Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Orangeburg, SC: Preserving the Past

“Do you think if our society took the time out to drink a cup of tea, we would really be in a better situation?”

Day 9: November 20th ORANGEBURG, SC: I.P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium

We had a loyal support staff in Orangeburg, South Carolina. The morning of our journey, we received a phone call from Ellen Zisholtz and Darryl Murphy, who were eager to offer directions to make sure we arrived without a hitch. Upon entering the South Carolina State University campus, however, we got turned around, at which point Ingrid Owens, who works at the front desk, helped us to find out way to the venue.

South Carolina State University is an HBC, or a historically black college, and so this was our first African American audience, despite being in the South for nearly two weeks! SCSU is the only historically black land-grant institution in South Carolina, and it has about 4,500 students. When we arrived at the I.P. Stanback Museum and planetarium, we were introduced to Britney Cokley, the student who would later overcome her shyness and her confessed fear of public speaking to give a beautiful introduction to the film. Then we were quickly ushered into the museum to receive a tour of the museum, which housed an exhibition of Gullah culture, including paintings, crafts, and sculpture. The Gullah are African Americans from the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country who are known for preserving more of their African cultural and linguistic heritage than any other African American population in the United States. The art in the museum was both striking and soulful, encapsulating many of the artists’ memories of growing up in the lowlands of South Carolina, as well as demonstrating many Central and West African influences.

Dr. Elizabeth Mayo, the planetarium manager and astronomy professor at SCSU, took the helm, steering us into the planetarium for a sound and picture check. We were surprised and excited to discover that the screen was dome shaped and the seats reclined at a 45-degree angle! Soon thereafter, the students filtered in, and the film began. About twenty-five students attended the film, and Scott was dismayed to see many of the young people using their cell phones during the film. Being a bit of a texting-addict myself, I noticed this same trend in our previous night’s audience at Clemson University, but Scott was sitting in the front row and hadn’t noticed. In their defense, some of the students were using their phone LCD screens as a light to take notes, but regardless, the phenomenon led nicely into the post-screening discussion.
Sound check in planetarium

One student directly asked, “Do you think if our society took the time out to drink a cup of tea, we would really be in a better situation?” Scott replied, “I hope so. Today there is so much technology. For instance, I noticed a lot of cell phone use during the film, and cell phones do have their place. But when you step away from that technology and the demands it places on us and spend quality time with another person, it allows you to really connect. When I was having tea with an older gentleman in Asia, I could really tell that he was noticing my energy. It really helps to be in the moment; like when I’m talking to you now, I don’t notice anything else in the universe.”

The screening was followed by an extravagant British tea party prepared by the planetarium manager Dr. Elizabeth’s mother, Olwyn Mayo. Lined up on the table was an endless array of [typically-English] sausage rolls; cucumber sandwiches; nut bread with cream cheese, walnuts and celery; almond nut pastries filled with lemon curd and topped with fruit; cakes and cookies; and a tea punch made from strongly brewed black iced tea (8-bags!), orange juice, lemonade, and unsweetened pineapple juice. Elizabeth and her mother manned the tea stand, serving tea to the line of partygoers. I overheard one student named Ashley Burkes saying, “When I was younger, I used to go to tea parties all the time. Now I am thinking about hosting a tea party at my house.”

After the tea party, Ellen and two sharply dressed (and sharp-witted) students, Kenneth McClary and Davion Petty, accompanied us to the back storage room of the museum for a special treat. Movable storage cabinets parted ways to reveal… James Brown’s entire wardrobe, perfectly preserved from his estate! These brightly colored costumes, along with some furniture and various odds and ends, were being kept temporarily by the museum for an upcoming James Brown exhibit. We felt incredibly lucky to glimpse these relics from the Godfather of Soul.

After emerging from the vault, we stayed for another hour and a half with Ellen, Kenneth, Davion, Darryl, and Neta Weston-Harris, a friendly Atlanta native who relocated to South Carolina with her husband, and we chatted about the South, politics, and education, tossing jokes back and forth like old friends. We continued the conversation at Applebee’s, the only place open at ten o’clock on a weeknight. After a light bite, we retired to Ellen’s spectacular abode, which was adorned with beautiful artwork, including some of her own paintings, antique furniture, and gorgeous South American and African sculptures. Scott and Ellen continued talking into the wee hours of the night, while I hit the sack and continued to think about the night we just had. Upon reflecting, I realized that being at SCSU really established a contrast with the idea from the film that people, especially younger folks, are forgetting about the past. While we were walking through the I.P. Stanback museum looking at the cultural artifacts and learning about the history of the region, it couldn’t be more obvious that the university’s focus on black history encourages students to develop a strong sense of ancestry, with an emphasis on preserving the past. Therefore, the work that Ellen and her fellow faculty members are doing is challenging the notion that upholding tradition is a passing phenomenon. It was really refreshing to witness this first hand. Heather Hilton, who writes the blog for the museum, praised Ellen’s work in particular, saying, “She’s such a guiding light to all of us here.” For more on the museum’s events, visit the university’s blog at http://www.scsucrash.blogspot.com/