Howard professor returning to native Liberia

Arts community greets departure with regret

January 12, 2001|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

At a recent Kwanzaa celebration, Dawn Cooper Barnes made a gesture that was indicative of why she will be sorely missed in Howard County: She humbled herself.

Barnes, a Howard Community College professor and artistic director of Aurora Dance Company, is returning at the end of the month to her native Liberia. News of her departure has brought sadness to the arts community and to colleagues who see her as a talented asset to the county.

"As soon as she told me she was going to leave, I went into a state of total desperation," said Valerie E. Costantini, chairwoman of arts and humanities at Howard Community College. "She's so valuable."

The feelings are mutual. Barnes acknowledges mixed emotions about returning to the homeland she left after a coup in 1980.

She looks forward to joining her husband, M. Nathaniel Barnes, who in 1999 was appointed the country's minister of finance. Yet she knows Liberia is no longer the country where she spent her childhood as the daughter of a surgeon and a librarian-turned-hospital administrator.

"It's like going to a new place," Barnes said. "I don't have any real close friends there anymore, and it isn't the same place that I grew up in."

Still, Barnes said, there is joy among the people of Liberia and the excitement of rebuilding a country that has struggled through political instability and a devastating civil war. Barnes said she plans to continue teaching HCC courses online and will return to teach in the summer.

"Howard County has been a very nurturing place for me," said Barnes, who teaches mass media, film, dance and arts and humanities at HCC. "It has been a place to grow, to feel safe, to raise a family and a place to really feel comfortable with who I am."

Ellyne Brown Downs, co-director of Aurora Dance Company that Barnes founded, said she draws inspiration from Barnes.

"She has four sons, and she's always been there for them even though she had a career," Downs said. "She has such a way with children, and my son just lights up whenever he sees her."

Downs said Barnes is also hailed for bringing different styles of dance to the area.

"She formed a multicultural company," Downs said. "Her idea is that you can be a dancer but you don't have to limit yourself, so we have done everything from modern to tap in Aurora."

Wylene S. Burch, founder and executive director of the Howard County Center for African American Culture, said officials at a recent Kwanzaa celebration chose to honor Barnes for her commitment to education and the community.

Barnes thrilled Burch and others at the celebration when she knelt and touched the floor in an African gesture to honor the elders present and acknowledge that she claimed no credit for .the success that led to her being feted.

"She has been an outstanding leader in the community," Burch said. "She has done an excellent job in trying to fulfill her obligations to her country and to her family."

HCC's Costantini said Barnes has made invaluable contributions to the school, including co-directing an hourlong documentary, "Cry of the Pepperbird: Story of Liberia." Costantini said a recent reception for the documentary attracted dozens of people, including the Liberian ambassador.

Barnes said she is honored by the appreciation everyone has shown her. "I am just in awe when people say these things to me," Barnes said. "I just feel like I have been having fun here."

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