Learning together from Sewanee, Tennessee


Friday, May 18, 2018

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Riddle me dis, riddle me dat… Okay, so I have something to tell you, but to do so I have to bring into the story a place called Sewanee, the University of the South, Tennessee, USA. Sewanee is a liberal arts college and also a school of theology. Probably you may never have heard of it, but the residents of Trench Town in Kingston are familiar with the name.

Students from Sewanee University have been travelling to Jamaica for over 20 years now as part of an outreach project which started out of a desire to have their young people develop a greater appreciation of the wider community and seek to make a lasting impact on the world. Their outreach projects have been conducted in Costa Rica, Haiti, New York, and Jamaica.

In 1989, “Wild-Wild” Hurricane Gilbert gave us a wicked battering. We had to do our best to put things back together, but we needed additional help. Many individuals and groups responded. One such, which brought relief supplies, was Sewanee University, led by Dixon Myers, who heads the university's civic engagement programme. Since then they have worked with the Mona Rehabilitation Centre, Alpha Boys' Home and Missionaries of the Poor.

Through Sister Grace Yap at Immaculate Convent, the Sewanee group was introduced to the communities of Riverton, Ferry and Trench Town. The Trench Town Culture Yard soon became their major area of focus here.

Dixon Myers, the man from Sewanee, loves Jamaica. He is taken by the culture, the language, the people, and what better place to discover them than in Trench Town, the “cradle of Marley”, the global idol, and so many more of our creative artists.

The visiting groups from Sewanee, with the help of Jamaican architect Chris Stone, have renovated areas of First Street and, as they worked, they filmed the experience. That footage has been turned into a documentary titled Born in Trench Town, co-produced by Dixon Myers and Sewanee film professor Greg Pond. The film was awarded Best New Film at the Reggae Film Festival in London in 2013. That same year, the work was recognised as Best Documentary at the Jamaican Reggae Film Festival in Ocho Rios.

If you've been on First Street you may have seen a brightly coloured mural depicting scenes including the Garvey Black Star Liner, Rastafarian drummers, and Bob Marley's old VW bus, meanwhile people are shown playing football and cricket. That is the work of the group from Sewanee. The mural was designed by Jamaican and American artists, and it is hoped that, in time, it will add to the prospects for cultural tourism in the Trench Town area.

So how did yours truly end up in this Sewanee story? Sewanee students are given every chance to learn about Jamaicans, our language and our culture. Part of that includes a visit to the national pantomime, produced by the Little Theatre Movement. Each year the groups comes from Sewanee and attends a performance. One aspect in which they take special interest is to hear the music. The pantomime band, currently led by Calvin “Bubbles” Cameron and Jermaine “Ziggy” Gordon, has them keeping to the beat and maintaining the creative spirit as they watch the pantomime team on stage.

After the performance, it is customary for yours truly to talk with them about the themes of the show and also about “whatta gwaan” in the country. One thing leads to another and next thing, a few days ago, yours truly was in the mountains of Tennessee, a far distance from us here, at the All Saints Chapel on the grounds of Sewanee University.

It was a great honour to have received an invitation to visit the University of the South and to experience, at first hand, how representatives of two societies can show mutual respect in a world where there are so many challenges for goodwill and civility.

From Kingston we set out and by last Saturday morning we were seated in a highly impressive place of worship filled to the roof with the sound of the pipe organ and the voices of an impressive choir, drawn together to worship in the baccalaureate service.

I was conferred with the Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts for my work in the creative arts and journalism. Among others also honoured was the famed Condoleezza Rice, who received the Doctor of Civil Law and delivered the baccalaureate address. Her presentation elaborated on her experiences over the years and her involvement in international politics. She urged the graduates to be aware of their position as educated people in the world, that they should be passionate about what they want to do with their lives, as well as have humility and realise that even though they have the benefit of higher education, there are others out there who they can learn from, and whom they can serve.

At the end of the proceedings, the large gathering made its way out into the morning sunlight, in a setting filled with beautiful foliage and the sound of greetings and well wishes circling the excitement of graduating students on their way to a new journey from yesterday to tomorrow. Long may Jamaica continue to enjoy the mutual respect and friendship between their nation and ours.

The Sewanee story calls for “broad-based ideals” of liberal education, which is seen as a sure means of success. Can more be learned from Sewanee? How can our graduates prepare themselves to better their communities and our Jamaica? Our old-timers remind us that “one hand cyaan clap”, which is to say we do better when we help and work with each other.

I have to say thanks to Dixon Myers, his wife Annwyn, the staff and other faculty members, as well as the students of Sewanee, The University of the South. The relationship between Jamaica and Sewanee continues. Nuff respect!

Barbara Gloudon is a journalist, playwright and commentator. Send comments to the Observer or gloudonb@yahoo.com.

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