Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"L'il Dan, the Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story" by Romare Bearden

Charlotte is the birthplace of the multi-media artist Romare Bearden. He was born here in 1911, and since September 2nd, which was his birthday, the city has been celebrating his life and works. Sue and I have been to some of the exhibits, one at the Mint Museum, the other one at Davidson College. But, while looking through this morning’s paper, I see that we have missed one. It is being displayed at Charlotte's "ImaginOn".

Bearden, as well as being an artist, was a writer, and he wrote some children's books. Some were never published until after his death. "L'il Dan, the Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story" is one of these. To understand the story you will need to know a little bit of history first.

When the slaves were first brought over from Africa, they had a language which they played on drums. When they arrived in the New World, their new masters quickly realized the potential danger in the slaves having these drums as a means of communication. So, they were banned. This edict was ensured by the South Carolina Slave Code in 1740, which banned the "using and keeping of drums, which may call together, or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes." And over time the rhythms faded from memory, until they were finally lost.

Bearden's story takes place during the Civil War. L'il Dan is a slave boy on a cotton plantation who encounters an old drum. Mr. Ned, a character in the story explains to him that the drum comes from far away in Africa. He also teaches him the purpose of the drum - to communicate. Dan is so taken with this knowledge that he constructs his own drum from a hollow log and pigskin. When the plantation is liberated, L'il Dan follows a group of soldiers into combat, becoming their mascot.

While on patrol one day, the group is attacked by an overwhelming force of Confederate soldiers. Dan retreats to the top of a nearby tree with only his drum. He wants to help his friends, but what can he do?

Remembering Mr. Ned and his tales about Africa, L'il Dan begins to strike the drum with his hands, attempting to imitate the sound of cannon fire in an effort to scare the Confederate troops away. No luck, the sound is wrong. Thinking quickly, he takes two sticks, branches from the tree, and begins to hit the drum just right, evoking the sound of the dreaded "five pounder" cannon. The Confederate soldiers retreat and L'il Dan becomes the hero of the day.

For me, the best part of this story is the combination of the African drum being used in conjunction with the European style of beating a drum with a stick, rather than with one's hands. The combination of the two cultural methods underscores our reliance on one another, as people, in the face of the dangers that confront us all.

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