Hidden Southern Culture by Maribeth Shanley

I’ve lived in the south for half my life. In the depths of my heart, I have never liked the southern environment.

For many southern whites, racism and hatred, coupled with a suspicion of different people are alive and well. That suspicion and hatred are evident when another white person looks your way and rolls her eyes at an old black man sitting on a bench in front of a grocery store. As a gesture of agreement, I presume the recipient is supposed to respond with a similar eye roll. When I encountered such a glance, I returned a glare of disdain at the woman who quickly looked away then scurried to the parking lot.

Then, there are all those sneaky racist ploys on the part of southern GOP candidates as they gerrymander their districts to cut out the black voters from their district, ensuring they will win the vote. In South Carolina, for a Democrat, that devious white southern culture shows through at the voting booth, when, as a first time SC voter, you realize your choice is to either vote for the Republican or abstain from voting for most local seats. Too, voter suppression is obvious when town mayors shut down the Sunday polls during an election, thus, curtailing the Souls to the Polls vote where preachers load their congregation onto buses and drive them to the polls so they can vote.

Most of my time in the south, I lived in Tennessee. Racism was evident, especially with the display of the Confederate flag. The excuse for openly touting the symbol was wrapped up in the rationalization of a demonstration of one’s southern heritage. My skin crawls when I see that symbol of oppression whose history included lynchings.

I once wrote a Letter to the Editor of THE TENNESSEAN about the heritage equation. In that letter, I compared the impact of the flag for blacks with the impact of the Nazi flag for Jews. The day my letter was published, I received several hateful phone calls from males identifying themselves as Sons of the Confederacy. I also received a letter from a woman who thanked me for making the comparison as she had always discussed her southern heritage in the same manner. She wrote that now she understood and promised never to make that comparison again.

Living in Tennessee was tough enough. However, the real challenge has been my life in South Carolina, the first State to secede from the United States of America. The South Carolina Declaration of Secession stated that the reason for secession had to do with the issue of slavery which the wealthy planter class was not willing to relinquish. I searched the internet for that Secession statement shortly after moving to South Carolina. I did because I knew in my heart that there was a hidden darkness which still exists here.

I also began to detect that there was a hidden culture rich in history and tradition that existed. I could feel it in the small southern towns. So I began to explore that culture only to find that it had a lot to do with a particular crop grown in Antebellum South Carolina.

During the colonial period, Coastal Carolina was the largest producer of rice in America, and it happened by accident.

Around the year 1685, a ship sailing from Madagascar was caught in a fierce storm off the coast of South Carolina. The ship sought refuge in the Charleston Harbor. While being repaired the ship’s captain met a prominent planter who was known to be the first English settler in the Charleston area. The captain and the gentleman, Henry Woodard, spent time discussing commerce. When the ship was repaired, and the captain and crew were to make their way to their original destination, the captain gave a bag of rice to Woodard who experimented with the rice. The resulting crop was so good that shortly after rice became the main cash crop for the Coastal river plantations of South Carolina.

Rice farming was labor intensive. It required workers who not only possess knowledge of the land but of the cultivation of the rice crop. Growing and harvesting required all this and lots of free labor working long, painful hours to keep the planter class living the lives of luxury to which they were accustomed. Thus, the planters needed an African for the plantations specializing in rice growing. Coastal West African soil was similar to that of Coastal South Carolina. The Coastal West African tribes were expert rice farmers. They became the target of capture as they were kidnapped then transported to South Carolina.

As I began to explore my surroundings, I soon discovered a people rich in culture and color. The culture is called Gullah. The color is the many art forms that came out of that cultivation of rice.

The modern Gullah people are the descendants of the enslaved Africans brought to the Low-Country of South Carolina for rice cultivation. Slave traders kidnapped individuals from a wealth of different ethnic groups throughout the Coastal areas of West Africa. Communication became a challenge for the slaves. Thus, a creole language called the Gullah language was born. The language influenced by a culture rich in African influences defined the uniqueness of the Gullah people. This distinction has become a badge of pride for the descendants as they carried on many of the traditions by turning them into an art.

Sweetgrass Simple        Sweetgrass Intricate     Sweetgrass Elaborate

In particular is the Sweetgrass Baskets woven mainly by females and sold to the public. Every artist brings her distinct technique to the art form.

The original “coiled” baskets brought over on the slave ships were called fanner baskets. The slaves used them to inspect the rice. The baskets were critical tools of rice production and processing. As time went on the techniques of basket weaving was passed down to descendants who turned the tool into individual expressions of art. These baskets now grace homes and museums around the world. They are purchased for their beauty and displayed in museums as a tribute to the rich culture of people stolen from their homes and brought over in chains only to serve as free labor for a class of wealthy white plantation owners. The baskets range in price and design. A small, simple basket could cost as little as $50 while an intricately designed basket could cost as much as several hundreds of dollars. Although the artist ensures the purchaser that the basket is a functional one, most basket owners place their basket(s) in their homes to be admired for the beauty of their art and artist.

Footnote: Rice remained a dominant crop for South Carolina up until the end of the Civil War. With the Emancipation came a fast decline of the wealthy rice economy. Without the free labor of slaves, rice plantations were unsustainable. In the early 1900’s rice farming disappeared from South Carolina.



Filed under Maribeth Shanley, writing

4 responses to “Hidden Southern Culture by Maribeth Shanley

  1. Ernesto Patino

    An informative post. Always enjoy reading about a part of our history that that did not appear in any of my American history books.

  2. Beautiful baskets. I born and raised in the south, and know your words of bigotry are true. So much better here in New England. Excellent post!

  3. I have a couple really beautiful hand made baskets, similar to yours with the red background, that my mother handed down to me. You’ve sparked my curiosity about them. Thank you, Maribeth. Interesting post!

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