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Friday, September 11, 2009

Low Country Tales


Not long ago I took a trip to Charleston, SC. If you’ve never been to Charleston you’re missing a treat, especially if you like history. In Charleston the past and the present mix so seamlessly you aren’t sure where one leaves off and the other begins. At any rate, I took a tour while I was there. As the tour progressed I noticed a great many small houses that were trimmed in blue. I asked the tour guide about that, and he said the doors and windows were painted blue to keep the spirits out. Intrigued by his answer, I decided to do a little research and see what I could find out.

My research led me to the Gullah people. The Gullah are African Americans who live in the Low Country of South Carolina, which includes both the coastal plain and the Sea Islands. This area once extended as far north as Cape Fear in North Carolina and as far south as Jacksonville, Florida, but today the Gullah are confined to the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country. The Gullah people are also called Geechee.

The Gullah are known for preserving their African linguistic and cultural heritage. They speak an English-based creole language containing many African loanwords and significant influences from African languages in grammar and sentence structure. The Gullah language is related to Jamaican Creole, Bahamian Dialect, and the Krio language of Sierra Leone in West Africa.

Most of the Gullahs' ancestors were brought to South Carolina through the port of Charleston. Charleston was the most important port in North America for the Atlantic slave trade, and almost half of the enslaved Africans brought into what is now the United States came through the port of Charleston.

The Gullah have been able to preserve so much of their African cultural heritage because of geography and climate. The slaves were put to work on rice plantations while the slave owners fled the hot, malaria infested rice growing areas. Left in relative isolation, the slaves were able to keep and pass on their cultural traditions.

African influences are found in every aspect of the Gullahs' traditional way of life including their beliefs about hags, haunts, and plat-eyes. Hags were believed to be the disembodied spirits of witches who could shed their skins and “ride” people. Riding meant giving people nightmares. Sometimes the hags were believed to be vampires.

The young and the old were especially susceptible to being ridden by hags. To stop a hag from riding you, you had to catch her when she was out of her skin and salt the skin. This was pretty hard to do so most people painted their doors and windows blue to scare the hag away.

Haunts were believed to be the spirits of the dead who could return to cause trouble for the living. The worst of these were “plat-eyes.” Plat-eyes were evil spirits that could assume various shapes and rob a person of their wits. To repel these evil spirits the people used a mixture of gunpowder and sulfur because no plat-eye could stand the smell of this mixture.

The picture at the top of the page shows sweet grass baskets that are made by the Gullah women. The baskets are beautiful, the quality is outstanding, and many of the designs date back to slave days.

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