Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
September 13th, 2010

In the Land of God and Gullah

God and Gospel meet African tradition in the South Carolina Lowcountry

 
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“You sure you want to drive out there?” an 82-year-old farmer warns when I stop to ask for directions on a dusty, rutted road in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. “Ahead are the Gullah islands,” he says, shaking his head. “They’re a peculiar people with mighty mysterious ways.”

As I voyage over a gauntlet of bridges and down winding, sun-dappled back roads, past lazy pastures and homespun ma-and-pa stores, decades peel back as St. Helena Island, the center for Gullah culture, emerges through a gauze of saltwater marshes.

The descendants of African slaves, the Gullah today live mostly on the remote barrier islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Neglected during much of the 19th century by their slaveholders — who fled the islands frequently for the cooler inland climate — the Gullah often governed themselves. As a result, they’ve preserved significant elements of their West African culture, such as their African-based Creole language and their expertise in sweetgrass basket-weaving.

But perhaps the Gullahs’ most enduring African legacy is their commitment to a spiritual way of life. “Church is more important in St. Helena, South Carolina, than anywhere else in America,” says Robert Middleton, an 80-year-old island tour guide, driving past a row of single-room churches under a canopy of moss-draped oaks.

As gospel music crackles over car speakers, Middleton, a deacon of a local church, says 90 percent of the people on St. Helena go to church weekly. An impressive figure, considering Gallup recently found only 42 percent of Americans regularly attend church.

The descendants of African slaves, the Gullah often governed themselves. As a result, they’ve preserved significant elements of their West African culture, such as their African-based Creole language and their expertise in sweetgrass basket-weaving.

“Like in Africa, we [Gullah] have always centered our lives around faith,” says Middleton, mopping his glistening forehead with the back of his hand on a sultry afternoon. For example, Middleton says, until not too long ago, the religious and community leaders of the island resolved most quarrels among themselves.

Middleton remembers an incident in the 1950s when two men involved in a shooting on the island were brought to the local Praise House — a small building used for local religious meetings — to resolve the dispute. When the shooter agreed to pay for the wounded man’s injuries, all was forgiven and the men became friends again. “The Bible tells us don’t go to bed angry,” he says, fishing for a key to open the small white clapboard Praise House.

“The Praise House back then was our community center,” Middleton explains, “where we regularly met, danced, stomped our feet and shouted out to the Lord. But today we have our modern churches,” he adds, standing alone in the quiet, century-old, hand-hewn wooden room, where he once attended jubilant services as a boy.

Middleton says that with God’s help, the Gullah culture will endure. “Our roots run deep here,” he says, stepping outside the Praise House, amid live oaks that have stood sturdy with the Gullah since slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Gullah Grub

Setting down a bowl of crab soup and a plate of fried shrimp and shark with red rice, the ebullient Oshi Green, 28, says her family restaurant celebrates their Gullah heritage by serving traditional fare and offering a local hangout.

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From the sweet-creamy aroma of fish chowder wafting from the kitchen to walls lined with colorful Gullah paintings and shelves boasting wooden African figurines, Gullah pride radiates from the Gullah Grub Restaurant.

Gullahs embrace an African culture that honors God by fishing, hunting and gardening, Green says, standing under a large painting of her father hunting. “Living close to the land has long defined African and Gullah culture,” she says.

But as the threat of posh golf courses and tourist-laden resorts closes in on the prize island real estate, many St. Helena residents fear the worst. “This has been our home for over 300 years,” sighs Green. A picture at the cash register says the rest: An African-American woman labors in the fields with the caption, “Gullah Heritage. We won’t give up our land.”

Green says African and Gullah practices often exemplify Christian principles. For example, barter not only provided for the Gullahs’ daily needs on the island during slavery and Reconstruction, but also underscored the Christian value of sharing. “Barter taught us to work together and look out for one another, because if we didn’t help each other, we would have perished,” she explains.

And today, Green says that sharing thrives not only in the churches of St. Helena — which often pool resources to help needy members — but also in the day-to-day life of the island. For example, Green says, when her family restaurant recently had a surplus of collard greens, they traded the excess with a farmer who had extra lettuce. “No money exchanged. It was a real barter,” she says.

Outside the wood-planked Gullah Grub, a grandmotherly Jery Taylor sits and weaves sweetgrass baskets the way West Africans have done for centuries.

Weaving baskets for over 50 years, Taylor says she puts a little bit of God in everything she makes. And it shows. Her baskets adorn the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and galleries throughout the South.

Taylor says the care she puts into weaving baskets stems from reverence for God and her ancestors: “Gullah pride weaves deep.”

Spirit-catching bottles

Outside the gallery, a steel-limbed tree decorated with blue bottles greets customers. “That’s a Blue-Bottle tree,” Smalls says. At night, she explains, daylight-hating evil spirits roam and take refuge inside the bottles, but when the sun rises, the evil ghouls are trapped inside, where the morning sun kills them.

“You can’t get too far from superstition around here,” Smalls says.

Across the street, Victoria Smalls, manager of the Red Piano Too Art Gallery, leads the way through a labyrinth of jostling, color-grabbing paintings of Gullahs laboring in fields, fishing and attending church.

Smalls says Gullah art is practical. “You can paint on a wooden shingle or on an old wooden door. This is art for the masses, not the elite.”

She says the shout — popular in Gullah art and literature — celebrates a vital part of Gullah spirituality. Similar to the African ritual of spirit possession, the shout happens when someone falls under the influence of the Holy Spirit and sings or moves ecstatically. The line between Christianity and African spirituality blurs here, she says.

Outside the gallery, a steel-limbed tree decorated with blue bottles greets customers. “That’s a Blue-Bottle tree,” Smalls says. At night, she explains, daylight-hating evil spirits roam and take refuge inside the bottles, but when the sun rises, the evil ghouls are trapped inside, where the morning sun kills them.

“You can’t get too far from superstition around here,” Smalls says.

Gullah can preach

Down the road, on a Sunday afternoon, hands clap, bodies sway and voices rock the red brick walls of First African Baptist Church on Olde Church Road.

“If you give to the poor and have not love—you have nothing,” the Pastor declares to a packed church of well-dressed parishioners, his mellow cadence building in fervor.

With shout-outs of “Yes, sir” and “Amen,” the congregation engages in a dialogue with their pastor, a holy duet, a back-and-forth repartee.

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“Unlike white churches, preaching in Gullah churches is not a one-way lecture from pastor to parishioners,” says Shannon Scott, a local historian and tour guide. “Gullah churches — steeped in West African worship — are about getting a response from their worshippers, getting everyone involved, the community, the village.”

Working toward a crescendo, the pastor feeds off his flock’s nodding heads, swaying bodies and supportive yelps. “Salvation comes through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on Calvary,” he bellows. More hands clap, more shouts. “Jesus ain’t playing. No, he ain’t playing!”

Scott says the emotionalism of Gullah worship, rooted in traditional African religion, is about experiencing and feeling God — letting God touch you. “It’s not about being passive or overly intellectual like other churches,” he says. “The Gullah got spirit.”

Playing it safe

“That color is called haint blue,” says the old Gullah man pointing to the sky blue trim around a home outside St. Helena. “It scares evil away. My people still have plenty of folk tales, you know.”

The snow-white-bearded Baptist, who asked to be called Adam for this interview, says haint blue is a heavenly color, and evil haints [spirits] won’t have anything to do with heaven. “This comes straight from Africa.”

“It’s trendy now for everybody to paint something haint blue around their homes,” he says, sitting on a park bench behind a home with a bright haint-blue flowerpot in front.

Adam doesn’t put much stock in superstitions, though. “That’s just African folklore. Only Christ can scare away evil spirits,” he says as the glint of a bright haint-blue cross winks beneath his shirt collar.

 
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The Author : Anthony Chiorazzi
Anthony Chiorazzi writes from Los Angeles and is currently a graduate student at Oxford University.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Jack N

    I read a lot about the Gullah, and I really liked this piece.

  • Amber

    Great article!! I find it fascinating that such things still stand strong in the US! Thank you for sharing this cultures they can certainly show and give us different perspectives!!

  • Evan S

    Great Blog. I live very near St. Helena and love everything about it. Penn Center wasn’t mentioned but should be a destination for anyone who wants to remember the civil rights struggle. Dr. King stayed at Penn Center and is said to have penned the “have a dream” speech there. One small thing that should be corrected though is it’s not the “lowlands” it’s the “lowcountry”

  • Deanna M.

    I loved the article. Now, I must put these islands on my “to see and visit” list. It was uplifting to read. Thank You!

  • Frank Patrick

    Great article and the video was excellent also. Mr. Chiorazzi did another excellent article. You can tell that a lot of research and thought went into this article, and I really enjoyed reading and seeing video. The Gullah represent authentic people who truly trying to be in touch with their spiritual being. I especially like how Jery Taylor talk how she puts God into all the baskets she makes. In other words, she seeks the presence of God in her daily work, and she gives glory to God with her work. It would be great if all of us could look at our work the same way. We would literally be able to change this world from the inside out.

  • Maria Trotta

    The article is so interesting since a person like me would never be able to reach these places. The culture still endures. The film was perfect. I felt like i was there.

  • Son of Swan

    Brilliant article!! Absolutely fascinating people and culture, and extremely well written article. Well done Dr. Chiorazzi.

  • jean louise jawback

    i enjoyed it very much.it made me feel free of differnt things around me and spirttullay and im also cathlic to.it remind me of some of like the dancing and the music just intert me just liked evrything u are a great guy tony love u always best buds lol always jean louise

  • G. Spencer

    We need more stuff written like this. It helps opened your eyes. I traveled a lot and love stories that take you to different places like this. The photos were great too. Keep it up Busted Halo.

  • Collin

    It always amazing me how much wonderful culture there is in this country. this article makes me want to visit these people. I will take Queen Quet up on her invite. I need to have what they have. The little movie that went along with this article was really heartfelt and touched me. Thanks.

  • VFig

    I pray we as Americans do what we can to preserve this important part of our nation’s history. I believe there was a movie some time ago (Daughters of the Dust?) that shared with us this region’s culture. Thank You Lord.

  • Queen Quet

    Tenki Tenki fa crak hunnuh teet bout we! I thank you for a heartfelt blog about my people and my home island of St. Helena. I pray that your site has many that truly seek God as we do here in the Gullah/Geechee Nation come, taste, and see that what God has given the Gullah/Geechee is good! WEBE Gullah/Geechee anointed people!

    http://www.officialgullahgeechee.info

    This will be shared with the Gullah/Geechee Nation Facebook fans.

    Peace,
    Queen Quet
    Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation

  • Martin C.

    The concept here of spiritual exploring is really cool. I’m not a Christian or African-American but I can learn a lot here about viewing God from other points of view and maybe it can help me get closer to whatever is out there – and I really do believe that ALL religions think too much about God and don’t feel God – way to go on that concept!

  • J. Hughes

    Fascinating article. the gullah sound really interesting … there is a lot of interesting cultures down south … people just have to check it out … I like how the article talked about what’s similar between Christianity and African beliefs… I didn’t know anything about the gullah

  • Al Santos

    Gotta love the Gullah. As Catholics, we sometimes can get a little dry in our worship … but this is really good stuff. The gullah are doing it right. Cool YouTube video, too!

  • Janet

    Really like this piece, and I think that the Gullah have something to teach us all about getting back to loving God from the heart. I think that were religion belongs. God bless the Gullah.

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