Dr. Kendra Hamilton’s forthcoming book, ‘Romancing the Gullah: Race and Authenticity in the Age of Porgy and Bess,’ will be published in April 2023.
by Sarah Murphy
Journalist. Politician. Educator. Writer. Researcher. Gardener.
Hamilton’s background is untraditional compared to most college professors—she spent a decade as a newspaper journalist and two years as vice mayor of Charlottesville, Va. But no matter her role, Dr. Hamilton has always held community and culture close to heart, letting them serve as guides in all of her endeavors.
Hamilton addresses these themes in “Romancing the Gullah: Race and Authenticity in the Age of Porgy and Bess.” The forthcoming book analyzes artistic appropriations of Gullah Geechee culture in coastal South Carolina. While working on the book, Hamilton has also quite literally been digging into the culture of PC’s hometown, partnering with local leaders to grow the vibrant and inclusive Clinton Community Garden.
Examining a unique cultural history
Hamilton teaches Southern Literature and African American Literature at Presbyterian, frequently weaving South Carolina history and culture into her courses.
In “Romancing the Gullah,” Hamilton focuses on Charleston and the Gullah Geechee people—descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the southern Atlantic coast. The nature of their isolated enslavement created a unique culture that is visible in the Gullah Geechee people’s distinctive arts, cuisine, music and language.
Hamilton examines appropriations of Gullah Geechee culture in her forthcoming book, specifically looking at both the Charleston Renaissance and the Harlem Renaissance.
“Artists in the early 20th century were obsessed by the idea of primitivism and the primitive,” she said. “They found some essential source of joy in African American culture that was lacking in European culture in the wake of World War I.
“It becomes this story of contestation between Black artists and white artists over who gets the ability to tell the story of the people we call Gullah Geechee now. At the same time, the actual Gullah Geechee people are getting lost in the shuffle. They’re not at all able to benefit from the exploitation of their reality.”
The book will be available in April 2023 from the University of Georgia Press, a title in its New Southern Studies series.
Building community through gardening
Hamilton extends her passion for community and culture beyond literary studies. She has been actively engaged across the Clinton area since joining PC eight years ago, perhaps most noticeably through the establishment of the Clinton Community Garden.
The idea for the community garden blossomed in 2015 following an event celebrating the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War.
Nat Fuller’s Feast was recreated in 2015 to commemorate the original celebratory dinner hosted by Nat Fuller in Charleston in 1865. The original dinner marked the end of the American Civil War and the end of slavery, reinforcing hope for racial equality.
The 2015 sesquicentennial event was the brainchild of Dr. David Shields at the University of South Carolina. It was hosted in four cities across the state: Charleston, Columbia, Greenville, and—thanks to Hamilton and other community leaders—Clinton.
“It was this amazing, creative way to commemorate the 150th anniversary,” Hamilton said. “What I didn’t realize at the time was what we were embarking on. [Clinton] is a community where, during Reconstruction, there was tremendous violence and tremendous racial conflict. In bringing together the most prominent white families and most prominent black families [at Nat Fuller’s Feast], we’re bringing together people who are on both sides of Clinton’s history.”
Following the feast, Hamilton came together with two local religious leaders, Rev. Blake Harwell and Rev. Stephen Evans, in an effort to continue building community and breaking down divisions. An avid gardener, Hamilton suggested starting a community garden in Clinton.
The Clinton Community Garden is located across the street from the Friendship AME Church in Clinton. Its mission is to educate, empower, and foster and strengthen connections among neighbors through food: growing it, cooking it, preserving it, and sharing it.
The lot boasts raised garden beds and a pavilion for programming, including dining and education events. The garden has formed a strong connection with PC, whose faculty members serve on the board and students volunteer. It is a constant labor of love for. Hamilton and the countless individuals who have rallied together in support of the project. It undoubtedly serves as a powerful community tie and cultural symbol for the town.
“It’s a sort of English cottage garden,” Hamilton said. “We grow a lot of different things, interplanting flowers to attract pollinators. Neighbors are invited to glean from the garden, and everything that’s left after the gardeners and the neighbors harvest gets donated to the local food pantry.
“What we’ve been trying to do is create community—anyone can join the garden. It is my main form of recreation, my main way of meeting new people and coming together.”
Follow the Clinton Community Garden on Facebook, or contact Dr. Kendra Hamilton at email@example.com for more information about joining and upcoming events.