“When I was going to high school, we had Black History Month, but the only folks we learned about were George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman [and] Martin Luther King Jr,” recalls performance poet Glenis Redmond Sherer. “There are elements of our community that have been kept away from the public.”
The poet has built a career filling that void. Formerly a counselor, she now spends her days sharing her love of words with a generation that she hopes will receive a more balanced view of African-American achievements. In addition to frequent public readings and prize-winning performances at poetry slams, Sherer teaches poetry workshops for children in schools throughout the Southeast.
This month, though, Sherer extends the scope of her teaching to the entire community. In creating Show Some Love: A Black History Celebration, the poet has gathered a diverse assemblage of area artists for three days of music, dancing, feasting and sharing. Perhaps most exciting, she allows, is the rarity of having so much local talent in one place at the same time. “We wanted to really spotlight African-American talent in Asheville,” she explains, adding,”We don’t often have a chance to come together.”
Becky Stone, a professional storyteller for eight years, agrees. “We’re scattered around throughout the arts events of the year, and our effect gets diluted,” she points out. “It’s important for the community to see how many African-American artists there are [in the area], and the quality [of those artists].”
Stone, who is also an actor and singer, moved to Asheville from Philadelphia three years ago. Although she has not yet finalized the particulars of her performance, Stone plans to include a variety of tales.
“I’m going to tell some stories from the animal tradition, like Brer Rabbit; some of the more serious kind of legends [involving] issues of slavery and freedom; a personal story; some folk songs,” she relates. But the stories themselves, Stone suggests, are less important than the potent bond created by the sharing of life experiences, in terms of nurturing harmony.
“Stories deal with universals,” she asserts. “You’re always talking about love, loyalty, growing up, maturity. Whatever story you’re telling, it becomes personal, because it comes from your emotion. It’s a personal experience between the listener and the performer. It’s a connection that can be made across any lines.”
As a poet, Sherer likewise extols the phenomenal power of words to bridge differences. Her first book, Mama’s Magic (due out in March) explores personal as well as African-American cultural issues.
“Some [of the poems] are very deep, some humorous,” says Sherer. “I believe that poetry is a vehicle that can heal … individually as well as collectively.”
Drummer Devon Evans claims that same function for all the arts. “Music, art, dance — [they’re] the staff of life,” he declares. “It’s important for the community to be one with everything.”
With his lyrical Jamaican accent and impressive credentials (he was one of Bob Marley’s original Wailers), Evans cements the issue of art-as-restorative with a passion: “It’s healing, It’s purifying. It’s edifying.”
Now, the Waynesville-based Evans brings his message (as well as his instrument) to the festival’s lineup. “I still believe music is the [best vehicle for] healing of the nation,” he proclaims.
Show Some Love is a celebration for everyone, stresses Sherer; race is not a prerequisite for performing — or attending. “We wanted the festival to be multicultural,” she explains, “a gathering of unity, not one of exclusion — and one that promotes education, as well as understanding. This type of celebration broadens everyone.”
Growing up in Chicago, local dance teacher Debra Roberts, though not African-American, was highly influenced by that city’s deep ethnicity.
“Chicago is the most ‘melting-pot’ of our cities,” she asserts. Her fondness for African and Caribbean rhythms came early: Listening to her parents’ music collection — Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie — together with what she calls an “innate love of dance” drew her to study both in Africa. Returning to the States, she met future husband in what she calls the “jamming” world-music scene in Santa Fe, N.M. The two (both slated to perform at Show Some Love) now teach African and Island dancing and drumming in Asheville. Roberts touts dance as an extraordinary community-builder. And for her, community begins with family:
“Haiti and [other] island cultures are societies where drumming, dancing and singing are a part of everyday life,” explains Roberts. “[They’re] intrinsically community-building.” America, on the other hand, is markedly less family-oriented, she believes, declaring, “We’re fractured.” Though not deflating the artistic significance of dancing and drumming, she prefers to emphasize their practical aims in promoting fellowship.
“It isn’t something you have to get a degree in, or have a lot of talent [to do],” she observes. “Everyone can participate.” Roberts says she’s witnessed firsthand how quickly dancing can foster a sense of community: “[It happens] even in one night, or in an ongoing class.” And then, she reveals, the inevitable happens — people become friends outside the class.
Appreciating African-American art and artists in ensemble form is the best way to share the culture, concludes Stone. “It’s a way to connect with everyone, no matter what your background is.” And, with her storyteller’s instinct, she offers the simple heart and soul of the matter: “It’s fun to celebrate [diversity].”