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West African Gullah Traditions Kept Alive on the Sea Islands


Many Americans know Vertamae Grosvenor as a broadcast personality. Her insightful essays are heard on National Public Radio. Among the Gullah, a distinctive group of African-Americans, she is affectionately called "Kuta," a nickname that means turtle.

As Grosvenor tells it, way back when, she arrived on the scene prematurely. "I weighed like a five-pound bag of sugar when it's a little more than half full," she explains. In other words, a mere three pounds. Her family put the tiny infant in a shoe box, placed it on the wood-burning stove for warmth and fed her goat's milk from a medicine dropper. "And people was coming to look at this little baby that they was almost going to throw away," she says. "And they'd look in the shoe box, and they'd say, 'Oh God, it look like a kuta !' So the name stuck."

There is a story attached to just about everything about the Gullah, who live on a string of marshy barrier islands, known as the Sea Islands, off South Carolina and Georgia. There are stories about death. Stories about rice. Stories about names.

Many Gullah stories, traditions and customs can be traced to West Africa, in particular Sierra Leone--a nation about the size of Maine. In fact, of all groups in North America, the folkways and cultural attitudes of the Sea Islands people are those most closely related to any specific African culture. The Gullah language, music, crafts, religious practices and diet bear remarkable resemblance to those of Sierra Leone.

The Gullah are descendants of slaves shipped from West Africa in a trade that lasted from the 16th Century until 1858. "Because the slave trade continued for such a long time," Grosvenor explains, "you had what they called 'fresh Africans' coming in until the eve of the Civil War. So the culture was reinforced."

One explanation for the survival of African traditions is the isolation of the Sea Islands, which has permitted the Gullah to preserve the old ways despite the influence of mainstream culture.

The two regions also share predominantly agricultural economies; to the people of both the African and American coasts, rice is a staple--even a passion. Stores in places such as Beaufort County, S.C., sell rice in 50-pound bags, though, and one clerk explained: "We have a hard time keeping it in stock."

However, in recent years, as developers have moved in--hoping to transform the islands into luxury resorts--many Gullah have left, and there is concern that this culture may soon disappear. The development has gained national attention, from articles in newspapers to coverage on "60 Minutes."

Whether because of this displacement or other reasons, Gullah culture has spread far beyond the South. The Gullah have been featured at the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife and, throughout 1991, Gullah historians, artisans and storytellers have been invited by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art to Washington, D.C., to share their traditions with visitors.

The programs serve as a companion to an exhibition of photographs of Sierra Leone's paramount chiefs, the highest-ranking rulers of that nation's traditional government. Taken by photographer Vera Viditz-Ward, the portraits are spread across the gallery like an extended-family album.

Viditz-Ward first became interested in the Gullah-West Africa connection in 1977, when she visited Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps volunteer. She has spent years there learning the customs and gaining the trust of the paramount chiefs.

A professor of photography at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, Viditz-Ward, 39, recently embarked on another assignment that further explores the Gullah-Sierra Leone link. She has begun what she hopes will be a continuing photo essay on the people and traditions of South Carolina's Sea Islands. She hopes her understanding of Krio--a language of Sierra Leone--will help her communicate with and win the confidence of the Gullah, who speak a similar tongue, called Geechee.

The photographer's goal in South Carolina is to create "a body of work that continues to grow." The photos will become part of the Sea Islands' Penn Center, a cultural and educational institution dedicated to preserving Gullah history. "My biggest fear is that, soon, what's a living tradition will be relegated to only a few paragraphs in the history books," Viditz-Ward said.

One tradition she plans to document is Gullah basketry, which features the same patterns and techniques, and similar materials as those made in West Arica. Sold along Highway 17 near Charleston, S.C., the baskets have become a popular tourist item.

This type of basketry is considered one of the oldest African crafts practiced in America, and is a distinctive feature of the Sea Islands culture. "These baskets are known for their quality, their value and their historic background," said master basket maker Mary Jackson of Charleston, whose work has been shown at galleries across the country.

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