Last year’s inaugural Gullah Geechee Conference, created by Coastal Carolina University’s Charles W. Joyner Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies, successfully united more than 100 scholars, practitioners, and artisans on the CCU campus to explore historical and current manifestations of the African diaspora.
However, there’s more work to be done. This year’s conference continues the focus on raising awareness of the culture with a specialized highlight on documentation and preservation of local and community-oriented elements.
CCU will host the second International Gullah Geechee and African Diaspora Conference, themed “Without Borders: Tracing the Cultural, Archival, and Political African Diaspora,” on campus and throughout historic downtown Conway, on March 4-7, 2020. Musicologist Eric Crawford, Director of the Joyner Institute and Associate Professor in the Department of Music, and Alli Crandell, Director of Digital Initiatives and the Athenaeum Press, Co-chair of the conference.
Crandell and Crawford worked the conference theme to center around breaking down barriers between community members and institutions of higher learning. The two have also been awarded several grant initiatives for doing this community-university collaborative work. The entire conference, according to Crandell, focuses on understanding political climate, our cultural climate, and the indebtedness we have to our past. She said this understanding is achieved by giving voice to the margins of history.
Highlights of the conference include several academic talks on African-American heritage and innovative digitization projects. Chaitra Powell, African-American collections and outreach archivist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, delivers a keynote address on March 6. Miranda Mims and Steven Fullwood join Powell, who together comprise the Nomadic Archives Project, an initiative that preserves local histories from the African diasporic experience with a special focus on the grassroots perspective.
The conference also includes multiple performances by award-winning artists. “Drawing Circles through Song and Dance” on Thursday evening, March 5, brings Tamara LaDonna Williams and Moving Spirits to the Wheelwright Auditorium stage for a night of modern and traditional dance to celebrate the circle dances of the African diaspora. Moving Spirits tour nationally to bring awareness to social justice issues and obstacles that impact the African diasporic community. Their creative work blends a variety of dance forms, including modern, ballet, African diaspora, capoeira, and contemporary West African dances. Williams, award-winning founder of Moving Spirits and assistant professor of dance at the College of Arts and Architecture at UNC-Charlotte, has most recently trained in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, in Silvestre Technique and Afro-Brazilian dance.
Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, Los Angeles blues/jazz vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, performs on banjo alongside Justin Robinson, former member of the Grammy award-winning string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, in homage to the instrument’s African roots on March 6. Paxton appeared in “American Epic,” the multi award-winning music documentary produced by Robert Redford, Jack White, and T-Bone Burnett, while Robinson is the current leader of Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes.
The conference ends with Community Day on March 7 in downtown Conway, showcasing historic films, performances, and presentations. Natalie Daise, known for her role on Nickelodeon’s “Gullah Gullah Island,” performs “Becoming Harriet Tubman,” a one-person, five-character show that chronicles Ariminta Ross’s transformation into Harriet Tubman. George Wingard, writer and director, presents a film screening of “Discovering Dave: Spirit Captured in Clay,” that tells the story of Edgefield, S.C., native David Drake, a slave potter who was one of the first African-American slaves to sign his work. Additionally, Georgetown, S.C., resident Zenobia Harper showcases her handmade Gullah dolls at a doll-making workshop. This entire day is free and open to the public.
Crandell said last year’s conference was just the beginning, an inaugural event akin to a homecoming. She called it a beautiful way to reaffirm work that represents a community wholly unique to this region.
“Last year we integrated arts, culture, and food into our conference programming, but this year we’re trying to take it up a notch,” said Crandell, “to establish that Gullah Geechee culture is South Carolina culture. And this is a foundation to who we are as people from this region.”
The Joyner Institute, established in 2015, is named after the late Charles Joyner, CCU distinguished professor emeritus of Southern history and culture and author of the groundbreaking work “Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community” (1984). The Joyner Institute examines the historical migration and scattering of African populations to local geographical areas and the subsequent evolution of blended cultures, specifically Gullah.