Students in the SDCC summer program pose with a Senegal mural they painted. Photo courtesy of Vicki Meek.

Visual Arts

Black History, Whole, at South Dallas Cultural Center’s Summer Program

For 20 years, the center has immersed kids in African-American cultural inheritance and art. The city's budget should make it easier, not harder, for this to continue.

Zina Hunter still goes to look at the mural. It’s painted on the side of the building at 3100 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard where the Dallas Weekly keeps its office: a homage to the first black-owned newspaper in the United States. The mural shares its name with the publication: “Freedom’s Journal.” The words “we plead our own cause” appear near the top; they belong to the editors of that first paper.

A former teacher of Hunter’s, Bernice Montgomery, painted it in 1992. Their paths crossed at the South Dallas Cultural Center’s summer program Summer Arts At The Center, a foundational education in African-American history and inheritance when Hunter was a child.

“I had never known anyone who did a mural, before,” Hunter says. “And I really felt like [the teachers] cared. I had been in other programs that are big; students don’t get the focus that they need.”

The curriculum is structured in seven cycles. It anticipates the same students each year for seven years as they grow, with the future children of those students in mind, too. In the case of Zina Hunter—whose daughter has completed two summers in the program—and many others, that imagined legacy became reality. Despite inconsistent funding from the city of Dallas and the absence of a dedicated fundraising position for the SDCC, the program has continued to teach South Dallas children and families since Vicki Meek created it 20 years ago.

“One of the things that I know from many, many years of working with African-American children, regardless of economic status, is that if you don’t have the knowledge of self, if you don’t have the knowledge of the people whose shoulders you stand on, you are pretty useless [as a teacher],” Meek, who led the South Dallas Cultural Center for almost 20 years before retiring last March, says.

Back in 1997, Meek says, the SDCC was so underused and unfamiliar, neighbors assumed it was the parole office. As the new manager of the center, she set out to craft programs for adults and kids that would root people to the resource, milking a $98,000 program budget for all she could. Steady budget cuts from the city over the past two decades made it a given that Meek would raise money from outside sources to bolster the Summer Arts program, which became a core priority.

“I had always admired the Jews’ approach with Saturday school—Hebrew school,” Meek says. “They understand that you have to have a historical foundation for your people in order for them to be strong.”

“If you don’t have the knowledge of self, if you don’t have the knowledge of the people whose shoulders you stand on, you are pretty useless [as a teacher].”

The Summer Arts program outline itself reads like a supreme poem cycle, beginning in ancient pre-colonial Africa and narrowing to West Africa and the Americas in the 1400s as the Middle Passage began. The students make their own dances to express what they learn. They study the cosmology, ontology, jewelry and fashion of gateway communities in New Orleans and Puerto Rico.

Kids encounter the pivotal figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. A cycle on the Civil Rights/Black Arts movement of the 1960s draws on Freedom Songs and the lesser-known AfriCobra visual arts collective in Chicago. A final session called “Africa Now” checks back in on the countries studied the first year, requiring in-depth research on shifts in culture and religion in the Gwendolyn Brooks Library housed within the SDCC. When the seven years of instruction are complete, the students will have written their own songs, painted murals, composed short stories, and recorded spoken word poetry. To say it’s comprehensive is to understate. There is even a focus on African-American art and racial justice in Dallas. Kids who complete the program are eligible for a trip to Africa.

Zina Hunter was 10 when she entered the program. Her daughter, Narimane Brown, was 6. (“I was trying to put her in before she was of age to go,” Hunter laughs.) Narimane latched on especially to the customs of Senegal, a country Meek focused when planning the curriculum because it’s where many of the 388,000 Africans brought to North America as slaves were taken, and from where so much of African-American culture derives its traditions. Mysteries remain, as slavery stole the specific facts of personal lineage from many African-Americans.

“I think it’s important to know why people do certain things, or even just wear certain things, how different cultures live, period,” Hunter says. “[Narimane] needs to know her. And it might not be direct. Maybe we’re not from Senegal. I don’t know what part of Africa we’re from. But it’s important that she know how people interact in a place where she potentially could have been born.”

The parents I spoke with all said the SDCC summer program equipped their kids with a complete picture of the history of slavery itself in the U.S., something they did not receive in any other classroom. Thinned-out, misleading versions taught in public schools cheat African-American students. These kids often feel the dissonance and the hurt caused by white supremacy and racism, but are denied the historical enormity of oppression. Meek knew there was a way to talk to African-American students about this, and she formed the program around the need to tell the truth.

“I remember once, we were doing a difficult segment—it was a segment on the Middle Passage,” Meek says. “We had to really think through how we were going to teach it  It was a difficult topic. My staff was aghast that the children thought there were 300 slaves. The reason they thought that is because the only [African-American figure] they had ever learned about in school was Harriet Tubman, and she freed 300 slaves.

“One of our program students, probably in first grade at the time, got in trouble in school because the teacher made some comment about how slavery wasn’t that bad, or something along those lines. And the little girl raised her hand and said, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not true,’” Meek remembers. “She started listing all the things that happened.

Vicki Meek, who authored the curriculum for Summer Arts At The Center 20 years ago, sits with students Christian Jones, left, and his brother Jonathan Sanders. Photo by Sandra Jones.
Vicki Meek, who authored the curriculum for Summer Arts At The Center 20 years ago, sits with students Christian Jones, left, and his brother Jonathan Sanders. Photo by Sandra Jones.

“What makes me proudest is that we have made an impact. No, we don’t serve thousands and thousands of kids every summer. But the 70 kids we do serve are getting a serious education, as are their families,” Meek says.

The kids who attend the summer program become keepers of a heritage, and of knowledge that can’t just be parroted to them. It’s a qualification of connection. And, as Meek points out, the resources of the SDCC are designed to uplift South Dallas kids whose parents aren’t college-educated. (Though, Meek is careful to point out, when it comes to deep knowledge of African-American heritage, a college education by itself isn’t likely to help.)

Dallas officials know that our city has the worst child poverty rate among the 10 largest cities in the U.S. Their answer to this, ostensibly, is to boost economic development with the GrowSouth initiative. One could argue the first order of business would be to build on the legacy programs that encourage the youngest and most vulnerable populations. The most important results aren’t always quantifiable in a way that helps the city promote itself, just as the most important programs may not have the resources to relentlessly market themselves. One thing seems to be common sense: this is no time, at all, to lessen or destabilize the resources of a program like Summer Arts At The Center.

Late last year there was some question as to where funds would be coming from for the SDCC’s summer program. Big Thought, the Dallas nonprofit that has been sub-granting funds for the city cultural centers’ summer programs for six years, is changing its focus to other neighborhood initiatives. Meek wrote about this in her December column for Theater Jones.

Meek was quick to say Big Thought’s mission is a broader one, and that it’s the city’s responsibility to nurture the children and families who rely on South Dallas Cultural Center and Summer Arts.

I reached out to David Fisher, the assistant director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, who said that the budgets for summer programs were taken care of through “other sources” for each of the centers. As for the $15 million bailout of the AT&T Performing Arts Center that drew strong response from advocates of cultural equity:

“The funding for ATTPAC was a completely separate issue…and did not affect the funding for the Centers or Big Thought in any way,” Fisher says.

There are other questions I would encourage city leaders to ask themselves: The semblance of motion and expansion versus deep investment. The level at which certain initiatives are easily experienced by white people, or in spaces which are culturally white, versus protecting the needs and agency of communities of color.

In the case of South Dallas Cultural Center, current manager Harold Steward is such a protector, engaging in what he refers to as the “aesthetic” of performance and education relevant to teaching African-American history, and nurturing the community’s present. He’s less concerned with discussing these subjects through a lens of theory and more eager to just get to work, as Meek did in the post before he took the baton.

“Our basic needs are covered for the summer program. We got money from the city through Big Thought up to last year,” Steward says.

Steward is the new Southern Regional Envoy for the U. S. Department of Arts and Culture. He’s also a board member for the National Performance Network, an important web of African-American artists who make stops at the South Dallas Cultural Center to educate kids and adults and share their work.

If there could be more consistency and lead time in the city funding process for Summer Arts At The Center, he says, one group he’d plan to come is Vessels. The ensemble of seven women create soundscapes that echo what music could have sounded like on slave ships during the Middle Passage. “Vessels at its core is a healing ritual that looks deeply at the wounds of the Middle Passage and at the creative and communal ways our ancestors endured,” reads the group’s statement for the show debuting next spring, which would time perfectly for a stop at the SDCC.

“We want to engage with regional and national artists as well, to know everything that’s available, to train people,” Steward says. “[Summer Arts] is an important program, and we hate how funds dictate how it looks, but we’re rising to the occasion.”

Sandra Jones’ family still lives within walking distance of the SDCC. Both of her sons, now 27 and 17, went through the program. She saw them become teaching assistants as high school seniors, passing on what’d they’d learned to the younger children.

“[It] had me beaming and thinking they’ve grown up into wonderful, respectful young men,” Jones says.

Jonathan Sanders Jr. and Christian Jones are now self-published authors. Their mom says they learned those skills at the SDCC. I ask her what they got in the program that they couldn’t have gotten in school.

“A sense of belonging,” she says. “Knowing where they came from.”

The My History Inspires!: The Creative Intersection of Art and History poetry compilation put out by Summer Arts in 2014 has beautiful images and text by kids painting their pictures of that place, their own personal histories. Christian Jones is one of the strongest and most often-featured contributors. His poems conjure the happiness of daily routines, of basketball shorts and homemade snow cones—snapshots of moments, a la Langston Hughes’ rhapsodic details of Harlem. And there is another poem, called “Suicidal Child.”

In it, Christian writes first of a child in third person, who is asked about his father. The child in Christian’s poem does not know what to say. No one will tell him the truth. So he goes searching, gets into some trouble trying to find his dad. Then, a realization blooms and the narration turns to first-person, the poet becomes the speaker:

“Suicide is unnecessary because of the dead branch on the tree.

My mother is there,

She loves me and still has faith in me.”