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Winston-Salem native keeps Black history alive through performance

contrib-lifestyle-spirit-harriet-tubman-performance-preview
Photo Courtesy of Diane McKinzie.

Diane Faison, a Winston-Salem native, has held many titles throughout her life: teacher, visual artist, speaker and writer.

On Sunday, she embraced her title as an actress by performing “The Spirit of Harriet Tubman” at the Carrboro Century Center, which detailed the life of the abolitionist who led approximately 70 enslaved people to freedom through the Underground Railroad.

She began performing the one-woman show in 1988, when she was a middle school art and drama teacher in Farmville, Va.

Faison, who taught for more than 30 years, described her teaching style as outside the box and said she focused on bringing written history to life.

When her school asked her to develop a project for Black History Month, she said she wanted to go beyond making her students write a report they would forget.

Instead, she found a book on Tubman and spent the weekend reading it and preparing to act as the historical figure.

“Monday morning, I met my students at the door as Harriet Tubman, and that's when I first did a very short skit being Harriet Tubman in the classroom,” she said.

Other teachers in the school asked Faison to perform for their students, and, through word of mouth, her performances expanded to nearby colleges and retirement communities.

Today, Faison continues to perform in schools across Forsyth and Guilford County, primarily through grants from the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.

Despite acting as Tubman for years, Faison’s performance has no written script.

She said she does this to continue the African American tradition of oral storytelling and so she can adjust her performance for her audience.

“Every year, I continually read about Harriet Tubman because every single year there's some thread of information that I find out that wasn't known before, and they are still researching her life and her history, and I add it to whatever I'm going to do in my performance,” she said.

Through her performances, Faison said she aims to inform younger generations of the privileges they have today, especially regarding civil rights.

“I never went to school with white children,” she said. “That's something that everybody takes for granted now.”

During her teenage years, Faison was involved in civil rights protests through the St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem. At the time, the church relayed instructions from Martin Luther King Jr. on how to protest peacefully.

Faison, along with her mother and other members of her church, peacefully protested for desegregation in Winston-Salem establishments like K&W Cafeteria.

She said she didn't remember feeling afraid while protesting, despite facing pushback.

“When you feel so strong about something, a lot of times, the fear is not there,” she said. “The determination takes over the fear.”

Faison said this aspect of her life made her feel more connected to Tubman.

“I felt like this woman. I did some of the things that [Tubman] fought for,” she said. “We weren’t slaves at this time, but still, our rights had to be obtained.”

Today, Faison said she considers herself a vessel for Tubman to speak through and share how she paved the way for future civil rights activists.

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Jan Jordan, a longtime friend of Faison, said she had the opportunity to see Faison’s performance for the first time recently in Durham.

“I kind of forgot that that was my girlfriend actually up there,” she said. “It was like witnessing Harriet Tubman herself.”

She also said that Faison's teaching experience has given her the ability to help people understand her perspective on any subject.

Brenda Ashley-Dean, another friend of Faison’s, said she became emotional each of the three times she saw the performance, and that Faison's interpretation of Tubman is much more personal than other works she's seen.

“In speaking about her personal feelings as Harriet, you know, it makes it so poignant,” she said. “You get angry, you get sad, you cry.”

Faison has been communicating with the Harriet Tubman Museum & Educational Center in Dorchester County, Md., and said she hopes to perform in Tubman’s home one day.

“Even if I don't do the performances, I would like to continue speaking about the progress of my people and where we need to go from here,” she said.

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@dthlifesyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com