Coastal Carolina, Home to the Gullah Geechee Living Culture

Gullah Geechee people, descendants of Central and West Africans slaves, developed a language, culture, and social group that now populate the U.S. sea islands and barrier islands from North Carolina to Florida. And, it extends inland some thirty miles.

            Mary Terrell, the wife of Calvin Terrell and mother of Joe in my novel, If You Walk Long Enough, is of Gullah heritage. Her people still live along the Coastal Corridor practicing their unique way of life.

            Slaves, originally used to work the indigo and rice plantations along coastal barrier islands, were a mixture of African tribes. As they became the majority population, they developed a blended communication called Gullah creole. This unique language helped them preserve many African practices in cuisine, crafts, religion, and art. It sprang from European slave traders, slave owners, various African ethnic groups with roots in both European and African languages. Today it is the only African creole in the United States. This corridor along the barrier islands recognizes the Gullah heritage as a living culture.

            The Gullah developed baskets, fishing nets, boat building, and textile crafts. They crafted distinctive baskets from the sweetgrass, wove the casting fish nets, and created textile art. These handmade items were made from necessity for subsistence living and later progressed into crafted art sold in street markets as a source of extra income. Their textile traditions included sewing strings of cloth into larger patters somewhat like European quilting methods. These cloth strips eventually evolved into distinctly creole art forms with bright colors and unique African patterns.  

            Any adventure along the South Carolina coast requires looking into the culture and art of these unique people.

Furry Characters in Novel, If You Walk Long Enough

Your first question might be why the animals in a novel about tobacco farming set against the Civil Rights upheaval, the Women’s Movement, and Vietnam.

Dogs, cats, horses, and cows were ubiquitous entities during my years on the farm. In fact, one summer we had thirteen cats (all outside) as a result of two mommas and their litters. It never occurred to us at that time to spay animals, only the male livestock received that treatment. Thankfully, time and age have made me sensitive to overpopulation in the pet world.  

Dogs and cats populate my novel, If You Walk Long Enough, as an outgrowth of these years.

Cats, encouraged since they lived outside and kept the barns free of rats, came and went with great frequency on our farm. I have delightful memories of finding new kittens in the hay barn every spring, hidden there by the momma cat. Like my mother, Angela and Reid milked a cow daily and gave the cats and kittens fresh milk as they walked back to the house afterwards. It was usually served in a hubcap turned bowl side up.  

We always had a dog of one description or another. Sometimes more. There are three dogs in my novel. Grover, a yellow mixed breed adoptee from the pound, is Ellie Holcombe’s yard dog. He is a wise soul offering comfort simply by being present. Grover is based on my dog Luther, a mixed breed, pound adoptee labeled “a good-hearted fellow” by my vet.   

Second-hand Rose, aka “Rosie,” is a calico kitten found by Reid and Ellie as they leave a pizza party in a downpour. They hear the kitten crying and find it hiding under a car. I ask you, who can deny the comfort of a purring cat cuddled in your lap? Ellie’s kitten is based on another Rosie that lived with me for eighteen years. I still miss her.

Bugle, a gregarious female, lives on the Holcombe family farm and follows Reid as he makes his farm rounds. There were a series of beagles on the farm as I grew up, all having the deep characteristic hound bay.

Night hunters and bird shooters prized their hunting dogs, usually hounds or pointers. My granddaddy, a dove and quail man, traded and trained pointers. They were working dogs, not pets. Pretty Sal, the Terrell’s bluetick hound, is reportedly the best coonhound in Colleton County. White trash shoot her, a mean effort to terrorize the Terrell family.

I think the animals in my Vietnam novel make the people more humane. Personally, I find that true of myself. Besides, I like “seeing” my furry family live on in print.

If You Walk Long Enough should be out sometime early 2021. I’ll keep you posted.  

Rosie as a senior citizen strolling in the yard.

Corona’s the Name

Here’s another thing to think about with this coronavirus pandemic–beer. Yep, that cool stuff from Mexico served with a lime called Corona.

In the interest of helping a sister country Mexico, take a virtual tour of a beach (any beach that is on your bucket list or one of your favorites) and lean back with a Corona. And, a lime. With salsa and chips. Great way of spitting in the eye of this virus.

Image result for corona beer

Agree to Postpone Olympics?

Postpone Olympics? . . . well, not so fast. The International Olympic Committee has not made it official but indicate they will make a decision in mid-April about the 2020 Games. Canada, however, has stepped up and said “No” to sending any Canadian athletes to Tokyo. The entire decision about O-Games this year is also about public health. Will the IOC make the postponement official or not? Stay tuned. . .

Strange times…

We live in strange times. A few weeks ago, I published a piece from my novel, If you Walk Long Enough, about the 1968 Summer Olympics and the raised fist salute of John Carlos and Tommie Smith as a gesture of protest against racial inequality. Now we have the postponement of the entire 2020 summer games as a result of another silent killer. A virus. Corvid-19.

It’s rare for the Summer or Winter Olympics to be postponed or rescheduled. Cancellation has occurred a scant six times in the modern history of the games, usually in the case of war. A first, the coronavirus pandemic.

The International Olympic Committee has agreed to cancel the Summer 2020 Games in Tokyo and move them to Summer 2021. The Tokyo venue will remain the same.  At great expense. This move also signals another first—the move of decision making from the International Olympic Committee to the athletes.  While the power to influence the IOC is informal, it nonetheless signals a certain chip out of the power structure.  

The Olympic torch will remain in Tokyo, burning as a beacon of hope and resilience. Stealthy killers all: inequality, virus, unbridled power.

What's in a Name?

I use the surname Terrell for the black characters in my novel If You Walk Long Enough.  That name has a history back to the 1800’s and the early years of the Turnwold Plantation, Eaton, Georgia.

            Between 1862-1864 a young man, Joel Chandler Harris, lived at Turnwold and became enamored of the Gullah tales of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and other whimsical characters. Originally, the tales emerged as oral history told by Turnwold slaves. Harris tuned his ear to their dialect and began collecting the stories using Uncle George Terrell, a plantation slave, as the model for the fictional Uncle Remus, a kindly old freedman. Not until 1880 were the tales published in book form whereby, they made popular a new literary practice based on the oral folklore traditions of African American slaves.

            One story (my favorite) was of Brer Rabbit meeting a tar baby, a form dressed in doll clothes cleverly made to look like a person, when in fact, it was a lump of tar. Brer Rabbit greets the figure and when he receives no response, socks him. His hand sticks to the tar. The form offers no response. Another whap. No response. This continues until Brer Rabbit is completely stuck on the sticky form. Along comes Brer Fox and Brer Bear. After much back and forth and pleas from Brer Rabbit, the pair throw the rabbit, stuck in the tar, into the briar patch. The joke’s on Brer Fox and Brer Bear, as Brer Rabbit wiggles out using the briar vines to pull himself free.

            Joel Chandler Harris, a Savannah journalist, counted Mark Twain among his fans. The stories were mostly moral lessons about escape, the value of cunning, and overcoming submission. They bring to mind Aesop’s Fables. The speech patterns and rhythms of southern blacks reflected age-old wisdom as enslaved individuals outwit their masters much like the clever Brer Rabbit and wily Brer Fox outwit a multitude of fellow creatures—and each other. They are tricksters similar to those found in stories told by White Mountain Apache and Caribbean folk as well as other groups of storytellers.  

            Harris eventually made his home in Atlanta where he worked for the Atlanta Constitution. He lived in the city with his family at the Wren’s Nest. A beloved Georgia journalist, he wrote for children, giving his animal characters human characteristics much to the delight of his young readers.

            Today the Wren’s Nest, a treasured Atlanta landmark, offers tours, storytelling, and a glimpse into the South before the Civil War. Although today these tales are considered racially inappropriate, stereotyping, and sad nostalgia for the Old South, readers might ask what if Uncle Remus is read with a touch of irony and a tip of the hat to cleverly evading cultural conventions? Think about it. You know, like Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox would have thought. Like the Terrell’s used social and cultural expectations to their benefit in my novel If You Walk Long Enough set in 1970 South Carolina.  

C-19 Benefit

For the onion aficionados, the C-19 stay-six-feet-away is a GREAT benefit. A time to throw caution to the winds and eat all of the onions you want. Green onions with beans. Thick onion slices with burgers. Thin slivers of purple onion on salad. Onion cooked in spaghetti sauce. Bring on those savory Mexican tacos with chopped onions. Steak and lightly sauteed onions. Onions on a kabob with mushrooms and peppers. After all, who can smell an onion from six feet away?

A Religious Thread Holds a Red Button in Place

Holy water flows through the Deep South, at times wide and moving swift with significant rapids. Other times it meanders, tea-colored, before sliding into a trickle. Sometimes there are eddies shaded by sweeper branches and mosquitos. No matter, holy water—religion—is pervasive throughout the Deep South.

            “One Dollar and a Red Button” from If the Creek Don’t Rise, a collection of my stories, mirrors those various rhythms. The nature of flowing water acts as metaphor for religion, from the tent meeting spiritual to the formality of high mass to those shadowy haint folk beliefs.  

            The bereaved family often divides clothing and household property among friends and those less fortunate. This distribution of property finds roots in Native American traditions, early Saxon customs, and some indigenous Asian societies.

            Interesting customs found in various religious groups surrounding death,  include covering all household mirrors with a black cloth, stopping clocks at the hour of death, and removing the dead from a house, feet first, to prevent the body from looking back and summoning others to follow. 

            The firing of guns, ringing of funeral bells, or wailing chants during the burial were used to scare away ghosts. In many cemeteries, most graves were oriented with the heads of the deceased pointing West with feet to the East. Pagan sun worshippers are thought to have begun this custom, but it is often attributed to early Christians as the final Judgment summons was thought to come from the East.

            Southern folk customs regarding death, burial, and afterlife are varied, rich, and deeply held. A lock of hair or a memento saved from the deceased was a common practice. A necklace, hair woven to hold a watch fob, or bracelet that could be opened were popular places to store a memento.

            The departure of the soul from the body is a basic tenet of Christianity. Folk beliefs factored in ghosts and haints as unhappy, dissatisfied beings unable to rest after death.

            Tom, a character in my story, keeps a button box after his wife’s death at the urging of his housekeeper, Ella Mae. “You never know when you’ll be needing an extray button,” she says. Just as buttons hold clothing together, so Ella Mae understood their symbolic value in holding human connections together. The tale, part of the short story collection, If the Creek Don’t Rise, holds a mirror to the reader’s beliefs about ghosts, personal retribution, and human connections.

            Available from Pen-L Publishing and Amazon in print, eBook, and audio formats.

Three Track Medalists, Mexico City, 1968 Olympics reflected in If You Walk Long Enough

The U.S. military fully integrated during the Vietnam War. However, racial equality only existed on paper.

            In my novel If You Walk Long Enough, black soldier Joe Terrell, serving at the same time as novel protagonist Reid Holcombe, reflects on his experience in Nam. In Saigon bars, base camps, R&R beaches, and duty rosters, Joe found soldiers were generally segregated along the same lines as back home.

            Joe and Reid banter about their experiences while cutting blossoms off tobacco, usually called topping. Joe talks about a clenched fist, held overhead, as gesture of greeting and solidarity among black soldiers in Vietnam.

            As a symbol, the raised fist dates to the ancient Assyrians. It has wound its way down through time among various groups as a sign of solidarity, strength, resistance, pride, and unity. The raised fist, also used by the Black Panther Party in the sixties, reentered the world stage during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City as a result of the 200-meter track event winners—Tommie Smith, Peter Norman, John Carlos—and their nonviolent protest.    

            When the three winners of that track event mounted the Olympic awards podium, and the strands of the “Star Spangled Banner” began, Gold Medalist Tommie Smith and Bronze Medalist John Carlos, both black, bowed their heads and a raised black-gloved fist above their heads. The stadium grew eerily quiet. For a while.

            Australian Silver Medalist Peter Norman stood with Smith and Carlos. He wore a human-rights badge on his jacket in support of their cause, as well as for human rights endeavors in Australia.  He did not raise his fist, only stood in respectful silence.  

            When these two black athletes and one white Aussie stepped down from the podium, the eerie silence broke into deafening boos and screams, reverberating across the stadium.

            The gestures used that day were not haphazard, but well-reasoned and considered. Smith raised his right fist, Pride, and Carlos his left, Unity. Each wore one glove, the pair of gloves linked them as a whole.

            Both carried their shoes, walking to the podium shoeless in black socks to represent black poverty. The wearing of a scarf and beads symbolized the “strange fruit” of the South—ubiquitous lynching. Carlos stood with his jacket unzipped recognizing working people, black and white, and wearing a human-rights badge.     

            Earlier that year in New York, Carlos had come face to face with Martin Luther King. Carlos resolved to call attention to the poverty, housing conditions, and racism of Americans through a nonviolent protest while competing at the Olympics. He won a gold medal and used that win as a protest platform. The clenched and raised fist worked as if it were a stone thrown into a pond, rippling out in concentric circles.  

            Over the following months and years, the three medalists endured death threats, harassment, loss of income, and career discrimination because of their actions.

            Ultimately, these three athletes carved out lives and careers while holding a forever place in sports annals and political history.  

            A statue memorializing the event can be found in the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History, Sports Galleries.

            Today, a continuing symbolic gesture, the raised fist mirrors the cultural complexity and political landscape of our times.