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the mermaid storm
A LOWCOUNTRY LEGEND
‘The Mermaid Storm’ is a collaboration between painter Julyan Davis and poet Glenis Redmond, begun when Davis was artist-in-residence at the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, South Carolina (2018).
The collaboration depict a narrative: that of the Cymbee, the Kongo Water spirit who crosses the Middle Passage, bearing witness to summoning events in the history of American slavery. The story depicts her capture, and Charleston’s subsequent Mermaid Riot. It culminates in the Cymbee’s place in the South today. The most recent product of this joint venture has been the creation of a vinyl record of Glenis’s poetry, recorded, produced and pressed at Asheville’s own Citizen Vinyl.
The project owes its inspiration to several historical studies on Afro-Christian Syncreticism and its reflection in folk and religious art, but primarily to Ras Michael Brown’s excellent ‘African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry’ (Cambridge University Press 2012).
‘Simbi there. Cymbee here. Name her.
People of the Congo know her well.
Simbi’s spirit must be honored and fed
With each drink, food, dance and treasure.
Without ceasing, she finds reasons to mother.
Wrap her long arms around her people
Across either side of the deep Atlantic.’
Glenis Redmond (poem for Station X)
If the African slave could successfully smuggle one thing across the Middle Passage, it was their oldest faith. This heritage had survived Portuguese colonialism and would flourish in the Carolina Lowcountry, remnants of it enriching the hush harbors and lasting to this day. The Simbi, or water spirit, was not left behind.
As with so much in the New World, one culture would knot itself around another. The Kongo Simbi meshed with the white man’s mermaid. The resulting Cymbee was no variant of the decorative creature of Western Art, however, but remained an elemental force, and one to be feared and left alone at all costs. Provoke her wrath and the skies would darken. If captured, the water spirit of the Lowcountry had the power to draw hurricanes out of the Cape Verde waters, beckoning them to her rescue. The Simbi (or Carolina Cymbee) was a manifestation of outrage, existing to right the world’s balance through catastrophe.
‘The Mermaid Storm’ is an emancipation myth, but it also raises questions about the ways Christianity (whether Portuguese Catholicism in the Congo, or American Protestantism in the South) has disconnected mankind from nature.
Glenis Redmond travels the world as a Road Poet. She divides her time between two posts: as the Poet-in-Residence at The Peace Center for the Performing Arts in Greenville, SC, and at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ.
She has served as the Mentor Poet for the National Student Poets Program. In both 2014- 2016 she prepared student poets to read at the Library of Congress, the Department of Education and for the First Lady, Michelle Obama at The White House. She traveled to Muscat, Oman to present poetry workshops and readings for Black History Month sponsored by the State Department.
Glenis is a Cave Canem Fellow and a North Carolina Literary Fellowship Recipient and a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist. She helped create the first Writer-in-Residence at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock, NC.