Excursions & Experiences: THE GULLAH LADY!

“I loved the uniqueness of the instruments and I was ready to play the shit out of my acorn squash…”

I’ve had a few passion ideas lately. As I begin to evaluate what it means to enter motherhood, I also inevitably evaluate my lifestyle. I plan on exposing my son to travel from a young age, this is a top priority for my husband and I. However, I also will not risk the health of my child for my own selfish interests. I have no plans on backpacking with my small baby to far flung corners of the earth where I cannot immediately reach adequate medical care should we need it. I’m getting used to the idea that for a while, travel might look different, it might be more domestic based, and I’m OK with that.

Looking at the news lately, all news, leaves me feeling as though I’m living in a war zone. The United States is broken in so many ways, and if you watch TV long enough, the question of, should I really leave my home today doesn’t seem so far off. I’m on a mission to see more of my own country, and to hopefully gain experiences which paint a different image from what I see in the media.

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I think part of looking at my own country means being open to new experiences and varying ways of living and thinking. This is easy to do in far flung places, but for some reason, so much harder in the United States. My objective in documenting myself seeing more of my country is to travel as a stranger in a strange land. I want to see all walks and ways of life and reaffirm my beliefs that our diversity is what makes us a great nation. I truly believe that we are far more alike than we are different.

We took a baby moon road trip down south in which we stopped in various states and cities, one of which was Charleston, South Carolina. Our trip took place in February, which also happens to be Black History Month. As such, I searched for ways that we could learn more about the culture(s) of people of color in our nation, and thus, found The Gullah Lady.

My hesitations: We’ve become so divided as a country that I had this feeling that both people and my friends both of color and those of Caucasian persuasion might roll their eyes at my endeavor. I imagined both types of folks peering deeper into my motives for learning more about a piece of the black community. Am I trying to make myself look or feel better or superior to other whites? Am I trying to be a white savior? Am I being mocking or facetious? Why would I want to do this? Why does it matter to me? Is this a show? Are my endeavors genuine?

I’m really comfortable with my reasons for my endeavor.

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I’m a culture fanatic. I just purely love learning about different cultures. I see no difference between a walking tour of Little Italy to learn more about Italian culture, visiting temples in Thailand to learn more about Buddhist practices, and spending an afternoon in Charleston with a Gullah woman learning more about a unique sector of Southern Black culture. I just like learning new things.

Inevitably, when learning about Black culture and history in the United States, the topic of slavery comes up. I don’t feel uncomfortable and don’t feel like all eyes are on me because I am white. I acknowledge and understand the history of decades long oppression, un-justness, and toil of Black America. I understand that I have white privilege and that this doesn’t make me a bad person, but it’s important to acknowledge it. There is nothing to argue about or get defensive about, it’s a part of the history of my country, and therefore I think it should be important to everyone who lives in the country. I don’t think anyone who shares their accounts of this history with me is blaming me personally or calling me a bad person. If I call myself a traveler, that means my job is to learn about the world. In order to learn, it’s important to listen and have an open mind and open heart. It’s important that when someone shares a story with us, that we hear their words clearly, and not our own words and thoughts swimming in our head.

I think that I should be able to learn about Gullah and slave history without my intentions being questioned. I think people of color should be able to walk into a museum about Irish Americans or other European Americans and not be looked at strangely. The history of the United States belongs to all of us, and we all have a responsibility to know the full and complete history of the nation we live in and in many times claim to love.

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FINALLY, A Gullah Afternoon!

I booked this excursion through AirBnB, it was my first time using the platform for booking an experience and all went well! Our guide/leader was Sharon and we met her in the Columbus Street park. As it was rainy and dreary weather, she re-located us to East Side Soul Food restaurant. I immediately liked Sharon from the get go because she was diligent, organized, and in constant communication…all things that put my anxiety while traveling at ease!

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Sharon is an exceptional story teller. Her profession, which I didn’t know existed, is literally that of a story teller, and she is one of the best. From the minute she began the day, it was impossible not to be captivated by her orating skills and enveloped by her warmth. As an aspiring writer and someone who enjoys stories and always has, I’m always in awe of people who are so gifted. She began by telling us how she first came to know about Gullah culture, her pre-conceptions, and how she has been immersing herself in the culture for years now.

Gullah is both the language spoken and way of calling the people of the culture. Gullah people live mostly on sea islands of southern Gulf states such as the Carolinas, some parts of Florida, and Georgia. The language and culture is a mix of American Southern and West African, and I’m sure some Caribbean as well. The crafts, arts, and food are all unique as well. Typically, you might see Gullah families selling sweet grass baskets around Charleston and Gullah food such as shrimp, fried fish, and greens at restaurants. I had no idea that such a unique culture was a part of my country and it thrilled me to learn more about it!

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After learning about the beginnings of Gullah culture in the United States, it was soon music time. An area which I thrive in given the right conditions (wine, a dimly lit room, more wine) and do piss poorly in given the wrong conditions (sobriety by way of pregnancy.) Sharon taught us a song popularly sung in Gullah churches and taught us how to clap along, in a very unique style, to the song. Arthur and I spent most of the rest of the car rides on the trip arguing about the rhythm of the beat as we both remember it differently. However, I remember it the right way, so the argument was pretty much futile. The song was catchy and we still walk around our home singing it and clapping like lunatics, I even sing the song to my growing baby! He’ll sometimes kick when I sing it, although probably because my voice is bringing him physical pain I’d imagine (sad face.)  We practiced singing as a group, but this was tricky. There were only seven of us and I felt we had to HIT IT for the first time. I didn’t want to over do it and make everyone else jealous, but I didn’t want to leave anyone stranded and under-do it. I thought I should over do it because, why not? Once that was over, I was semi-relieved. I was feeling kind of shy that day (unimaginable, but possible.) Then…Sharon pulled out a bag of Gullah instruments. She laid them on the table and we all had to pick one. I GRABBED THE ACORN SQUASH with gusto. I loved the uniqueness of the instruments and I was ready to play the shit out of my squash (by smacking it rhythmically.) We were given the option of just playing the instruments to the beat, or playing AND signing. Most of the group just wanted to play. However, my husband declared that we did not all come all the way to Charleston to sit on the sidelines and idly smack our squashes or clamp our cow bells, we needed to go balls to the wall. And so we did, and it was amazing, and we all laughed and definitely felt like one run through was enough, and so did the few people in the restaurant listening to us, but I’m pretty sure we wound up doing it twice. I was flushed, and shaky, because I’m awkward…but I had SO much damn fun!

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My favorite part was what came next…quilting! We learned about the art of specifically Gullah quilting. The process if not difficult, but Sharon describes it as tedious. I guess it can be, but I found it relaxing. Strips of different cloth are cut up and you use a nail to push each piece through the burlap fabric and tie it into a bow. Eventually, the entire burlap base is covered and you have a quilt! While ours was random and colorful, there are plenty of artists who create actual scenes on their quilt which I would imagine is much more difficult. Everyone who partakes in the excursion works on the same quilt and it makes the experience that much more meaningful.

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As we worked, Sharon exposed us to the language of Gullah culture by telling a story in the language, seeing how much we could understand, and then re-telling it in Standard English. She explained that she has told this story for audiences of two and audiences of hundreds. I was touched that she told us also about her personal struggles overcoming her being shy, unsure, and lacking confidence at some points in her life. In particular, she told a story of embracing her unique look when taking classes with a bunch of white women who all looked and acted different from herself. While her experience happened to be in this particular context, if one were to have an open mind, the lesson is relatable to anyone who has ever felt different or outcast. Personally, I have always been outcasted for being different (in speech, action, and mind) in my life until recently when I feel it has suddenly become cool and accepted to be oneself. Growing up, I thought and acted different from everyone around me and was ostracized immensely by my peers and even my own family and friends. Sharon’s story of not fitting in in so many ways really made me feel like I had found a kindred spirit, a person who got me.

 

Last, and most importantly for foodies, we were served samples of Gullah food. Rice and red beans, okra soup, and fried fish made their way around and I finished my food before everyone else, naturally. The experience ended shortly there after, and I left feeling so emotional as I always do when spending time with people for a short while, and feel so close to in the end. The Gullah Lady provided our best and most authentic experience of Charleston. I highly recommend!

What I Learned: Growing up was tough for me. I never felt like I fit in. My whole life I’ve been different. I’ve thought differently, acted differently and was just…well…different. I was always told I was too opinionated, too much of a dreamer, and to keep my mouth shut. I never wore the right things, and was usually shunned for not being conformist. When most people visit Charleston they do what they see other people on social media doing. I did those things too and they were great. However, I also decided to partake in something that spoke more closely to who I am, someone who does something differently. I came to The Gullah Lady wanting to learn more about her culture and people who are different from me. I wound up leaving feeling comforted that I’d learned from and about someone who is actually just the same as me. Sharon is a woman who embraced a new culture completely on her own, who took an unconventional career, and who until recently has had many experiences and instances of feeling like an outsider for doing things differently. The foods I eat, the way I worship, and the ways I build community were different than what I did on this tour. However, my fears, challenges, joys, and what I want from my life were not at all different from what Sharon and many others experience. If she ever reads this, I’d like to thank her for being fearless and breaking the mold. I’d like to thank her for reaffirming that it’s important to be unique and confident in who I am. I’d like to thank her for exposing me to playing the acorn squash, a memory that makes me smile on my dullest days. It will always be challenging to accept that I’m different, but there is truly no one else I’d rather be.

I’ve been walking this road –

A long time, a long time, a long time

I’ve been walking this road-

A long time, and I ain’t got weary yet.

– Gullah Spiritual

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