Penn Center and NBAF

I just returned from a three day trip with the National Black Arts Festival exploring Gullah Culture.

Gullah – one of a group of people of African ancestry that live in the Sea Islands and coastal areas of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida; the creolized language of the Gullahs, based on English and several other African languages and spoken in Sea Island communities. The Gullah language is highly similar to Sierra Leone “Krio”. “Gullah” has been attributed to the Gola, a small tribe on the Sierra Leone-Liberian border where the Mende and Vai territories merge.

This past weekend was Penn Center Heritage Days on St. Helena Island. Dr. Collette Hopkins, director of Education and Public Programs, invited my mother and me to travel with the group as artist in residence. We were transported back in time when we roomed in the Hampton House, built in1904; named after the historic Hampton University.

On Friday I helped prepare and facilitate the Scholastic CSK Award book fair which serviced about 400 children in one day! Every child who attended was free to selected a FREE title from about 30 different CSK Award winning titles. On Saturday, the fair was open to families who were attending the festival. I sold books to many people, including a couple who traveled all the way from Vancouver! I also met, well renowned artist, Jonathan Green, posing here with me in my favorite TEACH THE BABIES tee by coup d’etat BROOKLYN, and holding a blackbird shadow puppet made by Alan Louis with the Center for Puppetry Arts. This year’s featured book fair title was Ashley Bryan’s BEAUTIFUL BLACKBIRD.

“White Breeze” 1995
Oil on Canvas 48″ x 60″
Jonathan Green
Copyright Jonathan Green Studios, Inc. 1995

Because I was working on Friday and Saturday I wasn’t able to walk the island and visit the local art gallery. I did; however, get to enjoy the fish fry on our first evening there, take in the community parade that was held Saturday morning, and a couple of the acts that performed on the main stage of the festival. The volunteers and staff of NBAF were some of the nicest and most highly spirited ladies I have met. We had a ball.

On Sunday we were off to Charleston where we visited the Aiken-Rhett House, an urban plantation. This wasn’t the most pleasant part of the trip, but it was the first time I had ever visited a plantation. No matter how evolved I think I am racially, nothing gets the angry fires burning like seeing how unfairly blacks were treated during slavery and how even now, some people talk as if it wasn’t as horrific as it sounds.

“The Aiken-Rhett House is the most intact urban townhouse complex in Charleston, with some of the best-preserved slave quarters in the Southeast. It provides a vivid record of slave life in an urban antebellum household.

William Aiken, Jr., was a governor of South Carolina, a member of the U. S. House of Representatives, and one of the states largest slaveholders. On the eve of the Civil War, he owned more than 700 slaves at his Jehossee rice plantation, located on the South Edisto River. A small group of approximately 12 skilled slaves maintained his mansion house at 48 Elizabeth Street.”

THANK YOU to Dr. Hopkins and the NBAF crew for a fantastic time and one of the richest experiences I’ve had in a very long while.

If you are interested in traveling to Penn Center with NBAF for next year’s festival, which I highly recommend, and for many other enriching trips and experiences, keep an eye peeled to the National Black Arts Festival web site.


  1. Vanessa Newton
    September 2, 2013

    Wow Shadra! This was such an awesome article and post. How wonderful. Looks as if you and Mom had a wonderful time in low country. I spent most of my summers running around in low country. We would go to Beaufort to visit my mom’s folks. They lived on Ladies Island and St. Helena Island. Coy and I visit more often now to see the island and all that it holds. It’s so interesting to see how we lived. You are so very right about how we talk about it like it wasn’t so bad. Anytime a baby is born and taken away from it’s family and then sold and could later end up being mated with it’s own brothers and sister or parent, something is wrong with that. I would love to do a book on the Gullah Geechee people as it is a dying culture if it is not remembered , honored, studied and passed down. Thanks so much for sharing!!

    • Shadra
      September 2, 2013

      Thanks V! I was so lucky to have been invited and it was an honor to share the experience with my mom. I would love to visit St. Helena again and do some location drawing and painting there. Maybe we can go together 🙂


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