Drumbeat of black history comes alive at Crocker Art Museum

Daniel Spann, 5, a member of Jodama Drum & Dance Group, performs at a free event celebrating Black History Month on Sunday in Sacramento at the Crocker Art Museum.
Daniel Spann, 5, a member of Jodama Drum & Dance Group, performs at a free event celebrating Black History Month on Sunday in Sacramento at the Crocker Art Museum. rbyer@sacbee.com

When David Bowman wasn’t pounding out the heartbeat of Africa on his goblet-shaped djembe drum Sunday, he was helping his daughter Niya, 6, make an African dancer out of construction paper.

The Bowmans joined about 2,500 others – most of them families – for the Crocker Art Museum’s annual Black History Month Celebration showcasing the story of African Americans through rhythms, colors, songs, poetry, photos, arts and crafts.

“We decided to make a day of it. It’s very family friendly and there’s so much to do,” said Bowman, 31, one of six drummers in Sacramento’s electrifying Jodama Drum & Dance Group, which drove fans of all ages to their feet.

Sunday’s events were dedicated to the late Maya Angelou, “a true renaissance woman, a poet, dancer, writer, singer, a lover of life and a lover of laughter,” said Jodama’s mistress of ceremonies, Joycelyn Wakefield.

Angelou, a former Sacramento State professor who died last year, was a storyteller, Wakefield said, adding that the African American story begins with the most sacred of instruments, “our drums.” At the Crocker, those drums included Bowman’s West African djembe, known as the “Queen of Drums” for its hourglass figure, congas from the Republic of the Congo and drums from Ghana and Nigeria.

“The very first form of communication in Africa was drumming,” Wakefield said. “Drums announced births, marriages, the beginning of war and the triumph in war, the return of ancestor spirits, courtships.” They also were used “to worship and celebrate our creator.”

In the United States, slave masters recognized the power of African drums and dance and forbade them, Wakefield noted. “So they began to play those same rhythms on their chest, thighs and knees with their hands.”

“You can’t keep a good drummer down. Don’t let your children forget their heritage,” she told the audience. “The reason we have any history is because we passed the traditions down to our children.”

The drums began beating, a singer began trilling, and about half a dozen Jodama child dancers took the stage, first together and then one at a time. Children in the crowd were mesmerized by 4-year-old Devin Spann’s moves.

They were followed by the Ghanaian Dance of Big Women. “One thing we don’t look at is size, color or shape. All we look at is how you feel in your soul,” Wakefield said, as six women clad in orange, red, blue, yellow, green and purple sashes rocked the house. “Music’s the universal language. We need to celebrate life and love every day because you never know when it’s not going to be in your life.”

Gerald and Felicia Williams of Elk Grove and their two sons, Joshua, 4, and Micah, 2, could not keep still while listening. “It’s actually kind of emotional to see parts of our history that were suppressed, and to see where a lot of our modern dance comes from,” Gerald Williams said. “To know that all that we saw was considered wrong, when everything about it’s uplifting and right.”

Between sets, Bowman and his daughter went to a Kindred Spirit Art-Making session, where dozens of children created African-style figurines to either take home or put on the museum walls. The workshop was led by muralist Shonna McDaniels, founder of Sacramento’s Sojourner Truth Multicultural Art Museum at 2251 Florin Rd.

As a student at John Bidwell Elementary School in south Sacramento, McDaniels said she became enchanted by the saga of Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became famous as an abolitionist and champion of women’s rights in the late 1800s. “She wanted all people to be treated equally regardless of race or gender,” McDaniels said.

While February is designated as Black History Month, “we should celebrate 365 days a year because African history is world history,” McDaniels said. “But I appreciate the Crocker Museum giving kids the opportunity to learn about it.”

The message rang loud and clear with McDaniels’ 10-year-old daughter Nasara, who had a novelties booth and her own business cards at the Crocker’s Black and Beautiful Community Market Place, filled with about a dozen vendors. “If we didn’t have people like Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., we wouldn’t have the freedoms we have today,” she said.

Nasara’s mother explained that African American children as young as 5 are encouraged to start their own businesses, selling cookies, fruit, T-shirts, knit caps and jewelry. “We want to instill in our children that for black people to be empowered, we have to learn how to run our own businesses,” McDaniels said.

Throughout the museum, there were many opportunities to connect with history. Marlynn Smith and Omari Tau led the crowd in so-called freedom songs, which helped define the American civil rights movement during the 1960s, including “This Little Light of Mine.” Their version included the line, “Down in Ferguson, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine … ”

About a dozen Sacramento teenagers involved with the revitalization of their public housing projects – Marina Vista and Alder Grove, near Broadway – exhibited photos capturing everyday life there. More than 2,500 people – most of them African American – live in the 750 units, “and no one knows they’re there,” said Ashlei Hurst, 26, the program director of Project Voice, which helped organize the photography show, Voices Behind The Bricks. “There’s a stigma attached to living in public housing,” she said, “and my goal is to show everyone these students are bright and talented.”

Hurst said she cherishes Black History Month as “a good time for me to focus on my culture and teach my students about it.”

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.