It is weird to think that I will be leaving Conway in just a few short days. I have already had to say goodbye to many people- the worst goodbye was to my little scholar Ashanti at Freedom Readers, who initially thought that I was just going home for a couple of days but would be back in a week or two. I had to explain to her that this was not the case, that my home was in North Carolina and that I probably wouldn’t be coming back to Conway, at least not for awhile. Goodbyes are always sad, but I am beyond grateful for the experiences and opportunies that have come my way throughout my Carolina Summer of Service. In one of my earlier blog posts, I mentioned that a commissioner of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission said that during our time here we would grow and develop a foundation like no other, and this has definitely been the case. If I had to summerize how this has happened, I would say that I have grown as a result of the experiences that have changed my understanding of what a community is and my worldview. My understanding of what a community is has expanded to include the past, but not just the history that is easily accesible. There are many stories of the past, subaltern stories, that continue to be left untold. It is the conglomeration of all of these stories that make up the past of a community. This history is an important thing to understand because it shapes the attitudes and behaviors that are present in a community. My worldview has changed as a result of my experiences in Conway because I no longer view the world as a big, divided entity. Initially I thought that the Gullah Geechee culture would create some sort of barrier between myself and people who are Gullah, due to the fact that we do not share the same history. However, from being here I realize that the only barriers that exist are the ones that we continue to put up. People of different cultures might not share the same past, but we all live in the same present. There is a commonality amongst all people, and it is this realization that makes me no longer see the world like a map with lines that separate different places, but as one, interconnected, single entity.
So goodbyes may be sad and as the clear, autumn skies begin to appear I know that soon I will have to return to Duke, but I will be returning to Duke with a stronger foundation- a new outlook, a greater appreciation of history, and a deeper connection to the Carolinas.
The following were goals, unrelated to my internships, that I set for myself in the beginning of the summer: becoming an involved member of the Conway community, building upon the relationships in the BN community, training to run a marathon, reading at least four books, becoming a better cook, and studying organic chemistry before I take the class in the fall. Through things like playing ultimate frisbee, community dinners, home-stays, attending church services, attending community events, and volunteer work I believe that I have become an involved member of the Conway community. All of the BN’s have bonded throughout our time here, and I definitely feel like the other scholars are a group of friends who I can always count on. As of right now, I have ran a total of 226 miles this summer and I will be running a marathon in Pennsylvania on September 8th. I have become quite culinary (shout out to Pinterest for providing new ideas and recipes), and I have made things like jalapeño poppers, cauliflower and cheese crackers, various recipes with quinoa, french toast, some delicious salads, a couple unhealthy desserts, and my personal favorite, grilled brie and apple sandwiches. Unfortunately, I have only read one book and am a little behind on my schedule for studying organic chemistry- but I should be able to catch up on this. Even though I achieved my goals (for the most part) these accomplishments pale in comparison to the experiences I have had, the lessons I have learned, and the relationships that I have built throughout this summer.
Another way that we engaged with the community this summer was through a program called Freedom Readers. This is a program that helps teach young scholars how to read. I was paired to work with a five year old girl named Ashanti. At first she was very shy and would barely read along with me. However, as the summer progressed she began to read more and more, to draw pictures based on the books that she read, and she even wrote a poem (with a little bit of help). I have enjoyed getting to know Ashanti and she has definitely opened up a lot since the first day I met her. It was a really rewarding experience to see her grow. I will definitely miss seeing her and the other young readers whom I have gotten to know this summer.
This past Thursday I recorded my first oral history. We sat outside on the porch under the oaks, where Don’s wife (Don is a dear friend of Zenobia’s and the interviewee of the day) said that he likes to reminisce about the past. However, we were not there to reminisce about the good old days of the past. Instead, we were there to talk about racism and the acts of racism, including a lynching, which Don had witnessed throughout his life. Don did not deny that had a racist past nor that he still wrestled with racism; he explained how the environment of a small town in the south during the late 1930’s engendered these feelings. Don also explained how his feelings towards people of color were not black and white and how his own attitude towards people of color was not steadfast. He joined the air force before he was even 18, and while working in a newly integrated institution, he made friends with people of color. He knew that these friends were his equals, despite the color of their skin. When others did not share this opinion, Don would stick up for his friends. I think the most important lesson I learned from this oral history is that everyone has a past, a foundation that is the basis of who we are today. This foundation is not something that can easily be pushed aside, but which can be altered through our experiences. In Don’s case, part of that foundation is racism and that is something of the past that he chooses to grow and learn form as he tries to be a loving and caring friend and family member to people of all ethnicities.
Views about one’s heritage and the heritage of others, whether positive or negative, are a very important part of who we are. As Zenobia has pointed out to me, great grandparents or other family members, who were discriminated against and looked down upon because they were Gullah, have told many Gullah descendants that they should deny this part of their past. This kind of denial has become a large part of the foundation that Gullah descendants today have grown up with. As a consequence, many Gullah no longer identify with the Gullah Geechee culture. This is the very reason why I think that the work the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission is doing is so important. If the beauty and value of the Gullah culture is no longer recognized, then it might continue to be suppressed and forgotten.
A large part of our Summer of Service is engagement with the community. Having members of the community over for a home cooked meal is one of the ways we achieve this. Through this breaking of bread, I not only get the chance to try out new recipes in the kitchen (fried green tomatoes, which ended up being red tomatoes due to a shortage of ingredients, and other fried vegetables was this week’s experiment), but I also get the chance to sit down and share food, ideas, and stories with all of the other BN’s and insightful community members. This week we invited Mayor Lawson and her husband. We heard about how she became mayor as well as her insights on the history of Conway and on the direction she sees it moving in the future. While our cooking probably paled in comparison to her own (she is the Day Manager at the Rivertown Bistro in Conway and the homemade zucchini muffins that she brought us were delicous), it was a delight to have the mayor and her husband over for dinner.