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

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With djembe drums in hand, young campers circled a clearing of land in Shelby County, tucked between a sparkling pond and shady trees.

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

Sylla’s words became a gentle refrain throughout the day, as the students, who are part of a weeklong Juneteenth camp, learned the fundamentals of West African art forms from skilled instructors.

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, marks the date when – two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed – a general informed enslaved Texans of their freedom. It was named a federal holiday in 2021.

The holiday is now recognized in Alabama, but beyond requiring second graders to learn about national holidays, Juneteenth isnt mentioned in any state standards.

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

Schooley directs DRUM the Program, a community-based cultural arts program that educates students on West African drum and dance, and also fosters social emotional skills.

“As an African American youth growing up here, there was no access to art,” said Schooley, an Alabama native who began to study African folkloric drum and dance after a series of trips to Africa. “But I realized that it was so vital to adults to see themselves as confident, as powerful, as capable, and to stimulate their creativity.”

Schooley previously worked as a cultural community developer in Austin, Texas, and moved back to Alabama in 2018. A year later, she started the Juneteenth camp, which served about 20 children ages 8 to 16. Now in its third year, 32 campers signed up for the weeklong camp, from a range of 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 by way of Sen. Rodger Smitherman. Its model for fine arts, behavioral health and physical education was also recently vetted and approved by the Alabama State Department of Education.

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

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

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In between sets on one day of the camp, Sylla coached a pair of teens, who were playing tall, narrow drums called doundoons, to branch out and try new rhythms.

“I just need to remember to keep going,” Simeon, 16, said to Wali, 17.

The drum circle usually lasts for 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 enhance other motor and psychosocial skills.

Drumming is also a key part of the campers’ final performance, which was just two days away. As the group wrapped up, Schooley reminded them to wear all white Saturday, 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 sat in a chair beside him.

For the entire day, campers honed a variety of art forms, paying homage to Choctaw land and learning about their own ancestry as well. While younger students gardened near the main house, teenagers worked on a spoken word performance – another element that they’d include in Saturday’s production.

Read more Ed Lab: How some Alabama schools are bridging ACT test prep gaps,

“Maybe the step has like a travel to it?” Ojeya Cruz-Banks suggested to a group of teens, who were working on a spoken word act.

Cruz-Banks, called “Dr. O” by the campers, is an associate professor of dance and Black studies at Denison University, and has been working with Schooley for nearly 20 years to study West African art forms.

Instructors also help campers set individual goals, and stress the importance of working together. For this particular group, the goal was to get those final movements down for the big performance.

“We could touch shoulders!” one teen suggested, as others tried to incorporate memories of their time at camp (“How about a fish movement?” “Waves?”) into the performance.

A counselor led five campers – Wali, Zakhaa, Ora, Ken and Simeon – in a final rehearsal for the day. Facing the glimmer of the pond, they raised their hands in unison and recited the last verse: I am from the community and village that helps me grow.

“They ain’t gonna see that coming,” Simeon said, as the group relaxed their outstretched arms.

Wali smiled.

‘You own it’

After lunch, campers gathered in a sunlit room. African art dotted the walls, along with student paintings that described strategies for coping with negative emotions, and a chart that listed the elements of 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 chimed in, recounting how the art form was created by Africans – mostly 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 partners, Tarantula coached them on the cocorinha, a way to evade a move; the au, a circling move; and the ginga, which means “to sway.”

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

For Tyler, 15, the capoeira lesson wasn’t just a way for him 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 Alabama public schools, or in his current school in Marietta, Georgia.

“Being from Alabama, a lot of our history was lost, besides the Civil Rights history that we had from slavery,” he said, noting that he was taught that enslaved Africans had come “willingly” to America.

Even though he doesn’t see himself as much of a creative person, Tyler said drumming and dancing allows him to feel an unexpected connection with the Earth and with his ancestry.

“It’s empowering almost,” he said.

Toward the end of the lesson, Cruz-Banks led a group of older girls in song.

“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 that enslaved Africans practiced in America.

On the stage under a winding wooden staircase, Sylla led a group of drummers. Cruz-Banks and Schooley coached the girls to keep their eyes up, toward the drummers, as they stomped to the Kassa, a traditional harvest dance.

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

“When you share this culture, you know it,” Schooley told them. “You own it.”

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As the day drew to a close, Schooley reminded students that they’d head to the library Friday for rehearsal, and that they should wear shoes that work well with capoeira.

The campers gathered into another circle and passed a stick in a clockwise motion, each one giving thanks for their instructors, and for each other. One camper said she was grateful to her teacher, who introduced her to the program.

Sebriah, a ninth grader at Minor High School, hopes 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 learned the importance of knowing who you are,” she said – a skill that, she said, can “shape your future.”

Schooley beamed, recalling the bursts of creativity she witnessed over the week and urging students to find a pathway in life that fulfills them.

“Your history is beyond the shores of America,” she told the campers. “The rest of your story is in that rhythm. Don’t let nobody take it from you.”

Rebecca Griesbach is a member of The Alabama Education Lab team at AL.com, She is supported through a partnership with Report for America. Learn more here and contribute to support the team here,

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