Field Notes: Slavery and Plein Air Art

There’s usually something cool going on in Southport if you look for it. This weekend was the Plein Air Art Festival — 50 artists scattered around town painting water scenes, boats, trees, houses, whatever caught their fancy. Every one of them was happy to put their brush down and talk about their work. The weather was perfect. It was a lovely day.

But this is about a moment unrelated to plein air art, an unexpected encounter that was much more profound, unsettling and moving than a riverscape (and I mean absolutely no disrespect to plein air art!).

As we strolled around town, we headed over to Keziah Park, which was the “headquarters” for the festival. Perched in front of the gazebo was a big, beautiful African-American woman in historical costume singing a song about “peas in the rice.” A couple dozen people scattered around the park in chairs seemed to be having a good time. We stopped to take it all in.

Then this woman, whose performance name was Aunt Pearlie Sue, turned serious. She scanned the crowd and began talking about the history of the slave trade and the infamous Middle Passage, the trans-Atlantic route over which West Africans were delivered into bondage at ports along the Southern Coast of America, including Wilmington near my home town. She talked about the stench of the ships, the Africans crowded into quarters knee-to-knee, shoulder-to-shoulder, the food so rancid it was inedible, and babies who happened to be born onboard thrown over as shark food. All of a sudden we weren’t at a plein air art festival anymore; we were deep in the bowels of America’s original sin and in the hands of a master storyteller.

Life on the Middle Passage

Then she pivoted to a redemption story. She talked about John Newton, an Anglican clergyman who became involved in the slave trade in the 1750s, underwent a conversion in which he recognized the evil of slavery, and wrote a poem called “Amazing Grace.” Aunt Pearlie Sue told us he set the poem to a chant he’d heard the Africans sing over and over during the Middle Passage; I’m not sure if that’s true, but I believed her.

She concluded her performance and I looked around. People seemed a little stunned by what we’d just heard. I walked up to Aunt Pearlie Sue and expressed my thanks, which she graciously accepted. And we went on to enjoy our stroll around town.

Later on, I discovered that we’d seen something much more than an entertaining performance. Aunt Pearlie Sue is actually a woman named Anita Singleton-Prather, a native of Sea Islands in Beaufort County, South Carolina. Earlier in life she trained to become a civil rights lawyer, then discovered her gifts as a storyteller and began a mission to revive the language and history of the Gullah, as the culture of African-Americans along the coastal plain of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida came to be known. As Anita perfected her craft, she became a traveling performer and has appeared at venues ranging from schools and community events to the World Bank and the White House.

Gullah culture was known for its dialect, a complex patois of creole and African languages, with Jamaican, Bahamian and several other influences. Music was was also central to the culture of Gullah, also known as Geechee. In the fluid, dynamic culture that the African people created in the South, came a woman named Geeshie (“Geechee”) Wiley in the 1930s, who recorded “Last Kind Words” for Paramount in 1934, a stunning and haunting piece of music. By any measure, Gullah is a culture to be preserved and honored.

The historical corridor created by Congress in 2006
The proposed local corridor

Aunt Pearlie Sue is doing just that. Part of her performance in Keziah Park was to promote the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a swath of territory stretching from Wilmington to Jacksonville, Florida that was established by Congress in 2006. In March, the Brunswick County chapter of the NAACP announced a push to create a 50-mile network of greenways and blueways in the county as part of the Gullah/Geechee Corridor. Keeping local culture and history alive like this is so important during a time when our society is becoming more instantaneous and atomized. I wrote about this in an earlier post — the things that are important to us will always be carried into the future, no matter how advanced we become. But we have to work at it; we can’t be complacent. Anita Singleton-Prather is a vibrant example of someone making a long-term life commitment to preserving our culture; and by doing so, securing a better future. In a recent media interview, she was asked if she regretted not becoming a civil rights activist. But I would argue that doing what she’s doing is in fact civil rights. We can’t build a better future if we don’t fully recognize the past.

There was a little bit of synchronicity involved in the event at Keziah Park. It came just three days after President Biden signed a law making Juneteenth (June 19th), the historical date commemorating emancipation, a federal holiday. Nothing overt was said about it at Keziah, just Aunt Pearlie Sue’s quiet, devastating lesson of sin and redemption. As I said, there’s always something cool going on in Southport. You just have to look for it.

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