African diaspora’s sights and sounds

Thomas Morton remembers growing up in West Philly -- “the real West Philly,” around 58th Street -- and following around the annual Elks parade. “They played these drums, and I’d be out on the street till I got lost,” said Morton , 53, a Ph.D. candidate in the linguistics department, who works as a supervisor of a field office of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

Morton at the University of Pennsylvania Museum exhibit of his photos of the Odunde festival.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Drums were also part of what attracted to him to Odunde, the African-inspired festival that has taken place every year on South Street, east of the South Street bridge, since 1975. Morton, an avid photographer, has been chronicling the festival since 1976. A traveling exhibition of his photographs, “Odunde African American Festival: Twenty Years on South Street,” is presently on view at the University of Pennsylvania Museum through January 16, 2000.

“Like some people have to smoke, some people have to drink, when I’m in that kind of environment, I have to take photographs,” Morton said of Odunde.

Besides loving the music, Morton liked that Odunde brought together all kinds of different people: blacks, whites, Latinos, Muslims, Christians, believers in voodoo. After having spent several years in the Caribbean with the Peace Corps -- two years in Panama and two years in the Dominican Republic -- Morton said he began to realize that the ideas of race and ethnicity were culturally based.

“That’s a concept you’re not aware of until you’re in a culture outside your own,” he said. “Coming back here, people who were African American had a particular cultural orientation, but Odunde broke all of those barriers down.”

Morton’s doctoral dissertation, like much of his photographic work, chronicles the African diaspora. It centers on the Palenque of San Basilio, Colombia, a group of people who are descendants of runaway slaves. His dissertation, for which he won a National Science Foundation grant, will be a sociolinguistic study of the creole language that the Palenque speak, which is Spanish-based but heavily influenced by West Africa.

The journey to his dissertational project was a long one, but with the benefit of hindsight seems fated. While in the Peace Corps in the early ’70s, Morton visited the tourist town of Cartagena, Colombia, during a break. “It was the largest entry point for enslaved Africans in Spanish-speaking America,” Morton said. It turned out that many runaway slaves from Cartagena, who were largely of Bantu decent, fled to San Basilio. At the time, though, all Morton knew was that he loved the African-influenced music and the dynamic mix of cultures in Cartagena. “I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to return.”

As a master’s student and teaching assistant in Temple’s department of Spanish and Portuguese, Morton seized the opportunity Temple offered to teach in Cartagena. Then, he said, when he entered his Penn doctoral program, “I wanted to study the African influence on Caribbean Spanish. It turned out that the area around Cartagena was important.” Meanwhile, his academic and photographic worlds, usually kept separate, collided. Not only is Morton collecting tape-recordings of Palenque speech but also photographic representations of the culture as well.

Morton, who earned a B.F.A. from Temple’s Tyler School in 1968 and hopes to complete his dissertation next year, said, “It’s taken a long time to realize these dreams, but they’ve been in my mind for years.”

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Originally published on September 30, 1999