Published May 10, 2023

Gullah-Geechee Gospel Singing

Handpainted symbols hang on the walls of Trinity Missionary Baptist Church in Roanoke, Virginia, where Bernadette “B.J.” Lark hosts CommUNITY ARTS Roanoke, an after-school program for children.

A black, green, and red bird looks backwards, holding an egg in its beak. This is the Ghanaian Adinkra symbol for the value of Sankofa, through which B.J. explains: “We honor our ancestors, but we also serve in love, because we are paying it forward to future generations.”

A curving heart symbolizing harmony among community, or “love in your song,” as B.J. says, sits near the bird, under a cross and a “Black Her-Story” poster. B.J. is imparting these values to her  apprentice, 18-year-old Alanjha Harris. Along with Gullah Geechee gospel songs, B.J. is teaching Alanjha how to serve community and uplift others.

B.J. grew up in Allendale County, South Carolina, right on the Georgia border. She was raised in the church, by a pastor father and a missionary mother, work they continue today. Her family are Gullah Geechee, descendants of enslaved West Africans who maintained the languages, music, beliefs, and foodways of their homelands, blending them with European and American influences into a creole culture unique to the Sea Islands from North Carolina to Florida.

Alanjha met B.J. around the age of four. She remembers being inspired by B.J.’s singing in church, mimicking the songs she heard in fellowship with her mother and grandmother, the kind of songs that stir you deep in your soul.

Bernadette “BJ” Lark, right, is mentoring Alanjha Harris in the Gullah Geechee gospel traditions. Photos made at the CommUNITY ARTS-reach campus in Roanoke on 3/17/23. Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities

“You hear the tempo being set without a drum, the humming, the belting of song, the call and response. That is what we call soul stirring,” B.J. said. “No instruments. Just voices and people using their hands and feet. Really, really good culture, and I’m rooted in it, so I take it wherever I go.”

Gullah Geechee musical traditions have influenced major American cultural touchstones: gospel music, with its strong call-and-response elements, the syncopated rhythms of jazz, and some people say the campfire classic, “Kumbaya,” means “come by here” in the Gullah language.

“I’ve known B.J. for most of my life, and I always wanted to be a part of what she was doing,” said Alanjha, who is headed to Liberty University in the fall and is interested in continuing her music studies.

Last year Alanjha landed the role of Beth in B.J.’s nativity play, “Kuzaliwa” (“birth” in Swahili), which they performed at the Petersburg Public Library on December 17, 2022. The musical, inspired by Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity,” featured soloists, a chorus of singers, and dancers to tell the story of the birth of Jesus. The cast was widely inclusive—a value B.J. brings to everything she does—with seasoned singers and performers sharing the stage with teens and children.

B.J. feels called to serve her Roanoke community through the arts and makes a practice of looking around and seeing “who is missing.”

“There should never be a pocket in a community where you cannot come together in unity and burst out in song or grab paint brushes and begin to express yourself visually or through dance or spoken word,” she explains.

“It’s an honor to serve, because when people come to receive from you, that’s honorable,” she shares. “When people in community come together, they get the best of what you have in that gifted way.”

B.J. believes these powerful, shared moments of artistic expression have strengthened her community tremendously. She also credits it with helping Alanjha through the difficulties of young adulthood.

“I experienced Alanjha growing up, and going through some hurdles in the recent past,” B.J. says. Alanjha delayed enrolling in college in order to help her family through the repercussions of a random act of gun violence in 2021. (Her brother, who was shot by someone passing through their apartment complex parking lot, has recovered.)

Their apprenticeship is empowering these artists to carve out a refuge to focus on their singing. “I can tell you that art and soul-stirring music, and her being open to receive, have impacted her ability to rise above any circumstance,” B.J. says.

Alanjha appreciates the opportunity to learn about B.J.’s heritage, saying, “A lot of people could benefit from learning about different traditions and cultures—not just what you have in your own community.”

Celebrate the accomplishments of Bernadette “B.J.” Lark and Alanjha Harris and our other apprenticeship teams at the Library of Virginia on Friday, July 7 (more details) and the Taubman Museum of Art on Thursday, August 17 (more details).