This discussion concerns the state of the arts in the black community in Charleston. The selection of palatable topics, landscapes, and sounds that are representative of black experiences and culture has more to do with the City of Charleston’s unwillingness to look its history in the eyes and very little to do with how black people in this community view themselves.
I will not speak for every person in the Charleston community that descends from African people, but in my own case, ingredients that qualify my Gullahness are rooted to several trees that include Africans, Native Americans, and French Huguenots. The varied experiences of my many ancestors, family, and community all contribute greatly to my own understanding of the development, disrepute, triumphs, and recent appreciation of Gullah people and their culture. We now proudly embrace Gullah heritage and traditions. However, in our efforts to run away from African and Gullah life-ways, we gave up much. Studying and practicing art and history will enable those who choose to walk and talk in the Gullah style to find their way and truly become Gullah over time.
Both art and history provide vehicles and tools for people to imagine and create representations of themselves, self-reflective images that are meaningful to their current, past, and future existence. While we celebrate Gullah as a symbol of the African people’s determination and triumphs, we must also know that cultural retention is how oppressed people resist cultural annihilation.
Black art in Charleston is like black anything in Charleston: it exists deep beneath the surface and out of the purview of voyeurs. This existence below the radar predates MOJA and has its roots in Charleston’s history of picking and choosing the ways in which they prefer that the black community be represented. It also shows that black people in Charleston, especially its artists, are unwilling to present themselves or their work because of their concerns about unfairness and the appropriation of their work and ideas. What is unfair and what might be appropriated from the black community? Charleston’s history is wrought with reasons for concern. Allow me to provide a short and brief history lesson.
MOJA was initially organized by a local group of black citizens of Charleston. The group approached the city for endorsement and support. The city agreed to support the effort to organize a local black arts festival in Charleston.
The name MOJA was selected by the group of artists and suggested to the city. The original support plan was for the city to provide start-up funding and that the festival would grow to be an independent entity organized and administered by community members. This never happened.
The city never gave the festival the support and international fervor that was given to the Spoleto Festival or Piccolo. Instead, as the years passed the festival’s focus shifted, community artists withdrew their art and support, and gradually MOJA became inaccessible to the very people that created it. Local artists and community folk cannot afford the entry fee to some events. Many locals certainly will not travel to Daniel Island this season to see their very own Patti LaBelle.
MOJA, a Ki Swahili word meaning “first fruit” or the number one, has been appropriated away from its creators to be employed as a symbol of cultural diversity by the City of Charleston.
Again, much of the mistrust that exists between the current organizers of the festival and the local black community is tied to a disturbing past and what seems to be the City of Charleston’s fear that the black people of Charleston will misrepresent themselves and the city and that the tourist dollars generated by black faces will vanish.
Charleston administrators will have to figure it out. Tourist dollars await the solution. The black people of this community are Charleston’s Gullah folk. How they have been represented in Charleston’s history and their apparent absence from occupations, businesses, and locations around Charleston all leave room for concern.
College of Charleston students, newly immigrated Hispanics, and others who moved to our beloved city because of its charm and oceanside beauty have replaced many people at their jobs and provided reason for landlords to raise rents and displace low-income individuals and families.
College of Charleston students and others may appear more suitable and representative of the pristine and untattered Charleston tour guides like to tout, but they cannot and do not represent the beauty, grace, song, dance, and artistry that remains untapped, undeveloped, and waiting in Gullah communities throughout Charleston.
Such notions separate our reality from the truth. Our reality is that there are many undiscovered artists representing several genres and mediums of art in Charleston and the surrounding communities. Their works are not displayed or exhibited in the local galleries or public exhibit venues. There are poets, dancers, musicians, visual artists, sculptors, theater folk, and artisan builders — many kinds of unsung and unnoticed talent. The truth is that they all have dreams that are being deferred.
The talk in the black community (I am there, so I am privy to the whispers and the noises) is that we need to take back our festival. I disagree; I think that the City of Charleston should revisit the original plan for the development of MOJA and give the festival back to the people and support it in the needed ways.
The festival still has tremendous untapped potential and could generate a lot more revenue than it currently does. Such a move would require that the city administrators place its trust in black people to govern their own efforts at self-representation. Promoting and encouraging the development of local black artists, artisans, and art institutions would do a lot toward supporting such an effort and would certainly bring additional revenue to the city’s coffers. Can we possibly imagine a more festive, celebrated, and culturally diverse Charleston? Let us try!
Anthropologist Ade Ofunniyin is the founder of Studio PS and the provost at the American College of the Building Arts. He is the grandson of legendary blacksmith Philip Simmons.