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Gullah Heart

A short story of a young woman's return to her Gullah family and the cultural treasures that make her whole on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina.

Her Gramma’s fingers moved like clockwork--no, that wasn’t it. There was a musicality to it, more like a composer guiding a masterpiece as she weaved the sweetgrass into one work of art after another. Jasmine spent summer after summer as a child watching her Gramma’s fingers. Hardened and callused, they nonetheless possessed a rugged beauty.

Half Gullah on her Murrah’s (mother’s) side, Jasmine eagerly anticipated returning to Daufuskie Island. Accessible only by ferry, the island lay in stark contrast to her suburban Atlanta home. Heavy trees and the smell of brackish water carried by the breeze called to her soul. Departing the ferry and walking the distance to her Gramma’s modest house, she took in the unadulterated view. For the first time in a long while, she could breathe.

Her Murrah recounted to her the stories of the vibrant community that was here no longer, her Gramma one of the few who remained. Pollution of the Savannah River a generation ago did not just decimate the marine life, it caused the death of a livelihood, an entire community. Echoes of that culture endured; the oyster shacks partially reclaimed by nature seemed to be amid a final, valiant last stand. The reinforcements of historical restoration, long delayed by funding and resources, offered the last hope before the island itself erased an entire history.

Bluebirds, warblers, finches, and mourning doves vocalized their conversations in the canopy above. Herons and egrets could be seen in the distance, searching the shallows for sustenance. She needed no map; her footsteps and the explorations of childhood imagination forever marked the way.

To say Gramma’s house appeared modest would be, well, modest. Small in stature with a rusting tin roof, it conveyed an authentic simplicity. It was home. Jasmine saw Gramma first; she sat in the shade of the front porch manipulating the sweetgrass into submission. Her hearing suffered from old age, otherwise Jasmine never would have been able to catch her unaware. Taking her phone out, she captured the image.

Gramma looked up then and broke into a smile that radiated joy and love.

“Anyika!” she called out. Anyika, Jamine’s basket name, meant ‘she is beautiful.’ Her basket name was only used by her Gullah family.

“Gramma!” Anyika replied, half-running the rest of the way to the porch. She was enveloped in the warm embrace of not just her Gramma, but her culture and history.

The smell of okra soup drifted out of the open window. “Did you make okra soup?” Anyika asked breathlessly in anticipation. The comfort food of legend offered salvation in a pot.

“Yaas!” Gramma exclaimed, beaming as she held Anyika’s face in her hands.

“T’engky!!” Anyika thanked her in Gullah, the Sea Island Creole.

Together they sat down, and Anyika transitioned into speaking her second language. But in truth it was her first language, and always would be. The expression of her ancestors, she once again reunited with them on this hallowed ground. On the porch of a small house with a tin roof.

Author’s Note:

The rich cultural heritage of the Gullah, also known as Geechee, is a treasure of the low country. Inhabiting the coastal region of the Sea Islands from southern North Carolina to northern Florida, the Gullah are the descendants of enslaved peoples primarily from West Africa. Due to their relative isolation on the coast/islands and population size, they have been able to maintain their West African culture over hundreds of years. The Gullah language is an English-based Creole which is found nowhere else in the world. Their contributions including agricultural practices, arts and crafts, and culinary arts (to name a few) have been documented and continue to live on.

Watch a video about the Gullah traditions of South Carolina:

Watch a brief video by GPB about the Francis Jones House on Daufuskie Island:

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