. For the Gullah community to be told that their language was not good was traumatic. Many people have come through the exhibit and told me, “I did not know Gullah was a legitimate language. My mother told me not to talk like that because it was ‘bad English.’” I believe the exhibit has helped some people reconnect with their culture and their language.

 

NEA: As a curator, how do you see your role within the broader world of art and culture?

AMOS: I do not claim to be an art curator. I am a historian, so I can claim to make a contribution to cultural history. I believe Word, Shout, Song has made a contribution to expand the knowledge about Gullah and African-American culture, and I am happy about that.

NEA: In a recent issue of NEA Arts, Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington says, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can…I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.” When it comes to museum exhibitions what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work you or other curators or the arts community are presenting that isn't there?

AMOS: I think we need to put emphasis all the time on people and their experiences. If people can connect to what they see in a museum, they will be touched and they will come back. I have heard from Gullah residents of the Washington area who have told me that they have come back over and over again to look at the exhibit one more time. I think it is because they have seen their own experiences reflected in it. I also have hosted groups of Brazilians who were enchanted by the language connections that are depicted in the exhibit. Actually, everybody who sees the exhibit is surprised and amazed at the language connections, meaning how some African words have made their way into English. For instance, one person happily sang the jingle for the Goober chocolate-covered peanut ad when she learned that the word “goober” came from Ngúba, which means peanut in KiKongo, a language spoken in the Congo. Isn’t that marvelous? It made my day.

NEA: Have you seen any recent exhibits that have moved or inspired you lately?

 

I was touched by The Healing Power of Art: Works of Art by Haitian Children After the Earthquake at the National Museum of African Art. After all the devastation, Haitian children still could find enough resilience to paint and show their feelings. It shows both that children have a lot of strength in them and that art is very healing.

 

NEA: Any last thoughts?

 

I just wanted to say that curating Word, Shout, Song has been a wonderful experience. I am in my third career now and to be so successful at my first attempt as a museum curator has been very rewarding. I just feel that this will be a tough act to follow!

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