“When society tells you your story doesn’t belong, that’s when you realize you have a story to tell.”
Podcast explores black experience with Fauquier County roots
National Public Radio's WAMU is promoting five new podcasts produced by broadcast novices. One of these is “Perpetual Blackness,” which tells the story of how one world traveler discovered “home” in Fauquier County.
Nichelle Calhoun, 38, was born in Washington, D.C. and was living in Miami, Florida. Master’s degree work in Latin American and Caribbean studies allowed her to travel to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. She was deep into research on the African diaspora (how Africans spread out because of the slave trade). Through it all, she was looking for a connection, she was looking for “home.”
Calhoun published a book in 2017 titled, “Songs of Yemaya,”about a black goddess. She said, “I put together 24 black women’s voices from around the world.”
“I had explored the black experience all over the world. I was surrounded by friends who were proactive in explaining the black experience,” she said. “But I didn’t see myself reflected in history. I had a lack of clarity about how the black experience informed American culture.”
As she prepared to write a second book, something changed her focus.
“I saw a photo on my mother’s dresser. She had retrieved it from my grandmother’s nursing home,” she said.
The 1921 photo was of her grandmother’s parents, who were from the Waterloo section of Fauquier (near Orlean). “It was something I’d never see before. It showed me ‘home.’ “
In a quest to learn more, Calhoun called the Fauquier County Historical Society and was directed to the Afro-American Historical Association in The Plains.
“I called there and a sing-song voice answered and asked me what my family line was. I told her that my grandmother used to say, ‘my mother was a Bailey,’ and that I am also part of the Smoot and Lawson lines.”
Calhoun was speaking with AAHA collections manager Norma Logan.
“Norma said, ‘Lawson, that’s my line.’ She started texting me pictures. I’m sitting in Miami, looking at my phone, seeing photos of my second great-grandmother.”
Logan confirmed: “My great-grandmother, Mary Frances Lawson, is her great-great grandmother.”
After beginning genealogical research through the AAHA, Calhoun thought she might write her second book on her ancestors.
“I was very curious about the black women who came before me. What did their lives look like? I wanted to draw a bigger picture from those individual lives. I wanted to do something through AAHA and was going to look for grants to support the project.
“When I called Karen [White, AAHA’s executive director and co-founder], I felt like I was calling Beyoncé. What she and the others at AAHA have created, it’s amazing. Karen was totally supportive. I met with Karen, met with the board. I wanted to be a part of this ship,” she said.
In the fall of 2017, Calhoun moved to Maryland, where she teaches English language learners at Mt. Hebron High School in Ellicott City. She continued her genealogical research from the closer vantage point. She said, “I was talking to my friends about the book idea and they said, ‘That’s a podcast.’”
Calhoun was listening to WAMU last July 4 when she heard about its “Pod Shop.”
“They were advertising for D.C.-area residents to apply for a program that would train podcasters and produce a pilot episode. The application was due July 5,” she said.
Calhoun spent seven hours on the application. A week later, she was called for an interview. Five podcasters were chosen from 540 applicants.
AAHA received a grant from the PATH Foundation for $65,765 to fund the podcast as well as an oral history project called “Listen the Community Speaks.”
About $42,800 is designated for the podcast. Christy Connelly, president and CEO of PATH, said, “Every community can benefit as history is told through the eyes of its earliest residents. This in-depth understanding of the local history of our rural African American community will encourage education and open dialogue, important aspects for a vibrant community.”
At the twice-a-week Pod Shop training sessions, Calhoun learned about audio engineering, how to chose equipment and how to interview. She said, “I am comfortable with writing, but the audio part was something new. It was like a graduate seminar. We all would bring in our audio interviews and critique one another’s work.”
Calhoun’s boyfriend, who is from the island of Grenada in the West Indies, sparked the idea for the podcast’s name. Calhoun said, “He told me that I’m the most pro-black person he knows. He said, ‘My life with you is perpetual blackness.’ “
Calhoun is planning seven initial episodes of “Perpetual Blackness.”
“I have collected so much beautiful tape from black people in the D.C. area, telling their stories. I would sit down next to them and open a conversation. Never did they disappoint,” she said.
The podcast blends Calhoun’s family history in Fauquier with the histories of other residents of the D.C.-metro area. It is filled with different accents from all over the world. Some voices are young, some more weathered.
“I didn’t just want to tell my family story, I wanted to find a cross-section across time and space. I’m just a curator,” she said.
“We all carry these stories, but people don’t feel comfortable sharing them. When you get them in the family room talking, they all come up. My family has lived in this area for more than 200 years, but I never heard these stories,” she added. “When society tells you your story doesn’t belong, that’s when you realize you have a story to tell.”
“Perpetual Blackness” is a podcast that explores black history through the experience and ancestry of Nichelle Calhoun, whose family resided in Fauquier County for two centuries.
Listen at: https://radiopublic.com/the-pod-shop-8X49de/ep/s1!4607a or through iTunes.
PATH Foundation Grant
The Afro-American Historical Association received a grant from the PATH Foundation for $65,765 to fund a “Perpetual Blackness” podcast as well as the oral history project “Listen the Community Speaks.” About $23,000 is designated for the oral histories.
Christy Connelly, president and CEO of PATH, said, “Every community can benefit as history is told through the eyes of its earliest residents. This in-depth understanding of the local history of our rural African American community will encourage education and open dialogue, important aspects for a vibrant community.”
As part of the PATH grant, AAHA was also able to have oral histories from 2001-2002 transferred from VHS to digital files, “so they will be available for folks to listen to for years to come,” said AAHA Executive Director Karen Hughes.