IN Portsmouth, NH, since the dedication of a new African American Burying Ground memorial in May, the community has placed fresh flowers—eternally crisp and bright—in the hands of a bronze female figure at the site.
It is a touching gesture of love, care and sorrow.
Savannah-based artist Jerome Meadows designed the memorial for Portsmouth, a town of only about 21,000.
Jerome tells me of a Portsmouth man who, “comes out there every day and prays for the dignity and the memory of those people buried there.”
The story of the memorial touches on many things—how we as contemporary Americans can acknowledge the sanctity of lives our forbears did not; how a community can find identity through art; and how municipalities can evolve to meet the needs of their citizens.
Quite frankly, these are lessons Savannah needs to learn.
As this story hits the stands, I will be in Portsmouth, contributing to the story of this memorial through an on-the-road production of Blank Page Poetry.
Jerome is the visionary behind Blank Page Poetry—a multi-disciplinary production, which integrates poetry, visuals, music, dance and theatre. We will be working with local poets and dancers, lending words to the story of the memorial.
Its story begins on October 17, 2003, when city workers repairing a sewer line uncovered a field of coffins just under the pipe in need of repair.
“This speaks volumes. The people who put that in there saw those coffins and chose to ignore them, which I see as sort of a base level of our humanity,” Jerome says.
“This time around however they rose to the higher levels of humanity.”
After eight of the coffins were exhumed, Portsmouth learned a troubling fact written out of their city’s history—there were slaves in Portsmouth.
Shocked, the community, while only two percent black, was moved to acknowledge those lives by building a memorial there.
With years of public art experience, including two City of Savannah commissioned pieces—the Yamacraw Public Art Park and a forthcoming piece in Savannah Gardens—Jerome was amazed by the process of working with the commission in Portsmouth.
“Right off the bat we developed this really great working relationship. They afforded me the freedom that I needed to design, knowing that I was respecting their wishes in terms of what the object was,” Jerome says.
Entirely committed to the project, the commission wanted it completed “sooner rather than later.”
This stands in stark contrast to Jerome’s experience in Savannah, where the fate of the Savannah Gardens project remains uncertain.
Despite having design approval from the city council, another review process has suddenly appeared.
“At this point, the results of that are uncertain, so we’re two years into this process and have no idea if or when it’s going to be finalized,” Jerome says. “It leaves one to think that there is an opposition.”
Additionally, Jerome’s Yamacraw project sits in utter disrepair, no help in sight from the city despite Jerome’s petitions.
In Portsmouth, Jerome designed the memorial, and then a budget based on the approved design was established.
“When it was determined that it would be $1.2 million, even I was like, ‘I don’t know if they’re going to go for this.’ Compare it to the Yamacraw project, which had a budget of $350,000,” Jerome says.
“It took ten years to raise money here in Savannah. The good folks of Portsmouth— through a lot of private donations, an NEA grant, the city putting up money—within five years, they raised that $1.2 million and at no point did they flinch.”
The people of Portsmouth not just rallied around art, but rallied around art as a way to unify and heal their community.
“If I never do another public art project, this one has placed it where it’s supposed to be in terms of how it came about, the fundraising, the commitment and the purpose that it’s serving in that community. It’s public art that people are embracing as part of their identity in the most positive way,” Jerome says.
On the day of the memorial’s dedication, “It was overwhelming. There were at least 500 people crowded on that city block and the emotional level was just palpable,” he says.
With this response, Jerome felt Blank Page Poetry could extend the impact of the memorial by allowing local poets to lend words to the story of both the slaves and the modern-day community’s experience.
While Blank Page Poetry has been presented five times in Savannah, this time Jerome realized, “Blank Page Poetry is growing up, so it’s going to need to be funded.”
After gathering six community partners, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation stepped up to raise the money.
“Up until recently I would say, ‘Wow, the people of Portsmouth are so fantastic!’ and then it dawned on me, that’s the norm. That’s fantastic when I compare it to Savannah.”
“They are fantastic in that, like a lot of people, they see the value in cultural expression being an integral part of a community,” Jerome says.
That value is needed here. With the types of issues Savannah faces, a public work we can all identify with would go a long way.
“Portsmouth had never commissioned public art like this. That’s what you hear a lot in Savannah,” Jerome says.
“A community that’s never done this before was willing to do what’s necessary, learn what’s necessary, be open to what it would take to make this happen as opposed to keeping those doors closed.”
Sadly, Savannah is a city of closed doors.
This is partially why just days after returning from Portsmouth, I will be saying farewell to Savannah for good.
A friend said to me upon hearing of my move, “You know that saying ‘If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere?’ Well, I’ve lived in New York and now in Savannah. The saying should be, ‘If you can make it in Savannah, you can make it anywhere.’”
Jerome points out that in New York the pressure is the competition—other people knocking at all the same doors.
Here, the fight is against Savannah itself, both the municipality and the predominant mindset.
I’ve given Savannah my best, but ultimately there is more opportunity elsewhere—opportunity to better myself financially, professionally and personally.
I’m not giving up on Savannah. I still believe there is something magic here.
Jerome, like me, believes the way to change is creating a “critical mass,” the kind of mass that can bulldoze down those ever-shutting doors.
So in parting, a bit of tough love—Savannah, I love you, but get your shit together, and do so by coming together.
What can be accomplished by rallying around art and culture is immense—we can find our humanity together.
In a city with such deep divides, I can’t imagine a better antidote.
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