This year marks the third decade of Savannah's Black Heritage Festival.

The theme, “Celebrating 30 Years of Black History, Culture and Art,” encompasses a wide spectrum of cultural contributions from African Americans throughout the history of this country. But the recognition of these contributions (and sacrifices) extends beyond the confines of the month-long festival.

 

Festival for everyone

The Savannah Black Heritage Festival happens each year in February to coincide with Black History Month. The month-long series of performances, art openings, lectures, educational events, commemorations, and other celebrations serves to highlight the various facets of African American culture and how it intersects with American culture as a whole. In our evolving understanding of the tapestry of civilization, we are beginning to acknowledge that African American culture is American culture. They are not separate things.

And the Savannah Black Heritage Festival is not just for African Americans. It's for everyone.

It's been noted that Black History Month takes place in the shortest month of the year, but the tradition began in the 1920s with “Negro History Week,” which was meant to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The week (and terminology) eventually developed into Black History Month, which was codified in the 1970s and officially recognized by President Gerald Ford.

Part of American history

Now increasingly referred to as African American History Month to reflect our changing attitudes toward race and ancestral heritage, perhaps it's also worth considering how we collectively view “black history” in relation to American history in general.

American history is not simply the sum of its parts, but a gestalt defined by principles and ideals. Whereas enslaved Africans imported to American shores against their will were unrecognized as individuals with human rights by the U.S. Constitution, we now understand that the nation itself was built on the backs of this free labor. And American culture as we know it is inextricable from the contributions of African Americans. Rock 'n' roll, jazz, and hip hop didn't grow out of neighborhoods with European origins. And the food you eat as a southerner, whether you're black, white, or other, has its roots in African traditions.

So while we all celebrate black history, culture and art, let us also not forget the sacrifices that came along with the contributions. Savannah is making progress in the recognition of African-American history as a whole, but there's a long way to go to reach a place of genuine truth and reconciliation. This month presents opportunities for both and those opportunities extend beyond the month of February.

Art shows, performances

Some of the upcoming celebratory opportunities include an art exhibition, opening reception and co-lecture at 3 p.m. Feb. 10 at RAW:IMAGE Barbershop and Studio, 113 E. Montgomery Crossroad. “Expressing 30 Years of Diversity, Black Heritage and Culture through Art” will feature local artists Richard Law, Karla-Sue C. Marriott and Tyriq Maxwell and will be on view through the end of the month.

Also Feb. 10 is the annual Gospel Concert at Overcoming by Faith Ministries, 9700 Middleground Road. And on Feb. 12 at the Jewish Educational Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St., is the annual Future of Jazz Concert and Tribute to the Late Ben Tucker.

Later in the week are various performances and presentations, including the Sankofa Traveling African American Museum Exhibition from Feb. 15-17 at the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, 460 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., and a documentary film screening Feb. 18 at the Beach Institute African-American Cultural Center, 502 E. Harris St. You can view a full schedule of events at savannahblackheritagefestival.com.

Though not officially part of the Black Heritage Festival, the photography exhibition on view at The Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave., provides an evocative window on Savannah's past. “North of Victory: Savannah's Soulful Signage” consists of a number of photographs by local photographer and author Susan Earl documenting the work of African-American sign painters. Earl took photos of the signs in the 1990s and 2000s. The exhibition paints a vivid picture of Savannah's vanishing past and preserves the artistic contributions of African-American artisans like Jimmie Williams, Marcus Polite, Leonard Miller and William Pleasant.

Historical markers

In the area of sacrifices, there are a number of upcoming opportunities to gain a better understanding of Savannah's full history. On Feb. 22, there will be a historical marker dedication at 81 Coffee Bluff Villa Road related to the preservation of the legacy of African Americans who settled along the White Bluff/Coffee Bluff waterways. It is part of the Savannah Black Heritage Festival.

There will be four different markers erected that highlight the communities of the descendants of freed slaves who have thrived in the area for generations, including families from St. Catherine, Sapelo, and Ossabaw islands. The area is part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and its recognition is vitally important.

Looking further ahead, on March 2 and 3, there will be a series of commemorations around one of the darkest events not just in Savannah, but in the nation's history. This year is the 160th anniversary of the event that has become known as The Weeping Time, the largest documented slave auction to occur on American soil. The event isn't just notable for the fact that some 436 men, women and children were sold on the auction block just two and a quarter miles from downtown Savannah. The far-reaching implications and incredible historical threads that are tied up with the sale is something every American should come to understand.

There will be a ceremony at 10 a.m. March 2 at Otis J. Brock Elementary in West Savannah commemorating the event. An additional program will be at 11 a.m. March 3 at Solomon Temple Church Of God In Christ.

There will also be a related historical marker dedication at 2 p.m. March 3 on Butler Island along Highway 17 in Darien, where many of the enslaved people who were sold worked and lived.

Further details of the Savannah events can be found at oceans1.org. For more info on the Darien event, contact the Georgia Historical Society at 912-651-2125.

Kristopher Monroe is a writer documenting the intersection of art and community. Contact him at savartscene@gmail.com and follow on Twitter @savartscene.