Gullah Festivities

By Bayne, Bijan C. | American Visions, April-May 1997 | Go to article overview

Gullah Festivities


Bayne, Bijan C., American Visions


South Carolina's Gullah people and traditions are a product of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the 75 years from the opening of the 18th century to the Declaration of Independence, more than 40 percent of abducted Africans arriving in Britain's North American colonies were quarantined and processed on the Sea Islands, which lay just off the Atlantic shore in an arc that ran from Charleston past Beaufort, S.C., and down to northern Georgia. Sullivan, Drum, St. Helena, Daufuskie, Parris--these tiny spits of sand constituted the Ellis Island for ancestors of African Americans.

Many of these ancestors stayed put in South Carolina, particularly in the Low Country (as the marshy coastal land was called) and Sea Islands rice plantations--so many, in fact, that a Swiss visitor in these years wrote that "Carolina looks more like a negro country than like a country settled by white people."

The abducted Africans were soon collectively referred to as Gullah--a word whose origin is unclear and whose earliest recorded usage appears in a 1739 South Carolina Gazette, which makes reference to a "runaway, a short well set Negro man Golla Harry." They lived doubly isolated as slaves, with limited freedom of movement, and as islanders, with limited room to move. Separated from the mainland on islands such as Daufuskie and St. Helena, they retained strong components of African culture in their language, crafts, folklore, medicine and cuisine. Not only did they retain their distinctiveness; they also imposed it on the region: Daufuskie, for instance, is the Gullah pronunciation of "the first key," as the islands were sometimes called keys.

The Gullah's ways continued largely unchanged--and unnoticed--well into the 20th century. Neither Pat Conroy's 1972 novel The Water Is Wide (which tells of his experience teaching Daufuskie's Gullah schoolchildren) nor Conrack (the 1972 movie based on the book) did more than inspire momentary interest in a marginal but authentic African-American culture. Not until Julie Dash's saga of a Gullah family, Daughters of the Dust, won the Best Cinematography award at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival was Gullah culture indelibly stamped on the American scene.

One consequence of Dash's film has been the transformation of Beaufort's annual Memorial Day weekend Gullah Festival into something much larger--and much more commercial. The scenic town's Waterfront Park now bustles with the colors and sounds of vendors from as far away as Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York City. Handmade jewelry, crafted wood figurines, antique black dolls, paintings, clothing, books and traditional quilts crowd booths--as do Malcolm X sweatshirts. Fortunately, you can also find Gullah language cassettes and dictionaries and the distinctive baskets traditionally woven from sea reeds.

Among the regular vendors is Vermelle Rodrigues, a South Carolinian who lives in Pennsylvania. Her tables are a treasure for collectors, who will find original sheet music by turn-of-the-century black composers, African-cloth-covered Gullah dictionaries, vintage dolls and handmade African hand puppets. Brother Ra, who drives from Atlanta every year, offers figurines, walking sticks, flutes and handcarved rain sticks. Each piece is an intricate example of woodwork.

Visitors move from table to table, browsing the wares of two dozen vendors' displays, which are arranged along the edges of a sheltered, paved surface. Outside the shelter, more dealers' effects stretch in two directions, with Beaufort's glittering bay just off in the distance.

Saturday, the festival's second day, draws the largest crowd. Tour buses deposit schoolchildren on class trips or seniors who come in search of collectibles. The wise wear comfortable shoes to trek over the stone surface and the grass that separates an amphitheater from paved walkways, and they bring folding chairs--for benches are few--and light jackets to ward off the evening's sea breeze. …

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