Founder of bay area black history pageant wins national award
By CHRISTINA JEWETT
© St. Petersburg Times,
ST. PETERSBURG -- Peggy Peterman carries on the West African tradition of the griot, one who bears the stories of generations -- a master of music and metaphor.
She has sent forth 600 other griots into the community. They are 10- to 21-year-old Tampa Bay area youths who came to understand their ancestors by performing in the annual black history pageants that Peterman founded 23 years ago.
For her role as writer and director of the pageants, Peterman was honored Tuesday night in Los Angeles with a Human and Civil Rights Award from the National Education Association.
The awards have been distributed for 30 years, and 11 people will be honored this year.
"Their work and contributions make life richer for all of us," NEA President Bob Chase said in a prepared statement. Peterman will receive the Carter G. Woodson award for her creativity in furthering understanding of African-American heritage.
Peterman, who wrote feature articles and editorials for the St. Petersburg Times for 31 years, said she noticed that outlets for African-American talent slipped away as desegregation swept through St. Petersburg high schools.
"Schools were having a hard time bringing African-American kids into extracurricular activities," said Peterman, 64. "They could play football and run track, but they were told, "We can't have a black Romeo, we can't have a black Juliet.' "
The first pageant was a hodgepodge of African-American poetry and music performed by 15 for an audience of 15 at Bethel Community Baptist Church. The crowd grew to 50 a year later and continued to swell, forcing the pageant to larger venues.
The productions began tracing themes such as African-American spirituality, family life and military involvement. Those who attended the pageants applauded local medical professionals and military officials who occupied seats of honor during pageants.
Peterman pored over history books to gather accounts absent from school texts. She weaved them into a tapestry of drama, dance and music. She was strict to ensure that everyone memorized their lines and nailed their cues, but their understanding of the material was most essential. They had to grasp the richness of the trials and victories of their heritage.
"All we wanted them to get from this is that people suffered too much for you to do destructive things to yourself and others," Peterman said.
All Peterman had to utter was "DDOA" to silence a room of raucous performers. The letters stand for "don't disrespect our ancestors," her reminder of their birthright to be outstanding.
"You know she means business, and it's all out of love," said Andrew Sheran, a graduate student who participated in pageants for 10 years. "She means, "I love you, but you need to recognize that this is my thing, for the benefit of the community and the glory of God.' "
The performers did listen, and the plays continued to attract more people. During one show, 150 were turned away from the 1,900-seat Mahaffey Theater.
Peterman included lessons about poise and etiquette in the six-month preparation for the pageants. She invited local role models to speak to participants.
Natalie Tindall, a University of South Florida graduate student, said the pageants taught her to overcome challenges with poise. They helped her seek out the untold stories in history, examining the past through the eyes of thosewho seldom have a voice.
Tindall, 23, spoke of her mission as a griot: "Everyone has some sort of strand in the fabric of life. It's the greatest thing you have, and you have to go out on a limb and do things a little differently, a little unconventional -- to tell people -- give them a message, give them some hope."
To Sheran, 26, the pageants were an opportunity to become grounded in the past while receiving a boost to continue the progress of his predecessors.
"Mrs. Peterman gave me a platform when no one else would," he said. "She gave me the freedom to grow and develop into the person that I am now."
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