Dakar, Senegal — I have been a proponent of culturally specific education for my entire career as an arts administrator. I’ve advocated for ethnic-specific cultural centers, written inclusive curricula for both DISD and Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD) over the years and tried to create the most comprehensive African-centered program I could for South Dallas Cultural Center in the years I managed this invaluable city resource. So to say I understand the value of ethnic-specific cultural programming is probably an understatement. However, this current 10-day journey to Senegal with SDCC Summer Arts at the Center students gave me an even deeper appreciation for why culture matters so much—or should I say why the absence of it can be so devastating.
We experienced a lot of cultural traditions practiced by the Senegalese over the course of our trip, traditions passed down through the generations. Our inclusion in our tour guide’s traditional wedding allowed us to see firsthand how culture defines a people as younger members of her Senegalese family performed the same dances the elders did, albeit in Western dress as opposed to traditional boubous. Such an amazing sight to see and one that undergirds how deeply rooted certain artforms are in African societies and how, no matter how long the period of European colonization, they are never abandoned because they’re what connect the generations.
Another eye opener for me was the tradition of singing the history of a family. Rather than sitting around showing each other photographs of family members, the Serer society sings about how family members are related, referring to distant cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, great aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers, etc. in their lyrics, often going back six or seven generations of family history. The bride informed me that in Senegalese cultural practice, a person captured in battle could not be enslaved if they could recite who their people were for seven generations because if they could do this, it signified they “were somebody in their community” and therefore worthy of their freedom. What a concept! If you know your family history, you cannot be made to be subservient to anyone!
I’m surmising that this may be the reason certain enslaved Africans never became “slaves” but retained their dignity and humanity despite their horrific life circumstances. We’ve all heard the narratives but many couldn’t imagine how this was possible. I can better understand this human phenomenon now that I understand this cultural practice and how it fortified people. There is a very wonderful African saying that says a man in touch with his origins is a man that never dies. I’ve used this concept as the premise for my art production for my entire art career, always infusing historical and cultural information in my image-making.
When people are rooted in their culture, they tend to see the world as a place of possibilities rather than one that will limit them. They stand on their history as the foundation for all that they do and are inspired by those that came before them. Over the years, I have tried to encourage the students attending SDCC summer program to explore their family histories and traditions as a way of tapping into their untapped creativity, unleashing a trove of ideas for their art projects, theater and dance performances and creative writing exercises. Sometimes, it represents the first time a kid has taken the time to have a real conversation with an elder family member about their life, especially their childhood. The same benefit can be derived from learning about cultural traditions in African Diaspora countries and how they connect to those African-Americans practice in the USA. There really is nothing more affirming than knowing you exist in a continuum of cultural legacy, much of which is centuries old.
Yes, this current trip to my Motherland gave me some new insights about how important the study of culture is for all of us but particularly for African-Americans who have systematically had our culture stripped from our formal education. Our history inspires and our culture fortifies. We must never forget this and never stop advocating for ethnic specific programming in our arts centers, schools and families.
» Vicki Meek is a former arts manager, a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas and Costa Rica. ART-iculate explores issues around race, politics and the arts. You can also keep up with Meek's musings in her blog Art & Racenotes.
» ART-iculate runs on the last Wednesday of the month.
- April: Vicki Meek ART-iculates
- May: On Dallas and Cultural Equity
- June: Equity vs. Diversity
- July: An Arts Super PAC?
- August: Too Big to Fail?
- September: It Isn't Us Against Them
- October: Another Missed Opportunity
- November: Neighborhood Arts Center: Not a New Idea
- December: Save Our Summer Programs
- January: The Creative Community in the Trump Era
- February: Being a Black Artist in a White World
- March: Expanding Our Cultural Horizons
- April: Intercultural Self-Determination
- May: A New Cultural Plan
- June: Working for Good
- July: Into the Forest
- August: Saved by Art
- September: Immersed in Cultural Equity
- October: The Artist as Citizen