What can okra soup, fried chicken and peach cobbler teach you about culture?
Plenty. Especially when the teacher is Jewish African-American culinary historian Michael W. Twitty, who spoke in Charlotte as part of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture’s “Heritage & History” series. He didn’t just lecture on the foodways of enslaved African-Americans, he oversaw preparation of a meal for 270 guests and then he taught them the history behind soul food.
That experiential component of this series sets it apart from a typical lecture series.
Bundles is the great-great-granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919), who is considered America’s first female self-made millionaire. Walker made her money by developing a line of beauty and hair care products for black women. She was also a social and political activist and philanthropist. Bundles’ mother, A’Lelia Walker, was a friend of Bessye Bearden, mother of the artist Romare Bearden, who was known for his colorful collages depicting African-American life. So Bundles knows something about family history and the importance of passing those stories down.
The Heritage & History program, with an $80,000 grant from the Duke Energy Foundation, features nationally known artists and scholars – “culture keepers” – who are preserving black culture through an array of disciplines.
Valaida Fullwood, project consultant to the Gantt Center, had the idea to connect people to African-American history through the arts and experiential learning. She thought people would learn best through tasting a bit of history, seeing a hip-hop performance or witnessing the life of Harriet Tubman through a one-woman play.
“Our mission is to show people different facets of American life by focusing on the African-American experience,” Fullwood said. “These are really American stories. Each event demonstrates our shared humanity – how much we have in common.”
Shawn Heath, president of the Duke Energy Foundation, said the idea was compelling because it allowed the foundation to help the Gantt Center reach new audiences and engage the community.
“There’s been a great diversity among the audiences for these events,” he said. “We liked the series’ emphasis on making connections, and given the divisiveness happening around us now, making those connections is more important than ever. This has turned out to be very timely programming.”
The first event in the series featured actress Karen Jones Meadows in “Harriet’s Return,” the one-woman show she developed about the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The final event is Nov. 17, when the Gantt Center will screen “The Hip-Hop Fellow,” a documentary featuring Winston-Salem-born Grammy Award-winning producer, DJ, rapper and lecturer 9th Wonder.
The Family Collage
A’Lelia Bundles will share stories about famous families and ideas for collecting family histories and keeping family roots alive.
Details: Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture, Charlotte, N.C. Oct. 11. Doors open at 5 p.m. to view exhibitions; lecture begins at 6:30 p.m. Cost: $15 for public, $10 for members. Register.