A Cultural Experience with the Gullah Community: "Fun fu de chillun and famlee"
I was here with my book The Mysterious Life of Jim Limber. As told in the book, Jim attended this school. We have come to the African Cultural Heritage Celebration. I saw the remains of Hurricane Matthews’ devastation and learned that the Penn Center was so buried in trees and debris they couldn’t get onto the property. The community all pulled together to make it a priority so the Celebration could go on. Trees as big around as cars are stacked in heaps as high as houses all over this island. Big dump trucks are hauling all day and all night. But the Penn Center has been completely cleared for parking, walking, and the festival. It is very important to everyone on this lovely island.
The days here have almost overloaded my brain with color, music, fish frying, a parade with bands, flags and floats, a symposium, entertainment, vendors, artists, and authors. But, as always at events, what I remember most isn’t how many books I sold, but the people I met. I talked to many people, many of whom hadn’t heard of Jim Limber. We shared our feelings about his unique experience and what we could learn from it. I remember the chairman of a county education and curriculum committee who was pleased to hear about Jim and the study guide, and she was glad to know the book dealt with the humanity of the period – the compassion and soul of all people – rather than battles and intolerance.
I remember laughing with good-natured Melvin the Collector whose little Aunt Jemima salt and pepper shakers matched the cookie jar in the kitchen of my childhood, and meeting Corey the basket weaver whose daughters joined us on Saturday. They are learning basket weaving from their dad and plan to one day be in his spot at the Charleston Market; the spot he inherited from his grandmother. I’ll always remember the lady who works to protect the island to retain its culture. When I come back next she plans to show me Faith House, an original slave “church. When Hurricane Matthew feld trees and blew branches all over the island, Faith House suffered no damage, not even a leak. She says the spirits of the ancestors sustained and protected it. I remember Jerome, who, when he learned about the North Carolina forest fires said, “Wait. Be still.” Looking upward with his eyes closed, he was quiet, but his lips moved. I reached for his hand and closed my eyes as he prayed for Carolina, our people and property, for safety and rain. When he opened his eyes he smiled and said, “It will be okay.” I remember the infectious giggle of the daughter of author Dr. Ally. Every time I heard her, I had to laugh. And can that girl dance! She kept me smiling.
I also remember that on my drive down here I had some apprehension about attending. With all the ugliness going on currently, I began to worry that some might think I shouldn’t be here, or that I shouldn’t have written Jim Limber’s story, or they would see me as condescending. As excited as I’d been about this opportunity, I now began to wonder if I would be welcome. But here on this island we could be a million miles away from the unrest and violence. Here the people are kind and welcoming, patriotic Americans hoping for a bright future while celebrating their past. Politically, I’m sure there must have been some who were unhappy with the election result, some happy, and just as many disappointed. But, they prayed as one at the opening ceremony for the president and all our leaders, for our military and law enforcers, for our country, and our future, as all gracious Americans must do. I saw dignity and self-respect, and respect for others. I saw teens step out of their way to chase down bits of litter and put in trash cans. I didn’t see one person dressed immodestly or any inappropriate behavior, nor did I hear one single vulgar word, or see anyone’s underwear. I saw kindness and manners in every age. (I attend large events on a regular basis, and I can assure you, this is unusual!) After the shameful behavior certain Americans chose to display this week, I wondered if we’d ever see these quality traits again.
The heritage celebrated here is not mine, personally. But, as an American, I’m privileged it was shared with me, to learn about and grow spiritually with. The culture being preserved here on St Helena Island is one that should be preserved everywhere in our country. I’m not referring to buildings and landforms. I’m referring to people of joy, peace, kindness, respect, restraint, love of God and country. Simple. Profound. I’m so blessed to have been welcomed here and to leave with a renewed hope for all of us.