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Welcome back overseas: AreturntoDaufuskie

By Michael Sitzman

Section: Arts

September 22, 2006

In his book, Pat Conroy called it Yamacraw Island to protect its anonymity, knowing that even a place seemingly forgotten by time would need protection from times onslaught. Its true name is Daufuskie: An enchanting, heartbreaking corner of America where agriculture, slavery, history, faith, poverty, real estate, and culture collide. Conroy taught in an impoverished school there in the 1960s and published an account in his celebrated book The Water Is Wide. It is home to a culture and dialect with deep African roots, known as Gullah, or Geechee, and where, appropriately, mainlanders are met with the greeting, Welcome overseas.

Thirty-four years have passed since Conroy took us there. Let us take a trip overseas once more

The Gullah dialect, a creole, is named for an Angolan word meaning “a people”. Its origins trace back to Elizabethan English as well as to at least eight African languages. The result of a slave trade that brought people to the marshy, coastal sea islands of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, the language and culture flourished in the islands extreme isolation until the mid-Twentieth century.

When Conroy first set foot overseas, he met a community of just under four-hundred people knowing little of the outside world, living without plumbing, electricity, or regular transport to the mainland. Teaching all grades in an old two-room schoolhouse, he found that his students could neither read nor write and didnt know the name of their own country. His teaching was innovative, often spontaneous, and generally unorthodox. Eventually, disagreements with school administrators resulted in his dismissal. Conroys story, printed in 1972, was later re-born as the movie Conrack, his role being played by Jon Voigt.

The Gullah have a long storytelling tradition springing from their West African heritage;

but to outsiders, they are known not for weaving tales but sweetgrass baskets. From the 1700s, when the tradition was introduced, basket-weaving has been a mainstay. Baskets were first used to separate rice grains from the outer chaff, as rice was a staple in the Lowcountry, as the area is known. Originally made of bulrush from the marshes, the baskets later came to be woven from the sweetgrass from sand dunes and now sometimes include palmetto and longleaf pine-needles. Women have also largely replaced men as the principal weavers. Although sweetgrass baskets can earn skilled weavers a significant income, the traditions future on Daufuskie is uncertain as more young people are leaving the island.

Daufuskies name comes from the Creek Indian words daufa (feather), and fuskie (sharp point), because of the islands feather-like shape. The Cusabo and Yemassee had also lived there before the slave trade. When Englands King Charles I granted island land to wealthy settlers to establish indigo and cotton plantations, many settled off-island, appointing some of the slaves to manage the plantations. The slaves resulting isolation from mainland influence was key to the evolution and endurance of Gullah culture.

Daufuskees population peaked after the Civil War, with two-thousand slaves growing corn, rice, and okra. Following Emancipation, Gullah culture flourished on the islands well into the 1960s, even as the young generations began their exodus in search of economic opportunity. Oyster farming was attempted after WWII in hopes of providing jobs, but pollution from the Savannah River dashed such hopes.

When Conroy began his teaching stint at Mary Fields Elementary School, the island still lacked physicians, paved roads, streetlights, and stores. Much has changed in forty years. Students now take a boat to school on a neighboring island and medical care is available.

Not all changes have been for the better. Ironically, one of the strengths of the Gullah, their communal bond, has left them vulnerable. In isolation they had had no need for wills or property deeds;

thus, when land developers eyed Daufuskie in the 1980s, long-timers, known as bin-yahs (been-heres) couldnt protect their properties from newcomers, or come-yahs (come-heres).

Most of Daufuskie today, though less developed than neighboring Hilton Head, has been purchased by developers, its tracts being turned into what planners call golf-resort communities. All but one of the “praise-houses,” huts the Gullah used as places of worship, are gone. The flight of the young has resulted in a Gullah population of only 4 or 5 families, mostly elderly. Promotional literature refers euphemistically to remaining Gullah-owned land as the historic area.

A Gullah proverb tells: Mus tek cyar da tree fa heal de root. (We must take care of the tree to heal the root;

that is, the community must be nurtured for the well-being of each.) I wonder what the once tight-knit Gullah would say about a privately-owned project being dubbed a community. I am myself at somewhat of a loss for words. The fate of both tree and root remain uncertain.

Down in the marsh, among the bulrush and sweetgrass, the rising tide each night brings new water in, changing the shape of the landscape. Beyond the stands of palmetto and longleaf pine, a people caught in a different tide struggle to gain a foothold among the relentless current and shifting landscape of a new century. In this American social microcosm, they are crossing overseas to an unfamiliar, uncertain world. As Conroy said in his farewell wish to the students he so loved, so would I wish for all the people of Daufuskie:

May the river be good to you in the crossing.
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