Tybee Island and Savannah Georgia – A Summer Celebration

Savannah Juneteenth Drummer

It was June in the city of Savannah, Georgia, and I had never been so hot in my life – not even in the Caribbean with its “mad dogs and Englishmen” noon-day heat. That day the heat didn’t matter. I was in a city I have loved since the first time I walked down the steep steps to Savannah’s River Street, saw the slave memorial and read Maya Angelou’s tribute to those who “got on the slave ship together.”  More important, it was the African-American celebration of Juneteenth, so named in honor of June 19, 1865. On that day, two and a half years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas to inform the slaves that they were finally free.

I was in Georgia with a sister friend for an early birthday celebration, and our travel destinations were both Savannah and Tybee Island.  (Note to all: when my ship comes in, it’s

Tybee Island Pier 2008 300x133 Tybee Island and Savannah Georgia – A Summer Celebration

Tybee Island Pier Savannah, Georiga

docking right there). The scorching day called for a sea breeze and a shaded beach chair but neither of us wanted to miss the program put together by Vaughnette Goode-Walker, Associate Curator for Education at the Owens-Thomas House, home to one of the earliest urban slave quarters in the South.  So off we went, over Tybee’s bridge, past its marshes and into Savannah.

Outside the grand house on Abercorn Street, a huge white tent had been set up to provide some relief from the temperature that had already climbed to a very humid mid-90s. Still the seats were full of people sweating and fanning but determined to take part. In a shaded area I saw a man dressed in a wide-brimmed straw hat and the period attire of a 19th century preacher. “Are you Andrew Marshall?” I asked. “I am,” he nodded. We both smiled. In fact he was a re-enactor, playing the part of the former slave and pastor of Savannah’s First African Baptist Church.

Inside the Owens-Thomas House slave quarters we met Naomi Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  Nearby a masked stilt dancer pushed his knees high in the air and then dipped low to the delight and fright of the children in the crowd. Waiting at the podium was a woman who stood regal in purple and white traditional African dress.

When she began to speak, something happened. Perhaps it was the spirit of the ancestors, the spirit in which we were all gathered, or both.  I do know that when she offered the libation, that same spirit moved and spoke through her. First she bowed, paying honor and respect to the elders seated before her. Then she became both preacher and priestess, imploring us not to forget our beginnings, and to call the names of those who came before. People stood, and in the soulful black church tradition, some raised their hands to the sky. Many names were spoken out loud that morning, but I’m sure each ancestor heard their own.

That day the African Diaspora was on full display. I don’t know how he did it, but “Andrew Marshall” stood as cool as a morning breeze off the Savannah River as he officiated at a jumping the broom ceremony. To the couple who were renewing their vows, he spoke in the language of people who held firm to the remnants of their mother tongue and culture. I had never seen a ring shout until the McIntosh County Shouters took the stage, bringing Africa and America together in song and dance.

Behind me, Naomi Tutu praised the group in that distinctly African ululating sound of celebration. While I watched, two thoughts came to mind. Take the Shouters out of America and drop them in Trinidad for the Best Village competition – unless they opened their mouths, no one would know their performance originated in Georgia instead of Las Lomas or Laventile. Listen to the lyrics of Peter Tosh’s “African” – “no matter where you come from, if you’re a black man, you’re an African.” Black American, Afro-American, African-American or just plain American – whatever we choose to call ourselves, that day Mother was in the house and well pleased with her far-flung offspring.

niambi Tybee Island and Savannah Georgia – A Summer CelebrationAbout Niambi Brown Davis: Niambi was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and raised on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She and her family lived for many years in Washington, DC and for three and a half years, made the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago their home.  From Dusk to Dawn, her first full-length novel, and Love’s Redemption, a digital novella, were both published in 2008. In 2010 Sanctuary was released as an Apple iTunes application. She has written for Dorchester Publications women’s magazines. Niambi indulged her passion for sailing and travel by serving as publicist for the Black Boaters Summit and as a member of the National Association of Black Travel Writers. She has written for Travel Lady and Travel and Enjoy magazines. Aside from travel and writing, Niambi is an avid reader of historical fiction, and deeply involved in tracing the history of both branches of her family tree.  Her day job is running the business of Sand & Silk / Soleful Strut, her own line of handcrafted bath and body products.

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