The 29th annual Savannah Black Heritage Festival kicks off this week, but due to the uncertainty of city funding, this year's planning was more difficult than usual.

"It was stressful, I'll admit," says festival coordinator Shirley James. "It was a challenge and we did feel that."

The city has been clear that they intend to cut or even eliminate cultural arts funding in future budgets and James says festival organizers were well aware of this. Even so, the city was late returning signed contracts and confirming funding requests, which left the group in limbo until mere weeks before the festival was scheduled to start. James says they will find a way to carry on regardless of the city's level of support, but it certainly makes things more challenging.

The theme of this year's festival is "Celebrating the Dynamics of Cultures and Shared Experiences," and just like past years, the month of February is full of entertaining and educational activities for all ages and from all walks of life.

The month begins with the 76th National Freedom Day Observance from Feb. 1-2, which commemorates President Abraham Lincoln signing the proposed resolution for the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. The observance will include a broadcast on WHCJ 90.3 FM of students reading the radio speeches of Richard R. Wright, a man who grew up in slavery and went on to become the first president of Savannah State University.

The celebrations continue at 6 p.m. Feb. 1 with the opening reception of the 17th annual New Beginning Art Exhibition at the Department of Cultural Affairs S.P.A.C.E. Gallery. This yearly exhibition is made up of work from Savannah-Chatham County middle and high school students based around the theme of the festival and always has some exceptional and surprising work from amazing young talents, like this year's winning artist Erika Young.

This weekend and next week are also chock full of dance performances like the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company's free, non-ticketed presentation at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 2 at the Civic Center's Johnny Mercer Theatre. The Bright Star Children's Touring Theatre will also present a series of performances of "Freedom Songs: The Music of Black History" at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 5 at Lithway Baptist Church and 5 p.m. Feb. 6 at Tatumville Neighborhood Center.

There will also be simultaneous memorial wreath laying ceremonies at 1 p.m. Feb. 3 at the African-American Monument in Rousakis Plaza on River Street, the Haitian Monument in Franklin Square, and the WWII and Vietnam memorials.

At 11 a.m. Feb. 6 at the Elmore Theater at Savannah State, Cornelius St. Mark will present what should be an engrossing discussion on Gullah-Geechee culture.

"The official title of my talk is 'African-American Scholars and the Intellectual Foundation of Gullah-Geechee Studies,'" explains St. Mark, an associate professor of Africana Studies at SSU. "I intend to examine the work of a few African Americans who have researched various aspects of the Gullah experience, such as folklore, religion, community and language. The works of these scholars have defined the emerging sub-field of African-American studies that is Gullah-Geechee studies.

"I will place emphasis on the seminal work of Lorenzo Dow Turner, an African-American linguist who is called the 'father of Gullah studies.' I will limit my presentation to the work of African-American scholars in honor of African-American History month.

"Gullah culture is important because it continues to offer the most compelling evidence and examples of a strong and direct connection between African-Americans in the Lowcountry and coastal regions of the southeast with West African culture. It gives Gullah people a strong sense of identity, a strong sense of pride, and of community. The Gullah experience is a part of the human experience as well as the African-American and American experience. It is worthy of recognition, preservation and celebration."

For a longer discussion with Shirley James about this year's festival, check out my SavArtScene column online and be sure to pick up a copy of next week's Do for more coverage of this year's Black Heritage Festival.


What: 29th annual Savannah Black Heritage Festival

When: Feb. 1-18

Where: Various locations

Cost: Free