Geechee people and slavery past
I wrote a bit about my experience with transient agricultural workers as well as the time I worked as a tour guide in the South Carolina Lowcountry, so you already know about some of my southern ways.
It was my privilege as a teenager living in South Carolina to work for the Penn Center, the first school for newly freed slaves established in the USA, where I learned an enormous amount about the history of slavery in America. I was a French girl who had spent most of my English-speaking life in New York, the history of the American south and slavery were a vague and disturbing topic I’d rarely considered, and as such, I came to it with few preconceived ideas. All I knew was that Penn Center needed someone who was good with computers and my sixteen-year old self needed a job. Plenty of white people had already tried teaching me about slavery by whitewashing it or just telling me that black people had been better off under slavery. Penn Center was a good antidote for that nonsense.
A few years into my film school education I returned to the Lowcountry and got work as a production assistant over the summer. We ended up filming at Penn Center for a special episode of Gullah Gullah Island. I still get the catchy theme song stuck in my head sometimes.
The funniest thing about filming that day was that the little boy who starred in the episode refused to believe that a girl could be a camera operator. Way to be regressive, kid. I also learned how to baby-carry by wrapping a toddler on my body with a sarong. This turned out to be an invaluable lesson for my own future parenting. A lap chile need never walk.
The Gullah Geechee people are the descendents of the slaves who lived on the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. These were enormous plantations and the owners would often spend months away from the actual islands where they grew sea island cotton or indigo. They might spend the entire winter in towns, such as Beaufort, South Carolina, entertaining other slave owners and their families and showcasing their marriageable girls at cotillions. The slaves in this area were isolated and numerous. Most of these slaves were brought over from West Africa. They retained their culture and developed a creole language, called Gullah. In many ways, this area of the United States has more in common with the Caribbean islands than mainland USA.
Around the time I worked at Penn a terrific indie film by Julie Dash came out called Daughters of the Dust that covers a lot of this history in a fictionalized story.
There was an astounding amount to learn about the history of slavery that I could never have gleaned from a school textbook, particularly textbooks approved and sanitized by southern states boards of education. My coworkers taught me everything from patois still in local use to how certain hoodoo practices were incorporated into the dominant Christian religion. When the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil came out I already knew the conjure-woman called “Miz Minerva” who was married to “Doctor Buzzard” lived up the street from me because my coworkers had told me all about her. City folks in Savannah and Charleston make the drive to the sea islands and Frogmore to have their gris-gris made.
I learned all I could about the plight of the people in this area and how they’d managed to preserve so much of their own identity and culture. There’s an occasional backlash against the effort to preserve Gullah as it’s considered “ebonics” or bastardized proper English. Even the modern effort to hang on to recent history comes under attack.
[Samantha Chardin, 1989, Dawtaw Island, South Carolina.]
Pictured above are ruins of a home built with tabby, a cement-like material made with oyster shells. Highly labor intensive, you only bother making tabby when you have a whole lot of slave labor at your disposal. As an example of aforementioned whitewashing of history, we tour guides were instructed to say that the formula for tabby was “lost” if anyone ever asked why no one was making homes out of it anymore. Lost to emancipation!
Beaufort, South Carolina is a beautiful place and so a boat-load of movies have been made there. As a film student, it was my great privilege to also be on the set of several of the ones made there in the 1990s–most often as an over-eager volunteer production assistant. My favorite experience was helping the animal wrangler on the set of The Jungle Book.
Oh, Beaufort, you’re almost as pretty as Jason Scott Lee and Lena Headey making smoochies.
In addition to the history bug, I’m a known bibliophile, and I picked up a copy of Gone With the Wind because quite a few of my friends had professed it to be one of their favorite books. Not surprisingly, these are southern friends. I had to read it.
That book was one of the few reads that made me feel literally ill. The omniscient perspective is an extraordinary way to tell so many stories at once and I will admit, this is a beautifully written novel. It is epic in scope and ambition and I am flat-out amazed by Mitchell and her ability to tackle all of it, but I take issue with so many things in this novel I can’t even begin to wrap my head around the extreme racism. On top of which, it’s marketed as a romance! This is likely the most dysfunctional romance novel ever penned, and keep in mind that we live in a world with Twilight. Scarlet reaches a low moment where she’s scrounging for scraps in the ruined gardens in the back of the slave quarters and Mitchell talks about the “stench” coming from those huts and intimates that Scarlet has been brought low so that she is almost as disgusting an animal as her former slaves. This is the famous, “I’ll never be hungry again!” scene, meant to inspire us to have grit in the face of adversity. Mitchell is a rare bird: a clever racist. She’s so good at getting inside the mind of her characters you might almost forget that they are all horrible people. All of them. On top of which Margaret Mitchell’s black people make Stepin Fetchit look nuanced. The beloved movie is a glossy easy read version of this engrossing, deplorable novel.
Plenty has already been said about the tragedy of the white version of events becoming the dominant story in the culture and it might seem weird that I’m picking on an old book, but this stuff still matters. It’s the reason why when movies like 12 Years a Slave get recognition I cry like a little girl.
Y’all. Now I want Frogmore stew.
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