African-American art, history and culture have been a part of Shantrelle Lewis' life, almost as long as she can recall.
"I was immersed in history and culture by my family," Lewis said. "My father would make me write out my family tree. I could go back to my great-, great-grandparents, and a little further."
Which is how she knew that she is a descendant of Henri Christophe, who in 1811 was named the first king of the newly free Haiti.
"My parents bought me books about black history, African history when I was 5 years old," she said. "I knew who Toussaint L'Overture was, Cinque and Harriet Tubman were. They wanted me to know I did not come from enslaved people, but from warriors and revolutionaries. They were instilling pride in me."
"Coming here is something I always planned," she said. "When I was in school at Howard, I knew I would eventually end up in New York. I knew this was the place that would challenge me to be everything I needed to be."
Not that she's forgotten her hometown. The exhibition "SOS: Magic, Revelry, and Resistance in Post-Katrina New Orleans Art" is currently on display at the museum, 408 W 58th St., Manhattan.
It follows two other exhibits Lewis has organized since joining the museum last year, one on the late Nigerian singer and protest poet Fela Kuti, the other on African spirituality.
"We use exhibitions to educate people," she said. "The shows are also a call to action to address issues affecting our community. It is important to mix art with activism. Africans produced art that was functional, art for a purpose.
"New Orleans was devastated after Katrina much like Haiti after the earthquake, which, by the way, will be our next exhibit, which will coincide with the [Jan. 12] anniversary of the earthquake."
Her mother, Patricia Scott, a retired postal worker, and father, Wayne Lewis, a computer analyst (her stepfather, Eldridge Lewis, is a New Orleans businessman), also made sure Lewis spent time with her grandparents, Joseph and Gladys Calvin, who regaled the children with family history. She also would often visit her great-grandmother, Hilda James, who was 103 when Katrina hit.
"I just soaked it in like a sponge. I was enthralled," Lewis said.
A gifted student who ran track and played drums in her high school marching band, Lewis went to Howard University on a full scholarship.
Despite her family's racial consciousness, Lewis says New Orleans' obsession with skin color left her bruised but she found and fell in love with the "African diaspora" at Howard.
"New Orleans was pretty much a black/white/creole existence," she said. "At Howard I had friends from the Dominican Republic, Nigeria, Jamaica, London. There was a microcosm of the diaspora right on campus."
Howard professors inspired Lewis to drop her pre-med major for African-American studies. Her studies prompted Lewis to drop Catholicism for Yoruba practices, a faith she still observes.
"The more history I studied, the more in love I became with African culture and esthetics," she said.
For more about the Caribbean center in Manhattan, visit its website at www.cccadi.org.