In The Land of God & Gullah (Shannon Scott Quoted)

In the Land of God and Gullah

God and Gospel meet African tradition in the South Carolina Lowcountry

“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.

My Life As Esthete

Aesthete or Esthete. 1. a person who has or professes to have refined sensitivity toward the beauties of art or nature. 2. a person who affects great love of art, music, poetry, etc., and indifference to practical matters.

I truly believe everyone has various inner spirits inside of them, no matter what vibration you find yourself using your senses to harness, there’s some work involved in fine tuning it. I certainly had some help. My grandmother (see portrait of Koko), on my mother’s side was instrumental in speaking to my own inner artist and would spend time showing me how to color within the lines, but at the same time, not to be limited by them. She passed away when I was 9 of Alzheimer’s but in my short life with her, made an indelible impression. The portrait of her and I as a newly adopted infant, was my very first attempt at a life drawing when I was 17 or 18.  My mother too, also deserves credit with developing my artistic sensibilities. When I was really just a young boy, she’d sign us up for public craft and art classes and so together on the weekends we’d go down to the local craft store on my small town’s main street, and there did wood burning, some sewing, and very simple painting together. She would also be the person who would later expose me to musical arts and saw Kabuki theater around the age of 12, experimental composer, Phillip Glass (life changing) and more. I was very fortunate to have such exposure to the arts. My mother very gifted musically, always playing the piano, organ and as a young woman, she was awarded the John Philip Sousa Award for trumpet. Looking back, even being from a small town, I had unique closeness to the arts and some special role models and guides.

Koko & Me (1988)

Koko & Me (1988)

In spite of the obvious exposure to the arts I really fell into pursuing fine arts academically by default. Truth be told, in the 8th Grade as my parents saw me entering High School in the next year, they realized I didn’t seem to really have a calling so nudged me into the art classes. I had also shown an aptitude for out of the box thinking that actually cost me some marks, but it was validation to myself that I was a “creative thinker.” During difficult adolescent years, art became kind of my way to stand apart and a way to find a way to share my observations of the world around me. Nearly every year that I entered art into Illinois Scholastics competitions, I came away with honors and more of a road opened before me. Class trips to universities to tour their facilities also exposed me to very talented artists and eccentric personalities. So in the vein of those connections and in the tradition of other artists with a “look,” I developed an eccentric look of my own and became my home town’s original “Goth kid.” Which seems almost passe to any school in any town today, but was very unusual and somewhat daring in the 1980s in central Illinois.
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        “Mom & Me” (1986)                       “My Best Goth Hair” (1987)

During my high school years in Illinois, the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), routinely shipped out catalogs to their college and to me of all the school catalogs I’d seen, their’s was the best designed and really said, “art school.” To some degree it came down to two schools for me, SCAD and the Art Institute of Chicago. The latter seemed much more serious and the city colder to me. After a trip down to Savannah during a Spring visit, and waking up from the ride in a town exploding with azaleas, I felt like an artist who had died and gone to Heaven. The campus made up of historical buildings throughout this town of charming, even exotic squares full of sculpture by famed artists like Daniel Chester French, Felix de Weldon and others, for a lover of art and history, the town and the school were undeniable. Plus after having visited Spain in high school, the trip left me wanting something older and more European and Savannah was an artist’s sort of city scape. After the school offered me a $25,000 scholarship, I made the move.

The General's Arrival. Charcoal

The General’s Arrival. Charcoal

I found myself making art like crazy. Part inspired by the town, and a way for putting the nerves of being 1000 miles away from my family into something positive. My dorm room walls were lined with so much art that once when a fellow student asked if I’d brought some of this with me from high school, I replied, “No, I’ve done all of this in 3 weeks.” He was astonished to say the least.
Dreaming By The River. Ink.
W
hile in school I dabbled a little bit in theater and some video production, but those departments were really in their infancy but they allowed me to dabble in some things that would become a part of my life later in performing and TV & Film work. Where I really found happiness was in the world of Life Drawing. Its considered quite a rite of passage once you’ve drawn a nude figure and I took to drawing models like paint takes to a car or chef to cooking. I was very much at home and it would become the template for the rest of my work at school. I wouldn’t say I’m the best at figure drawing, but at school I was always invited to upper level classes that the professors had to invite you to and I’ve had more than one person tell me that my portraits have really captured the spiritual essence of someone. I love the process of free form drawing and also more intense layered works. It was in the experimentation of Life classes that I was pushed to try various mediums ranging from conte, charcoal, pastel, ink, watercolor, colored pencil, you name it. I discovered a certain confidence there that I had the ability to play with a medium for part of a day and by the end of the day, it was like I had been using it my whole life.

Male Torso. Colored Pencil

Male Torso. Colored Pencil

While in school, my influences I found were in artists who also had other talents, particularly those who could write as well as they paint or draw. Although I loved the works of Marc Chagall, de Chirico, Roger Brown, Henri Rousseau, El Greco, Caravaggio, Ben Shawn, and countless others, I developed a particular love for Dante Rossetti as painter/poet, Kahlil Gibran as the same, and William Blake who outshines them all and may very well be the original modern artist. As of late, I would say because of my time roaming Bonaventure and living in Savannah, I’ve added Johnny Mercer to the mix as he could write music, play any instrument and draw or paint anything on top of that, but is rarely thought of as a visual artist. These people with so many God given talents have always intrigued me because I have been blessed with a similiar spark. Which many artists have more than one side to them, but I have also met many who can paint amazing things but can’t write a paragraph or talk in front of people without sweating bullets. They have the golden touch in some respects but two left feet in others.

Sometimes I wonder why I have been given so many tools. As I’m getting to a point, I don’t mean this to sound vain when I say that if you look at the resume of my artistic design, its like I was handed a magical number of talents. They are not automatic by any means and I have had to refine them and learn them and work hard for them. But in my life, I’ve come to draw, sing, paint, cook, act, make films, narrate, write, art direct, publish and also realize there were or are other things I could plug my being into that I would do very well, but don’t simply for some of those other things absorbing my life.

As special as that all sounds, its also maddening. I’m a terrible procrastinate, awful at managing personal time and finances and being someone who “feels” so much, I’m am often taxed by a very sensory world full of energy. To the point where I sometimes don’t do anything at all but recoil and avoid life (I like to call this recharging).

But here’s my message. People ask me all of the time, “What do you do?” I’m always stuck to tell them that I’m an esthete because they just won’t get that 9 times out of 10, but its what I am. And being one has put me in touch with the greatness of human nature and things cosmic in the universe. The only explanation I can come up with about my talents and their various range is that curiosity is my credo and gathering information via getting my hands in various things, is the way I give this information back to a higher source. Or what Conrad Aiken and many others before and after him call The Universal Substance. Or God if you like. Or Collective Consciousness. I do believe in this special energy or this cosmic library place. What I believe we all are, no matter what we do with ourselves, or what we call it, and we are all in the business of doing whether we realize it or not — WE — You & I, are satellites. Information gatherers. Its this purpose I have found that we are, that proves the universe is infinite, expanding and growing. And we are responsible for pushing it wider with our purpose and roles. With what we do and learn? The universe then learns. It grows with it. As we experience, create and achieve? We give back up to it, and it returns something to us. More knowledge, more happiness. Some of it already known and older than us, but in our efforts of giving up our experiences to this higher power, it feeds us in return. We grow. Our internal universes expand. And with this old knowledge and even secrets we are instilled with from our efforts, we then have new tools, more tools to advance in our cause we call “our lives.” I think this also explains why someone who can seem so ordinary or only has one set of talents, suddenly invents the thing that changes the world. Its not that they devised it entirely on their own, but they found the discovery in the zone of such spiritual work. And yes, perhaps our 5 senses are the receptors for these whispers from divine places and are the tools to harness divinity.

A man once asked me quite humored, “how on earth did you go from art school to cemeteries?” I’ve been asked it since too. Even though my answer can easily show the obvious relationships between art and the beauty of a cemetery, my inner gut wanted to scream, “Man, can’t you see I’m gathering more information???” And I cannot always say for what it is that I’m doing this or explain the rhyme or reason. I am just stimulated by beauty and the movement of life’s mechanics and I seek to discover all of their relationships in the way that I am meant to learn from them and about them. I believe this is where poet Conrad Aiken and I am very much alike. We are less concerned by the fame of our name and more so earnest about “the work.” My way of honoring existence, and the highest thing I can do in my life, is to gather more experience, create more art of all kinds, and give it back up. There is some part of this that is automatic and I am merely the steward of this energy with a consciousness of the fact that I am its machine doing the bidding of what my machinery is supposed to do. I also believe we all are truly purposed or if you wish, “designed” to do this or be this. And you can either choose to cheat it or embrace the incredible power of it. For good and for bad, I have embraced it. And because I have, no matter what, I will hever be a failure. None of us can be when we accept the design and live this cosmic program. Yet at the same time, its much simpler than this. All one has to do is fall in love with the world or someone like your grandmother shows you how to see the beauty in it and understand the motion of it through the movement of something like a crayon. Its everywhere you look and in everything you touch. Beauty and love. Make art of your life by living like art. Be art in motion with what you do and there is nothing higher. Not money, not fame, nothing.

What's Next?

What’s Next?