'Speak to Us Now' is painted on an old piece of tin that I found in Beaufort, South Carolina. As you view this piece and walk around the painting, the eyes and face of the little girl, positioned in the middle of the painting, follows you. It is as if she is waiting for someone to speak to her. Conch shells are known to have an array of spiritual qualities such as regeneration or rebirth. They were one of the items placed on the enslaved african graves. This practice has been traced back to at least the BaKongo belief that the sea shell encloses the soul's immortal presence. One anthropologist in the early 1890s remarked that "nearly every grave has bordering or thrown upon it a few bleached sea-shells of a dozen different kinds." There is a gullah saying that explains how the sea brought the Africans to this world and how it would take them back to Africa in the afterlife. The enslaved Africans passionately held on to the hope of being free in this life or in the afterlife.
I then came upon an article in the Island Packet about Pat Conroy. Pat Conroy was a New York Times bestselling American author who wrote several acclaimed novels and memoirs. Two of his novels, The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, were made into Oscar-nominated films. I have always enjoyed The Water Is Wide a 1972 memoir by Pat Conroy based on his work as a teacher on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, which is called Yamacraw Island in the book. The book is sometimes identified as nonfiction and other times identified as a novel. Yamacraw is a poor island lacking bridges and having little infrastructure. The book details Conroy's efforts to communicate with the islanders, who are nearly all directly descended from slaves and who have had little contact with the mainland or its people. He struggles to find ways to reach his students, ages 10 to 13, some of whom are illiterate or innumerate, and all of whom know little of the world beyond Yamacraw. Conroy (called "Conrack" by most of the students) does battle with the principal, Mrs. Brown, over his unconventional teaching methods and with the administrators of the school district, whom he accuses of ignoring the problems at the Yamacraw school.
Conroy asked to be buried in a Gullah cemetery, the St. Helena Memorial Garden on Ernest Road, near the Penn Center on St. Helena Island. It is owned by the nearby Brick Baptist Church, its antebellum red bricks a pillar in African American history.
I believe in the afterlife he is now able to do what he so freely desired to back in 1970; to teach and be a protector of the children of Penn School. Conroy now rests beside Agnes Sherman, a quiet civil rights giant who in 1968, along with Frieda Mitchell, was the first black elected to the Beaufort County Board of Education after Reconstruction.
Nearby rests Leroy E. Browne Sr., South Carolina’s first black elected official after Reconstruction. He joined the Beaufort County Council in 1960, five years before the Voting Rights Act.
The Island Packet article also stated his wife Cassandra as saying her husband visited graveyards and went to the graves of writers, including Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Dickey. She does not know how he selected his own burial site, but knows he thought it through and that she’s grateful the church allowed it. “I’m not sure how Pat found that and decided that’s where he wanted to end up,” Jones said. “It’s a beautiful spot. It’s a good place if people want to go out and make the pilgrimage. I think it is going to be good for that.”
The little girls in my painting 'Speak to Us Now' are praying and believing they should experience true freedom while they are yet still alive. So they are listening for a word from God. They are diligently seeking for someone to teach them how to experience heaven on earth. Pat Conroy, I believe as we listen to the whispers and the sound of the ocean in the lowcountry conch shells, your voice is one that will truly be heard.