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Clemmons Family Farm puts Black Vermonters' wellbeing at the center during 'Bliss Eclipse'

People wear eclipse glasses and look up, smiling, toward the sky
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
From left, Robin Anthony Kouyate, Lydia Clemmons and A'ja Hall all watch the end of the total solar eclipse during Clemmons Family Farm's "Bliss Eclipse" event.

A couple hours before the total solar eclipse on Monday, just as the sun arced into the western sky in Charlotte, several dozen visitors arrived at Clemmons Family Farm.

They wandered inside a whitewashed building which once housed a blacksmith shop, then an African art mail-order import business. And now, for a brief time, it’s home to a new art exhibit, titled “Beneath Our Skin.”

The exhibit features poetry, a song, visual art and other storytelling from Black Vermonters and white health care providers, describing their emotions during the early rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.

"I'm hoping that it'll show the wide range of what was felt, so that people can understand that, you know, it wasn't just, 'Oh, Black Vermonters felt this one way.' It was — 'We felt everything,'" said Yanna Marie Orcel, the farm’s Wellness Arts Adviser. She curated this exhibit, which will open publicly in South Burlington and Brattleboro later this week.

A photo of a younger woman with light brown skin and her brown-black hair in long wavy kinky twists. She's smiling, leaning up against a wall with notecards that read COVID-19 vaccination reflection card with quotes in red ink.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
Yanna Marie Orcel, who poses for a portrait here, is the Clemmons Family Farm wellness arts adviser. She curated the "Beneath Our Skin" art exhibit that displays storytelling from Black Vermonters and white health care providers describing their emotions during the early rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. From that storytelling, Orcel created this wall of "COVID-19 Vaccination Reflection Cards," which express everything from fear to gratitude.

Orcel pointed out an image on one wall that looked, in the abstract, like the shape of a person's head. Inside this head shape were many words and phrases in different colors and sizes, floating around like thoughts. In their center was a black, spiky object — similar to how COVID-19 appears under a microscope.

"This is the word cloud created," she said. "So these are the words that came up the most in the different stories. You'll see: Freedom, Tuskegee, Choice."

As Orcel described the word cloud, Rev. Co'Relous Bryant, who recently became the senior pastor at the United Church of Lincoln, listened.

"Look how big 'Tuskegee' is," Bryant said.

"Yes," Orcel agreed. "That came up a lot."

A photo of a man with brown skin wearing a brimmed hat, a light blue suit and a scarf. He's looking at a framed type-written page on the wall.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
Rev. Co'Relous Bryant views the "Beneath Our Skin" exhibit at Clemmons Family Farm on Monday, April 8. He recently moved from New York City to Vermont to serve as the senior pastor at the United Church of Lincoln. And he said Black-centric spaces like the farm are a "godsend."

Bryant moved from New York City to Vermont last summer. And here, among so many white people, he said he notices a lack of cultural wisdom about things like the Tuskegee Experiment — when the federal government denied hundreds of Black men access to penicillin for decades in order to study the effect of syphilis on their bodies.

"Pretty well documented facts and cases that laid the foundation for certain communities to be skeptical of the medical advice coming from the government," he said.

But here, at an exhibit at one of the largest historic African American-owned farms in Vermont today, Bryant said he was feeling nourished by the stories, voices, language and imagery of Black people.

"Anything that's sort of Black-centric is kind of a refuge for me, and I'm seeking them out," he said. "Because I have come to realize how sustaining these moments are going to be, finding Black community, Black thought. And so yeah, this is a godsend — I'm a pastor, forgive me — but a godsend for sure."

A photo of a tree as seen through other tree branches against an oddly dimmed blue sky and orangey-yellow dry grass.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
The Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte, with some of its 138 acres seen here under the eerie light of a partial solar eclipse, is among the largest historic African American-owned farms in Vermont.

For 61 years, Jackson and Lydia Clemmons owned their farm in Charlotte. Then in 2023, a nonprofit led by their daughter, Dr. Lydia Clemmons, purchased the 138-acre Clemmons Family Farm.

Among the nonprofit’s stated intentions for this preserved land is to give Black artists an opportunity to thrive, and to do so in a loving, multicultural community.

And what that looks like in practice? Take the “Beneath Our Skin” exhibit. It showcases both art and data, according to curator Yanna Marie Orcel, in an effort to improve future vaccine uptake. It hopes to do this by illuminating the needs and perceptions of Black Vermonters, as well as the caregiving behaviors of their primarily white health care providers.

One of the steps toward a goal like this, said board of directors member Robin Anthony Kouyate, is to hold events that allow people to connect on an emotional level.

"Part of building community relations, social cohesion, you know — yes, we might want to talk and exchange, we also just want to feel and experience together," Kouyate said. "That’s where the Bliss Eclipse takes place."

"Bliss Eclipse" was the event name for everything that happened at Clemmons Family Farm on Monday — the exhibit opening, and of course a viewing of the total solar eclipse. As far as shared experiences go, Kouyate said the eclipse was a natural opportunity.

"We happen to be in that pathway, and to say, 'Hey, this is a moment we should not let pass,'" she said.

A photo of a golden circle partially covered by a black circle against a black sky.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
The moon partially eclipses the sun over Charlotte, Vermont on April 8.
People hold white sheets of paper out at arms length. On them are shadows with small openings of light coming through.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
Kia'Rae Hanron, the Windows To A Multicultural World K12 Arts Learning Director for Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte, looks at the partially eclipsed sun through a pinhole sheet on Monday.

"First of all when I heard about the farm, I lost my mind," said Rev. Bryant. "And then when I got an invitation to this event, the mind came back — and I lost it a second time."

Bryant says another difference he’s noticed between Vermont and New York City is the awareness here of natural phenomena, like the eclipse.

"And having that sensitivity now is really cool. Something, again, in the concrete jungle of New York, nobody — nobody cared," he said with a laugh. "Well, no one in my circle seemed to care."

In this circle, Bliss Eclipse event attendees looked through cards with holes in them to see the crescent shadows of the partially eclipsed sun. They observed what wildlife was doing as it grew darker and colder — i.e., all the mosquitos coming out. And sitting on this hillside above rolling meadows, the Adirondack Mountains and Lake Champlain, they experienced nearly three minutes of totality.

People recline on a lawn with eclipse glasses on. Behind them are a house and some folding chairs
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
From left, Elsie Berrouet, Maya Berrouet-Oge and Pievy Polyte watch the solar eclipse from the lawn of Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte.

Elsie Berrouet, her daughter Maya Berrouet-Oge, and Pievy Polyte all sat together on the grass during totality. And they all said they felt something mystic.

"For a few second, my heart was beating," Berrouet said. "I was laying there and my heart was beating very fast. And I'm already an emotional person. You know, I live with my feelings — and I felt bizarre at certain time."

"I felt like, a call to remain more positive, just to remove like, negative thoughts," Berrouet-Oge said. She added of the eclipse: "Some people say that it's called for a renewal in our lives. So I guess some of us are able to feel it, inside of us."

"Some people have high energy, like in a full moon, you can feel that," Polyte said. "So when that happened, I can feel it, too — a lot of energy."

People are silhouetted against a darkened sky as the moon covers the sun overhead
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
Attendees watch the total solar eclipse at Clemmons Family Farm's "Bliss Eclipse" event in Charlotte.
A photo of a total solar eclipse, which looks like a glowing white ring around a black sphere in the middle of black sky. There are red little dots around the ring.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
The total solar eclipse as viewed from Clemmons Family Farm on Monday, April 8.

The energy continued on Monday afternoon inside the Barn House at Clemmons Family Farm. There, Bliss Eclipse attendees snacked and played music together before heading home.

Local visual artist Julio Desmont, who played harmonica during the jam session, said he came to the event for connection. And that, by the end, he found it.

"I could really feel like, you know, I was in perfect … synchronization with the sun and the moon. And it feels so good, right?" Desmont said. "I’m so happy — the eclipse is something else." 
 
When the sun went dark, he said, he went dark. And when the light returned, he said he, too, was shining and bright again.

A photo shows sun shining inside a room with eight people sitting in chairs in a circle, with half of them playing instruments.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
The Bliss Eclipse event at Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte ended Monday with a jam session.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.

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