‘Vital’: Alabama Juneteenth arts camp connects students to culture, community

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Djembe drums in hand, young campers circled a Shelby County clearing, hidden between a sparkling pond and shady trees.

“Listen and watch,” said Aboubacar Sylla, a master percussionist and teacher of West African song and dance, while drumming a slow, steady beat.

Sylla’s words became a gentle chorus throughout the day as the students, part of a week-long camp on June 16, learned the basics of West African art forms from experienced teachers.

June 19, celebrated on June 19, marks the date when — two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation — a general notified enslaved Texans of their freedom. It was declared a federal holiday in 2021.

The holiday is now recognized in Alabama, but other than requiring second graders to learn about national holidays, no state standard mentions June 16.

To fill this gap, some educators rely on supplemental resources or primary documents, experts say. Others, like Elvie Schooley, offer immersive experiences like Juneteenth Camp to help teens understand the cultural significance of the holiday.

Schooley runs DRUM the Program, a community-based cultural arts program that teaches students West African drumming and dance, while also promoting social emotional skills.

“As an African-American youth growing up here, he didn’t have access to the arts,” said Schooley, an Alabama native who began studying African folk drums and dance after a series of trips to Africa. “But I realized that it’s so important for adults to see themselves confident, strong and capable and to stimulate their creativity.”

Schooley previously worked as a culture developer in Austin, Texas and moved back to Alabama in 2018. A year later, she started the Juneteenth camp, which ministered to about 20 children ages 8 to 16. Now in its third year, 32 campers have signed up for the week-long camp, from diverse backgrounds.

The camp is free to attend and is sponsored this year by Walmart, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Birmingham Urban League through Senator Rodger Smitherman. His Fine Arts, Behavioral Health, and Physical Education Model was recently reviewed and approved by the Alabama Department of Education.

Some campers come from homeschool groups, while others attend schools in nearby counties. DRUM also offers community classes at the University of Montevallo’s Parnell Library, an after-school program, and plans to partner with Jefferson County Schools next fall.

“They come to this program and they are fully present,” Schooley said of the campers. “They are like sponges.”

***

Between sets on a day of camp, Sylla trained two teenagers, who played large, narrow drums called doundouns, to branch out and try new rhythms.

“I just have to think about moving on,” Simeon, 16, told Wali, 17.

The drum circle typically lasts about an hour each morning, and the art form is infused throughout the day. It’s a confidence-building exercise that studies show helps release endorphins and can improve other motor and psychosocial skills.

The drumming is also an important part of the campers’ final performance, which was only two days away. As the group drew to a close, Schooley reminded them to wear Saturday all in white, a color typically worn for festive occasions by some cultures in West Africa.

“Mickey Mouse can come too,” Schooley said to a younger camper whose stuffed animal was sitting on a chair next to him.

Throughout the day, the campers honed a variety of art forms, paid homage to Choctaw country, and also learned about their own lineage. While younger students gardened near the main house, teenagers worked on a spoken word performance — another element they would include in the Saturday production.

Read more Ed Lab: How some Alabama schools are closing gaps in ACT test prep.

“Maybe the step like a journey to that?” Ojeya Cruz-Banks proposed to a group of teenagers working on a spoken word act.

Cruz Banks, known as “Dr. O” from The Campers, is Associate Professor of Dance and Black Studies at Denison University and has worked with Schooley for almost 20 years studying West African art forms.

Instructors also help campers set individual goals and emphasize the importance of working together. For this particular group, the goal was to get those final moves for the big show.

“We could touch each other’s shoulders!” suggested one teenager, while others tried to weave memories of their time at camp (“How about a fish move?” “Waves?”) into the performance.

A supervisor led five campers – Wali, Zakhaa, Ora, Ken and Simeon – to a final rehearsal for the day. Looking at the sparkling of the pond, they raised their hands together and recited the last verse: I come from the community and the village that helps me grow.

“They won’t see this coming,” Simeon said as the group relaxed their outstretched arms.

Wally smiled.

‘It’s yours’

After lunch, the campers gathered in a sun-drenched room. African art hung on the walls, along with student paintings describing strategies for coping with negative emotions and a chart listing the elements of the culture.

“Why do we have capoeira?” asked Monitor Tarantula, a martial arts instructor from Huntsville. It was his first year at the camp and he came to share a piece of Afro-Brazilian culture.

The students joined in and shared how the art form was created by Africans – mainly from Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – who were enslaved in Brazil.

Capoeira is part of an art form called jogo, which means to play. As the campers found mates, Tarantula trained them on the Cocorinha, a way to avoid moving. the au, a circular motion; and the ginga, meaning to sway.

“Sometimes things could be a little too much,” Tarantula said. “But don’t stand there. Vary.”

For Tyler, 15, capoeira class wasn’t just a way to learn Portuguese words or a new set of martial arts moves. It also taught him a piece of unaltered history, he said — unlike the kind he learned in public schools in Alabama or at his current school in Marietta, Georgia.

“Being from Alabama, a lot of our history was lost, apart from the civil rights history that we had from slavery,” he said, noting that he was taught that enslaved Africans came to America “voluntarily.”

Although he doesn’t see himself as a creative person, Tyler says drumming and dancing allow him to feel an unexpected connection with the earth and his ancestors.

“It’s almost empowering,” he said.

Towards the end of the lesson, Cruz-Banks led a group of older girls in singing.

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” they sang, clapping and moving to form a circle in a dance called the Ring Shout, one of the rituals practiced by enslaved Africans in America.

On the stage beneath a winding wooden staircase, Sylla led a group of drummers. Cruz-Banks and Schooley trained the girls to keep their eyes on the drummers as they stomped to the kassa, a traditional harvest dance.

The goal of the dance, a ritual of the Malinke tribe, is to be in sync, and Schooley wanted to instill this concept of community and collaboration in the campers.

“If you share that culture, you know it,” Schooley told them. “It’s yours.”

***

As the day drew to a close, Schooley reminded the students that they would be going to the library for rehearsal on Friday and that they should wear shoes that work well with capoeira.

Campers gathered in a different circle and passed one stick clockwise, each thanking their teachers and each other. One camper said she was grateful to her teacher for introducing her to the program.

Sebriah, a ninth grader at Minor High School, is hoping to become a counselor next year. She had already learned some drumming techniques at Black Star Academy, a homeschool group in Birmingham that she attended before going to public school.

“I’ve learned the importance of knowing who you are,” she said — a skill that she said “can shape your future.”

Beaming, Schooley recalled the surges of creativity she experienced over the week and challenged the students to find a path in life that fulfills them.

“Her story goes beyond the shores of America,” she told campers. “The rest of your story unfolds in this rhythm. Don’t let anyone take it away from you.”

Rebecca Griesbach is a member of the team at The Alabama Education Lab AL.com. It is supported by a partnership with Report for America. Learn more here and help support the team here.

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