Chuck Davis’ challenge to us: There’s more to learn

By Carl W. Kenney II

Guest columnist

In this Dec, 22, 2010, photo, Chuck Davis, the founder and artistic director of the African American Dance Ensemble gestures in Durham N.C. Davis died Sunday, May 14, 2017, at his Durham home. He was 80.
In this Dec, 22, 2010, photo, Chuck Davis, the founder and artistic director of the African American Dance Ensemble gestures in Durham N.C. Davis died Sunday, May 14, 2017, at his Durham home. He was 80. News & Observer file photo

The procession of the drummers and dancers conjured the spirit. That’s what black people call the summoning of collective emotions as a reminder of a shared journey.

The body of “Baba Chuck” Davis resting in a casket didn’t feel real. It was a funeral with music, words from luminaries, prayers, scriptures and a eulogy, but it was hard to embrace death. The life of Davis filled the room in a way that celebrated his place among the ancestors.

It was the perfect blending of more than a thousand tongues influenced by Davis’ work. He brought them to America after traveling to Africa to learn more about the culture of people captured from their homeland. While there, he learned the language of the drum. Davis also learned the unspoken mesmerizing language of dance.

On Imani, the last day of Kwanzaa, residents of Durham witnessed the pouring of libations to honor the ancestors. The event, organized by Davis, was the perfect beginning to another year with reflections of enduring faith. He taught lessons involving African spirituality – our connection with the earth, our responsibility in teaching youth, the wisdom of the elders and the significance of unity.

The weight of his contribution was more than the sanctuary at the Union Baptist Church could hold. His work and charisma transcended the faith claims of one religion. Davis taught us to love beyond variation in scripture. Davis gave us a new language to communicate what it means to be created in the image of God.

Davis taught black people how to be black. He gave meaning to the African in African-American while modeling black pride.

He changed the way black people dress by exchanging suits and ties for grand boubous, dashikis and Senegalese kaftans. Black women embraced African head ties and styles like the kanga. Men and women embraced hairstyles that reflected their African roots.

It felt like Davis was speaking from somewhere above his casket. I heard his challenge to all of us – there’s more to learn. There’s more that we must teach. It’s about the dance, but it’s more about the culture of the people of the African diaspora.

My personal role is in advancing teaching involving how black liberation theology emerged with the blending of West African religion and Christianity. Dante James and I are producing an upcoming film called “God of the Oppressed” to offer insight involving the evolving roles of the black church.

There are so many lessons. There is so much left to be explored.

Drummers communicated the messages of the ancestors. Then I cried. I cried because there is massive work left undone. Then I prayed. I prayed because we need the support of those speaking to us on the other side of the human experience.

The celebration continued outside the church with a New Orleans-style funeral march. Those jazz funerals combine practices from Yoruba, a West African religion, with black religious practice. In that moment, I was reminded of Voudoo’s idea of celebrating after death in order to please the spirits who protect the dead.

More than anything, it was the dance that brought us together. After the funeral, people gathered at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship to celebrate with food, music and dance. For over an hour, men, women and children evoked memories of Davis with movements he taught. The intensity of the drumming increased as the spirit of Baba Chuck, once again, reminded us of his numerous lessons.

He taught about the presence of the ancestors. Now he’s among them, encouraging us to never forget.

Carl W. Kenney II is co-executive producer of “God of the Oppressed,” an upcoming documentary that explores black liberation theology, and former executive director of the African American Dance Ensemble.