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.

gullah-inside1

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.

gullah-inside4

“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 Interview On “Doing It Different” with Tyler Martina

1152x368-home-banner
When I got wind of this interview from the 6th Sense World office, I was intrigued to know more. When I saw Tyler Martina, he looked like a “too clean” Rock-A-Billy kid from California and so wondered if he was more trendy poseur or had some substance behind all of the tatts and such radiant skin. Hey, no one says you have to have clogged pores to be a greaser and who wants to be a greaser anyway? Turns out he was a real quality rocker guy with a lot of heart and intelligence and was really happy with the way it turned out. We met in the chapel at Hillcrest Abbey Cemetery and was with his family and that put a whole new light on him for me. He had a beautiful wife(?) and just darling daughter who apparently can see ghosts. And what I realized was they were really doing a neat family thing together by seeing the country and then also capturing neat characters and knowledge for the show’s listeners. It not only showed the guy had heart, but business savvy to go along with it. As I told them, the best thing my parents ever did for my brother and myself, was on summer breaks, and riding us around the country Griswold style to all of the big historic sites and National Parks across this great country of our’s and that they’d all be blessed for this as a family later in life. I think they were a tad too young to see all of that but I promise, they’ll one day be thanked by their daughter for it. Anyway, turns out I was their target character and just wanted to do a good job for them. So we talked life, death, paranormal, America’s Most Haunted City both in terms of how Savannah got the title, how I captured it formally and then went out and made a movie about it. We spoke of Bonaventure of course and one day time apparition moment I was witness to that was greatly affecting. Overall I think it turned out pretty decent and really inspired me to get back into my own podcast for 6thSenseWorld Radio more actively which hey, just ordered my new headsets and splitters today so be on the listen out! In the meantime, I hope this is entertaining and informative!

Doing It Different With Tyler Martina
Click Link For Interview

The Crypt Keeper: Shannon Scott

“Goodnight Popeye” – My Tribute To Louis Green

Louis Popeye Green plays Jim Collins bar in Savannah, Georgia. Photo: Irene Ward

Louis Popeye Green plays Jim Collins bar in Savannah, Georgia. Photo: Irene Ward

Photo Rusty Browne

Louis “Popeye” Green

Savannah says goodbye to one of our great characters in the 20th & 21st, Louis “Popeye” Green. He mastered horses, farming, being homeless and the Blues Guitar. As I mentioned earlier to a friend today, although he was “poor,” he had such a rich life and was very much like many of us downtown in the 1990s when we were much poorer and although he was pushing a homeless cart stacked to the gills with lane treasures, we were in solidarity as business dreamers and artists in the making. He represented hard work, dignity, perseverance, never-quit-attitude and much more that was old world human. He suffered much also at the hands of life and for a time with drugs. I always called him Louis in the barn of Historic Horse Tours, but noted that on the streets it was “Popeye.” Of which he became known more when an accident meant surgery with a plate in his head, left it see more strange in shape I suppose. Even before that I once asked him, “Why do they call you Popeye?” He said, “some say its my head and that I look like him.” I never quite saw it because I thought he was cute-handsome and so I always called him by his formal name out of respect. Popeye seemed too much of a street character name, and not that this was a bad thing, but I’d known him as Louis first, and I saw him as fellow resident vs just a vagabond. In my life, Louis became subject of one of my favorite stories that I still continue to share like a sweet morsel. Some 20 years ago, when I drove for Bill Royal and his family’s business, Historic Horse Tours, we were the underdogs in town as the 2nd ever carriage company and were up against the monopoly company in town and we had a barn full of characters like myself, Russell “Rusty” Browne, and Bill’s sister, Twila Delight Royal (real name), and Louis was a barn hand and kind of a side kick to everyone. He had zero body fat and every bit of his body was striated with muscle that looked as if made of barbed wire. As a comic book reader, I compared his handshake to that of shaking hands with Ben Grimm or The Thing” from Fantastic Four. It felt like pumice or a thick leather glove. I’d felt hands like that before with the men in my Kentucky family who’d picked tobacco and had worked the railroads and coal mines. But even Louis’ hands were tougher. And yes, he’d grown up poor and black in the most rural parts of Georgia picking cotton and breaking horses. Or so I’d been told and he’d hinted around too. He was truly “of the land” and shaking his hand was like being greeted by an old tree. And in spite of his street life conditions, was glad to have a job and the little horse family down on the end of Savannah’s Fahm Street. One cold morning, around 7:30, our little crew was in the only warm place in the metal shed barn, the shanty office with its space heater. We were getting ready of course to ride out to City Market to sit for probably what would be hours in the “pre-tourist” town of Savannah, Georgia until we got a fare. Oh my those days when the wind from the Savannah River whipped through the desolate City Market parking garage and iced you to the bone! God forbid if your gloves got wet while filling the water bucket! I remember days when you’d see Rusty Browne in his vintage grey overcoat and laceless combat boots and dirty turtleneck sweater standing in an empty City Market with a fire and boiling pot of water selling boiled peanuts! I’m pretty sure you can’t do that anymore or probably even then! To think he’s the King of The Pedicabs today but it was VERY humble beginnings and these moments amused me now as much as they did then. We were all really Savannah’s Rat Pack and inspired each other even when we might not have known that we were doing that but I’m pretty sure I knew it. None the less, back to this particular morning of subject. I vividly recall Bill Royal, Twila, partner Tom Smith, Ruth Bodek, myself and one preppy art student, Scott all huddled in the office waiting on our reservation sheets. Per routine, Tom, Bill and Twila were smoking of course and I’m sure with the ether of dung and fresh straw in the mix, that the room smelled a little rich. But it was warm and this was story telling boot camp! This was still the days of land lines and barely a working computer so it felt a bit thrown together and by the seat of their pants. The most modern appliance was a Bunn Coffee burner with 2 hot plates and the classic orange and brown tipped glass coffee pots to signify caffeine or that other kind for the weak. Those pots were known to not only break at the slightest tap and cut you deeply, but also reached temperatures above 200 degrees and caused unforgiving burns at the slightest touch of the already life threatening glass. The company probably should’ve been known as Burn Coffee and not Bunn! But as coffee drinkers, we take such risks for the brown manna. Suddenly the office door opened, and with that suction sound that always pulled some air the door’s direction, moved some paperwork and a horse to look up somewhere, in coasts Louis who was in search of the freshly brewed elixir. We all say, “Morning Louis,” and he replied in his usual chipper tone, “Morning every-bawdy!” Being that we were all so jammed into the room, and that such an action moment is thus hard to miss, we were all just unconsciously watching Louis shuffle through this small room. It was literally about 100 sq ft and yes, some of us had to shift to let Louis get past. What happened next will forever remain burned into my brain and I have told the story often with a great tone of amazement and like someone who’d seen something epically freakish. I liken it to the same feeling someone has when witnessing a magician’s illusion that defies reality and leaves you speechless to the point that you hear your brain thud against your skull while trying to decipher the physics. And let me say this. We might argue that when these glass coffee pots are full they are supremely hotter across their glass surfaces than they might be if just partially full. Hence why most of us, ok, 99.9% of us know the value of the thick plastic handles on those pots. When Louis found himself in front of these coffee pots, I had a perfect eye line on the unexpected super human feat about to occur. In the same manner one might just pick up a pen in which to write? Louis picks up the coffeepot with both hands FROM THE BOTTOM — then slowly walks over to the other side of the office (maybe 10 feet), like he’s holding an average object, and proceeds in a very gentle, pouring type manner, turns the coffee into his cup like he can’t spare a drop and when done, he about faces, walks unhurriedly back to the hot plates as if more concerned by breaking the glass than the atomic heat on his hand and then rests the pot softly down, picks up his coffee cup and walks straight out the door without a wince or a word and a smile on his face. When the door once more did its sucking noise, there was silence across our faces. Scott actually looked nervous. We were frozen with dumbfoundedness and for a moment stared at each other in silent disbelief and I think there then came some “Holy shits” and nervous laughter and I seem to recall that Twila with her raspy smoke laced vocal chords exclaiming a, “Fuck man, that Louis has worked hard his whole life!” Louis sure did. And I knew that although I’d worked Illinois farms and painting barns, that it would be unlikely I’d ever work as hard or suffer as much as Louis Green. And I don’t like to use the word suffer around such a man. He wouldn’t want to me associate that with him either. Even though he was hard knocks, he did it with an impish smile and an infectious sweet, gritty laughter. He was also very very loved by me and some great souls around him and hope he passed on feeling content and blessed for sowing some seeds. He definitely planted one in me as a human being and I’m especially grateful now. As years went by I would see him around Savannah and seemed like he was doing better even if he seemed to like what the streets gave him a sense of, which was being real and keeping it real. I respect that. There’s too much fluffy anymore and that wasn’t his style. Funny but I get that. Sometimes staying just above homeless gives you an edge of charge and challenge and motivation that being a fat cat can’t. I remember seeing Louis at an “old folks” home on Tybee some years ago and thought, “well this is cool, he’s near the beach. He deserves this.” I don’t think that probably lasted as that was probably too soft of a life for him and although Louis looked well aged, he looked younger than his age and never struck me as a guy who’d ever “be old.” His body was bent over years ago by a hard life but he made that cruel human form of his own a beautiful machine. It would also be later that I learned Louis was a master guitar player and yes, even with those calloused hands. I bet vibration was all they could still feel and maybe God made them that way so they could slide more perfectly around them as he transmuted all of his soul through them. When I heard he’d play in City Market or jam out at some bars with people this caught me off guard and prompted some momentary disbelief. Yet any disbelief was replaced quickly by more awe of Louis and made my heart extremely happy. I’m one of those people who loves to be surprised by human nature and then am never surprised what human souls can do. Which makes me even more sorry to hear of his passing and that Louis will play no more. You see in the star chart of The Savannah Universe, there are these distinct planets in our solar system of personalities, and Louis Popeye Green was a huge star and the rest of us in the galaxy feel dim today even if we will all shine a little more brightly for the rest of our days for having him near. He made beautiful music and made an instrument of himself and gave of it fairly and freely. Rest In Peace Louis. 10/12/44 -8/29/16

Special Thanks to Rusty Browne for his letting us know of his passing and being a constant for him on behalf of all of us…

Video Credit Rusty Browne.