Sweetgrass Baskets And Gullah African Traditions

20140811_133825_1Sweetgrass baskets are beautiful intricately weaved, coiled baskets and one of the oldest African crafts in America! These baskets, a cultural heritage of the Gullah African tradition, were transported across the Atlantic by enslaved African people. The baskets appeared in South Carolina during the late 17th century.

20140811_134622_1The Neighbors In Service of Brunswick Plantation and Golf Resort had luncheon at the Brunswick House on July 11th with Guest Speaker, Adeline Mazyck.  Adeline has created Sweetgrass baskets for 60 years, starting at age 6 or 7 and taught by her mother. She is the 4th generation of basket makers in her family. 20140811_135006Adeline told her personal story of making Sweetgrass baskets, the craft she loves, as well as more about the Gullah culture.

Sweetgrass Baskets

Sweetgrass plantsBulrush & palm, the mainstays of coiled basketry, are ancient plants mentioned in the Bible. Today Adeline tells us that those plants plus long leaf pine needles and sweetgrass are used to make baskets today in South Carolina. Though these plants do grow wild in North & South Carolina , Georgia, and Florida, some  are cultivated now.  The young men get these plants, and Adeline buys it.  Florida now charges for the plants or throws them away. This grass is similar to the grass in Africa where this weaving tradition originated.

Sweet G basketsistock_000017676950xsmallThe plants must first be dried out for 2 or 3 days. Too much moisture makes it soft and not good for weaving. A plant  must be cured if it is green.  Plants can be dyed but may fade from the sun and Adeline says that she feels it is best when natural. All baskets are started from a knot and go on and on, as there is no set pattern though designs are shared. SG Elepahnt eareec947db83c2f2a59060363fe1365d69Each piece is unique, as artists develop their own style which requires a great deal of patience and creativity!  Every basket has to be individually shaped and sometimes taken apart and redone. Adeline says she can work a 10 hour day weaving the basket. It can take days, even months to make one basket.SG basekt with lid7f5938697d68954bb5f4c44e1bed2416 The baskets with lids take a long time, as the lid must fit just right!

The baskets were first used in Africa to hold water. The first known baskets in the Lowcountry of South Carolina were called  Fanners and were used for winnowing, the process of tossing hulls into the air to separate chaff from rice. Other work baskets used for planting and harvesting coastal money crops like cotton. Agricultural baskets were made of bulrush, sweetgrass and split oak. Later bulrush replaced split oak as binders. Work baskets faded along with the rice plantations, but aesthetic sweetgrass baskets endured!

Gullah History & Traditions

Gullah CheeChee Culture Rice culture BrookgreenSweetgrass Basket sewing is viewed as a gift from God in the Gullah culture. Gullah are the descendants of the slaves who worked on the rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. Africans from the Windward or Rice Coast of West Africa had knowledge & experience with rice cultivation. Therefore, they were very sought after in the Atlantic Slave trade to the Lowcountry.  To preserve their connection to their African roots , these enslaved people brought their culture with them…as they feared they would never see their homeland again.  They still live in rural communities in the coastal region of South Carolina and Georgia and also retain many elements of the African language & culture.

The Gullah were able to keep more of their cultural heritage than any other group of Black Americans. This was mostly due to an atmosphere of geographical isolation in the rural semitropical areas and the system the rice agriculture adopted in the 1700’s.  Today the Gullah area is confined to South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry.

Gullah shop447295The Gullah people and and their language are also referred to as “Geechee”, which some scholars speculate is related to the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia. “Gullah” is a term that was originally used to designate the variety of English spoken by Gullah and Geechee people. It has come to be known by its speakers to formally refer to their Creole language and distinctive ethnic identity as a people.Geechee is an English-based creole language containing many African loanwords & influenced by African languages in grammar and sentence structure. In recent years educated Gullah people have begun promoting use of Gullah as a symbol of Cultural pride!Gullah continue to to regard themselves as a distinct community and cherish their unique heritage!

gullah tours womanGullah people have a rich storytelling tradition strongly influenced by African oral traditions, but also informed by their historical experience in America.  brer-rabbitTheir stories include animal trickster tales about antics of “Brer Rabbit”, “Brer Fox” , and “Brer Bear, Brer Wolf”.  There are also human trickster tales about clever and self-assertive slaves as well as morality tales designed to impart moral teaching to children. Gullah storytelling, rice-based cuisine, music, folk beliefs, crafts, and fishing traditions all exhibit strong influences from West and Central African cultures.

Gullah Chechee C H Corrider300x293-logoGullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

Sweetgrass basket  marker 6a00d8341c62a953ef0153941f5122970b-450wiThe Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission was created by Congress in 2006 to recognize contributions of the Gullah people and to help preserve historical sites as well as their folklore, arts, crafts, music and language.

DYK…Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas and First Lady, Michelle Obama both have roots in the unique Gullah community.

The First Lady celebrated that heritage at the 2012 inauguration; Thomas credits it for much of his silence on the court.

gullah robinson quiltStory Quilt Maker, Bunny Rodriques, spearheads quilt to honor Michelle Obama’s Gullah Family History

Bunny Rodrigues, a story-quit maker & former owner of the Gullah Ooman Museum in Pawley’s Island …Along the Myrtle Beach Strand spearheaded the creation of the 90-by-70-inch quilt dedicated to retelling Michelle Robinson Obama’s family history from slave quarters to White House. On a January 2008 visit to her  maternal ancestors’ hometown in Georgetown, SC, Mrs. Obama became immersed in a history, with which she was not familiar, being virtually retold.  Though a slave, her great-grandfather learned to read & write because he lived with a white family. The importance of education was passed through the generations of the family. The quilt starts with a slave cabin with a life-size Michelle in the center wearing a cap & gown with Princeton & Harvard delineated in large letters. Rodriques said she wanted to emphasize her education and have that to be an inspiration , that you can have ancestors in a slave cabin and end up at Harvard. The quilt hung in the Washington D.C. , Historical Society but by the 2nd inauguration it rode in a Gullah-Geechee Corridor Commission float in the 2013 Inaugural parade.


Gullah Culture Programs & Books

Brookgreen gardens coolsummereveningsBrookgreen Gardens

Brookgreen , one of the largest & most prosperous plantations in South Carolina during the 18th century, was built by Gullah slaves. It was combined with three other plantations in 1930 to form Brookgreen Gardens. It is now a showcase of art, gardens and nature with the largest display of American representational sculpture in the world.

Brookgreen Gardens at Murrels Inlet, SC , is a National Historic Landmark. This was formerly  the hub of the rice culture and home to 1000 Gullah Ceechee people. A weekly program, The Gullah Geechee Program series is sponsored at Brookgereen Gardens.  Check it out@ www.brookgreen.org   Or call (843) 235-6000

GullahInfo about the Gullah-Geechee Corridor, contact Ron Daise @ rondaise09@gmail.com


Books about the Gullah Culture… Sweetgrass Baskets

tales from brookgreenBowkerCover-205x300Tales from Brookgreen: Gardens, Folklore, Ghost Stories, and Gullah Folktales in the South Carolina Lowcountry By: Lynn Michelson

Gullah Ghosts2940012733337_p0_v1_s260x420Gullah Ghost Stories & Folktales By: Lynn Michelson

row upon rowRow upon Row, Sea grass Baskets of the SC Lowcountry By: Dale Rosengarten

sweetgrass baskets by coakleySweetgrass Baskets and the Gullah Tradition By: Joyce V. Coakley

Circle CoverCircle Unbrocken  (A Book with wonderful Illustrations for children & adults)          By: Author: Theis Raven &  Illustrator: E. B. lewis

There is much to learn about the cultures and history of Coastal Carolina! Thanks so much to NIS for bringing Adeline Mazyck Brunswick Plantation and Golf Resort to share her personal history with us!

Adeline mazyck baskets SC766x575You can find Adeline on the Sweetgrass Corrider in Mt. Pleasant, SC …Sweetgrass Basket Maker’s Highway. The town & city of Charleston made stands for basket weavers! What  wonderful way to preserve this rich Gullah heritage! It would be so sweet to have a sweetwater basket of your own to enjoy and share this history with others!

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