February is typically the busiest month for the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. For more than 35 years, the center, part of the College of Charleston, has collected art and archival materials that document the history, traditions and legacies of African Americans and their influences on American society and culture. So Black History Month, as one might imagine, is a blur of activity.
“We have a lot of classes visit,” said Courtney Hicks, outreach assistant for the Avery Research Center. “We usually have a lot of tour groups, and people who just want to learn a little bit more about Black history specific to the Lowcountry and the Gullah-Geechee Corridor.”
But, that was before the COVID-19 pandemic, and right now, the Avery Research Center is closed to the public. So, the team at Avery put together a program of virtual Black History Month events this year, including book discussions with African-American history scholars Amrita Chakrabarti Myers and Douglas Flowe, CNN analyst and former S.C. Rep. Bakari Sellers, an emerging scholar lecture from Danielle Fuentes Morgan and a musical performance by vocalist Zandrina Dunning.
Capping off the programming, the research center is debuting a 45-minute film on Feb. 26 called We Celebrate Year Round on YouTube, Instagram TV and Facebook. The project is a collaboration between Hicks and Eye of Elohim, a local, Black-owned film and photography company.
The film brings together an array of local artisans, historians and storytellers to talk about historical and cultural touchstones of the Lowcountry and to demonstrate their skills.
“You will be hearing great music by the College of Charleston Gospel Choir under the direction of Brenten Weeks,” Hicks said. “You will also be able to engage in a Gullah folk tale told by [storyteller and oral historian] Mrs. Minerva King. [Activist and healer] chef Wibi will also be giving a tutorial about the importance of food justice, along with showing our viewers how they’re able to sprout their own vegetables.”
Hicks said the film, which also features appearances by Akua Page and Chris Cato of the Geechee Experience as well as chef and food writer Amethyst Ganaway, was designed to remind viewers that Black history goes beyond merely the month of February. “Black history is American history,” she said. “Without Black culture, you’re unable to move through life.”
Hicks worked closely with the filmmakers to make sure We Celebrate Year Round stayed close to home, she said.
“It’s basically a film that is highlighting what makes Charleston great,” Hicks said. “It goes from discussing food justice to rice culture to sweetgrass culture and how natives are using that culture to create their own businesses and brands that are really indicative to their identity.”
The film also discusses the history of the Avery Research Center, which was founded in 1865 as the Avery Normal Institute, an education and advocacy hub for Charleston’s Black community.
“It’s a great way that not only students but also people of all ages, are able to reconnect with the Avery,” Hicks said, “and also learn a little bit more about the culture that is so deeply embedded in the places that we live.”
As sweeping as the film’s scope is, it actually came together relatively quickly.
“I pitched the idea in November,” Hicks said. “I began reaching out to people in December. Then we began shooting with Eye of Elohim videography in late January. It’s been a great project and an interesting last four months.”
In terms of deciding who to interview for the film, Hicks said working at Avery has its advantages.
“One of the greatest parts about being deeply embedded with the culture that surrounds where you work and where you live, is that you begin to foster great relationships with very talented individuals,” she said. “So, it was mainly me taking some time to think about people who are very well-versed in the subject matter that we were covering, along with highlighting a few unsung heroes who may not be getting as much publicity.”
Hicks said she plans to continue with virtual programming even after the pandemic, simply because of its longevity.
“Virtual programming is not easy,” she said. “But, it’s really rewarding because you always have a digital footprint. As much as it is a little bit more strenuous than having an in-person lecture or in-person activity, it is something that can reach a larger audience.”
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