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Janine Bell has a mission: to make sure Richmond embraces its African roots.

Personal History


Anyone who says downtown is dead hasn't walked down Broad Street at about noon on a Saturday, when a palpable energy pulsates though the open door of the Elegba Folklore Society. The energy rides a wave of syncopated African drumbeats and mingles with the joyous voice of Janine Bell, who leads a group of black women and children through a call-and-response chant as they fall into a dance circle in the center of the room.






Bell, with her dreadlocks hanging in ropes down past her waist, with a profusion of beaded bangles dangling from her wrist and with a serene smile fixed on her face, enters the middle of the circle and explodes. Passers-by stop at the door and crane their necks to watch as her arms cut through the air, her dreads flying in a million different directions and her feet staking out a place within the polyrhythmic beat. It is a physical and earthy and liberating dance, not so much graceful as it is soulful, a dance that is thrilling to behold and that looks to be every bit as difficult to do as a prima ballerina dancing en pointe.

The women in the circle are caught in the moment, each doing her own private shuffle, bobbing their heads like chickens, calling out spontaneously, clapping their hands to the drum's relentless beat.

Bell dances toward the two drummers who pound out the heartbeat of the Mandingue people of Western Africa on dununba, songba and kenkeni drums. A warm summer breeze blows in through the open door and bright sunshine streams in through the street-front windows. The drummers' playing becomes louder and faster as Bell approaches each of them, bends from the waist and touches the ground in front of where they play. As she praises the drummers, the dancers lose themselves in the moment. Many of them have never visited Africa, but if they ever do, they know this is what it might be like.

Boom-BOOM-boom-boom-BOOM-boom-BOOM! As the drummers' final rhythm settles into the air, the room is, for a moment, still and silent.

Then the phone starts ringing.

"Elegba Folklore Society," answers a volunteer.

Bell throws up her hands and laughs. "Back to reality," she says, "back to the real world."

eality for Bell is an endless string of sometimes15-hour days spent tending to the multifaceted programs of the Elegba Folklore Society, the not-for-profit organization she founded 11 years ago to promote the cultural arts and heritage of African and African-descended people. Among other things, the Elegba Folklore Society encompasses a professional dance and performance troupe, an exhibition space and cultural center at 101 E. Broad St., cultural history tours, and special events such as the annual Down Home Family Reunion and Capital City Kwanzaa Festival.

The organization does all of this with a full-time staff of one and a yearly budget of about $150,000 that comes from earned income from events and performances, individual gifts grants and some state funding. Bell is not only the organization's founding president and artistic director, but also serves as its development officer, marketing manager, dance instructor, receptionist, tour guide, chief promoter and cleaning person. In many ways, Bell is the Elegba Folklore Society.

This afternoon, Bell talks to a reporter, answers the telephone, greets visitors, sells a pair of earrings, answers questions from visitors about Elegba's current exhibition, "Wow! It's Black Barbie," and hands out flyers advertising the Down Home Family Reunion on Aug. 17-18. She has been working since 6 a.m. and won't go home until after the performance troupe's 7:30 p.m. rehearsal for an upcoming show at Dogwood Dell.

"Most organizations are the extended shadow of whoever the leader is," says Stacy Burrs, a member of Elegba's board of directors who runs the city's Office of Minority Business Enterprise as a deputy director of economic development. "You find that to a heightened degree with the Elegba Folklore Society."

While Bell is clearly the organization's greatest asset, Elegba now faces the challenge of moving beyond the shadow of its creator and into the mainstream. As one of the organizations involved in the proposed plan for the new downtown performing-arts complex, Elegba may someday share office space with Richmond's well-established arts organizations and have ready access to professional performance spaces for the first time. To do so, it must begin to start thinking about increasing its budget, building its staff and infrastructure, and educating the community about its offerings.

"It is very exciting, because from our point of view, we can have the kinds of facilities that we deserve, and these facilities will be in the company of other organizations who are professional artists," says Bell of the challenges ahead. "… It would help people to see the Elegba Folklore Society in a new light … I don't think it should be relegated to a sidebar for all its life — after all, the city's population is predominately African-American."

Elegba and groups like the Jazz Actors Theater and Richmond Jazz Society will be instrumental in reaching the ethnically diverse audience that will be necessary to support the ambitious performing arts complex.

"From the very beginning, inclusion was one of our top criteria for the facilities and the way those facilities were managed," says Brad Armstrong, director of the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, the group charged with raising the $70 million to $100 million needed to make the plan a reality. "We have agreed that it's not good enough to simply have some successful African-American performing arts programs … We have got to have an environment that feels comfortable to everybody. [Bell] represents an understanding of a culture that is important to many people who live here."

su-Elegba" is the name of an Orisa, or deity, in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria and Benin, West Africa. Elegba is the gatekeeper, the one who opens roads. "Elegba is a warrior god," says Bell, "the one who brings clarity out of confusion." Likewise, Bell uses the arts to help others make sense of the world.

Bell, 47, grew up in Greensboro, N.C, the only child of Ruth and Jasper Bell, both of them teachers and musicians. She attended a Baptist church and says her parents rarely, if ever, talked to her about her African heritage. Her childhood was filled with ballet, tap and clarinet lessons, and Bell was an accomplished majorette in her high school and college marching bands. She was also active in the Greensboro Youth Council and because of her involvement, was the town's first African-American to be named "Youth of the Year." She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she majored in psychology, then went on to earn a graduate degree in urban planning.

After graduating, Bell moved to Washington, where she worked as an urban planner for the federal government and for a private consulting firm. She married and in the early '80s, moved to Petersburg when her husband took a job at Virginia State University.

Bell began traveling to Richmond for cultural and social events, and on one of these trips, she saw the Ezibu Muntu African dancers perform at a Kwanzaa festival at VCU. Suddenly, all of the questions she was asking herself started making sense.

"Here I was, an adult, just seeing African dance for the first time," she says, smiling at the memory. "I thought it was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen. I guess it was kind of an epiphany."

Ezibu Muntu invited her to attend one of its rehearsals, and Bell, who had been dancing since she was 7 years old, realized she had a lot to learn. "It was really difficult at first learning African dance because I had to move all the body parts my mother told me not to," she says. "It was so liberating." Liberating not only to free her body, but also to finally find what she had been looking for: her roots. It was as if Elegba was standing right there, pointing the way.

Bell, who had by then divorced and moved to Richmond with her infant daughter, Imani, quit her job as an urban planner with the Department of Housing and Community Development and began dancing with Ezibu Muntu. She eventually became the group's general manager and also worked as the gallery manager at the Last Stop Gallery in Shockoe Bottom, a gallery that featured primarily African-American art.

It was a radical change in lifestyle for Bell. She began to embrace her African heritage wholeheartedly, growing her hair and wearing dreadlocks, which after 16 years, now fall below her waist and are her signature. She started dressing with an ethnic flair. She became "Sister Janine."

"There were things that had been a part of my life to that point that all became questions," she says quietly and thoughtfully when asked what caused her to leave her secure government job and embrace this new life. "I chose to explore those questions and allow new answers to come. … Some of the questions revolved around philosophy, religion, definitions of beauty, Western thought versus African-centered thought."

She declines to elaborate further, to say what those questions were, or what precipitated them. One gets the sense that the questions bring back painful memories. "It was a personal experience," she says, leaving it at that.

n 1989, Bell left Ezibu Muntu and Last Stop because, she says, "I was tired of being a starving artist." She took what she had learned about media relations from working with the two and started her own public-relations and promotions business. That business eventually evolved into the Elegba Folklore Society.

Capital City Promotions, the event-planning arm of her business, produced the first Capital City Kwanzaa Festival in 1990, which is now the largest event of its kind in the state. The next year, Bell began showing African art in a space beneath her office in Linden Row. When people in the community started asking her to offer African dance classes for children, she did that, too. And she also started a performance troupe for adults.

Pretty soon, the Museum of the Confederacy approached Bell about creating an interpretive and community outreach program to complement its groundbreaking exhibition on slavery, "Before Freedom Came." Bell developed the Down Home Family Reunion, a celebration of African-American folk life that has become a two-day annual festival that last year attracted 25,000 people.

She's also worked with the Virginia Historical Society to develop programs on Africans' migration to America and Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. "Janine is the individual people think about when they think about African and African-American programs," says Bill Obrochta, head of educational services at the Virginia Historical Society.

Without trying, Bell had created a full-service cultural arts organization. "I didn't know how it would evolve, I didn't have a five- or 10-year plan," she says. "There just seemed to be gaps that needed to be filled and work I thought I could do to fill those gaps."

Bell, who is deeply spiritual, believes she has found her calling through the Elegba Folklore Society. "I feel I have a duty to pave and hopefully make the way clearer for those who will follow," she says. "In our mission statement here at the Society we talk about instilling a cultural foundation. Because if you know more about what you came from, you know where you're going."

In the mid-'90s, Bell and her daughter, Imani, who is now one of Elegba's lead dancers, traveled to West Africa to immerse themselves in the culture, and to learn about African dance firsthand. "It was very much an affirmation for me because I didn't go there as a tourist," says Bell, "I went there as an African born in America returning home.

She believes a divine force brought her to Richmond, at one time the site of the county's second-largest slave market and a place with a long and rich African heritage. And she's on a mission to make sure people — not just African-Americans — understand this heritage.

"I find too frequently that yuppies and trendy West Enders somehow observe what we do but don't come," she says. "It is just really a factor of how we have been socialized. We just stay in our own little ruts that we've created. While the things we do here are expressions of African and African-American heritage, they are available for everyone to partake in. I wish people would just relax and enjoy it."

t's 9:30 on a cool summer morning and a group of black children gathers in the dappled shade on the banks of the James River at the site of the old Manchester Docks, where Africans to be sold into slavery landed between 1680 and 1780. It is the starting point for Elegba's "In the Beginning … Virginia" tour that interprets unmarked sites in Richmond's history.

"Sister Janine" stands before the group, dressed in a colorful West African lappa, and shakes a shekere, or bead-covered gourd. Drummer Howard Tyree begins to pound out a rhythm as a train chugs along across the river. Sister Janine adds her voice to the percussion with a call-and-response chant:

Oba la ese

Oba la ese


Oba la ese

The children, a group from the Peter Paul Center in Church Hill, are captivated.

"What do you know about the experience of slavery in America?" Bell asks. "About the experience of Africans in America? Because the story didn't start as slaves. It starts with Africans who became enslaved. There's a difference."

As the drum beats slowly and quietly, Bell shares Richmond's history of slave trade with the children. "Africans washed up right here on this shore," she says, pointing to the James. "The concealed cargo disembarked only at night to the crack of the whip. … They had shackles around their necks, with chains connecting their necks; shackles around their ankles with chains connecting their ankles; shackles around their arms, with chains connecting their arms. And children like you may have been connected with rope."

She asks the children to imagine what it looked like, what it smelled like, and what it would feel like to arrive from Africa to this strange place, in the dark, in the middle of winter. "We are the children of those who chose to survive," she says, then repeats the phrase slowly.

Bell kneels on the riverbank and fills a small gourd with water. The drum beats slowly. "To honor our ancestors, we pour a libation," she says as she calls forth the spirit of her ancestors and invites the children to call out names: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Maggie Lena Walker, George Washington Carver, are honored.

After a moment of silence, Bell stands, and invites the group to walk with her along the river, along the same path Africans traveled before being sold at auction. "Picture yourself here in 1765 as we walk in the footsteps of our ancestors. You're doing this not just because. You're doing it for a cause."

After visiting the Manchester Docks, the group stops at 24th and Grace streets, the former site of the home of Elizabeth Van Lew, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad and the birthplace of Maggie Walker; Lumpkins Jail; the old Henrico County Courthouse; former hotel sites where slave auctions took place; and other unmarked sites important in the history of African-Americans in Richmond.

"Too often Africans start their history in submission and bondage, and that's no good," says Bell, following the tour. "So it's important to start the story in a more proper place.

"Every other cultural group in America chose to come to America except African-descended people. As a part of the abusive immigration we experienced, there was a stripping away of our cultural identity. …We live the legacy of it in so many ways. A lot of people are living life in a debilitated way because that cultural foundation is not there. … God has given me the ability to speak to it in the ways that we're doing here. And, hopefully, in some small way, I'm doing my part."

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