Saltwater Geechee Culture
This is a blog about culture, but culture can mean anthropological or sociological as well as artistical. This entry, I guess, will be a bit of all three.
For our winter vacation Linda and I visited my cousins in Atlanta (who had moved there decades ago from Kalamazoo) and ended up for a night at Miami South Beach and then three nights in Key West, a Caribbean island without colonialist guilt.
In between, we made something of an Obama pilgrimmage. Linda had worked hard for him, and I had done my bit, too. She had always wanted to visit the coastal islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Our first idea was to begin with the Friendfield Plantation in Georgetown, S.C., north of Charleston. This was the home of Michelle Obama's Robinson ancestors during slavery times. But you could only go on a tour, and the day we could have made it had been booked by a group from the University of South Carolina.
So, after a night in Charleston, we headed south for Kiawah Island. I had recently written an essay on Porgy and Bess for a forthcoming Harvard anthology. Gershwin had visited Kiawah to soak up gullah music and mores (post-Africans who lived there, and who migrated to Charleston for work during Porgy times, called themselves gullahs in S.C. and geechees in Georgia); it was renamed Kittiwah in Porgy and Bess. There was supposedly a statue somewhere of Goat Cart Sammy, the inspiration for the character of Porgy. But no: like so many of those islands today, Kiawah has been gentrifed and whitewashed into a gated golf community. One (white) security guard had never heard of Sammy, or Porgy. Oh, well, the public dining room of a seaside country club (great view) was OK in a deracinated sort of way, though empty (recession, you know).
So it was on to St. Helena Island, home of the Penn Center, where Martin Luther King Jr. had planned strategy and tactics among sympathetic allies, white and black. There was a moving exhibition about life under slavery, full of displayed texts of reminiscences of former slaves and photos over the years of the center's educational activities, which date back to 1862, when the Union seized control of the islands during the Civil War. In the planning stages before King's assassination was a "retreat house" where he could study and contemplate looking out over the gorgeous marshes. It wasn't finished until after his death, but it's there now, and you can rent it. We didn't know about that until we got there, but maybe one day.
Then, after a night in Savannah, it was on to Sapelo Island. You take a ferry to get there, and you can only visit the lone community of Hog Hammock with an invitation from a resident -- especially if you want to spend the night in one of the three bedrooms at the Wallow Lodge (clean, comfortable, a kitchen but you have to bring your own food; no restaurants on the island).
Sapelo is a typical coastal island, with flat marshes, pines, oaks, beaches. Yet it is untouched by the rampant real-estate development elsewhere along the coast. The island is owned now by the state of Georgia, which uses most of it as an environmental research station.
Otherwise, except for the few mostly white scientists at the station and the odd hunter, all the people you see, the real inhabitants of Sapelo, are black -- "saltwater geechees," as opposed to the inland variety and to the gullahs. They are descendants of the slaves who used to pick cotton on the island. Fifty years ago there were some 500 of them, spread among several communities. But the owners of the "big house," a mansion built on the site of the former plantation owner's home by the Reynolds of the tobacco company, oversaw the forced collectivization of the island inhabitants to Hog Hammock (through financial incentives and cruder negative pressures). (Hog is from a family named Hogg who lent it their name; hammock is a term for a raised piece of ground above marsh level.) Some 70 inhabitants remain.
We were lucky enough to arrive on the Sunday before Christmas, and were taken in hand first by Nettie Evans, who was on the ferry and who runs the local historical society, and then by Cornelia Walker Bailey, who owns the Wallow Lodge. She and her husband Julius and their two grandsons took us up the road to the First African Baptist Church, where there was a two-hour Christmas pageant and service followed by a fried chicken, sausage etc. spread. We thus had a chance to see the whole interrelated community, or most of it, in one place.
We thought we had been pretty lucky, and we were, but then I got an e-mail from Noel Holston. He and his wife had stayed at the lodge on New Year's Eve and found a bunch of newpapers and magazines we had left behind. Turns out he was a National Arts Journalism Program fellow and had been the television critic of Newsday before relocating to teach at the University of Georgia journalism school. They attended the island New Year's Eve service, which was followed by a midnight feast in the woods at which pig's feet, peas and rice, venison, cornbread and Sapelo oysters were the bill of fare!
Sapelo feels almost under siege, from the state of Georgia and from the threat of Kiawah-style (or Hilton Head-style) development. Many of the island inhabitants work on the mainland now or go to school there, taking the ferry at the break of day. There is a kind of petri-dish artificiality to Hog Hammock now, as if the traditions of the islanders are about to be washed away by the mainstream culture, if not another hurricane.
In the meantime, Mrs. Walker has written a book called God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man, and it is just a wonderful read. It purls along like elegantly crafted oral story-telling, and it brings the traditions and customs and past tragedies and, one hopes, future triumphs of these remarkably resilient people alive. If you can't get to Sapelo, read the book. It's as artistically cultural as any cultural anthropologist or sociologist might wish.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.