Many of us became familiar with Gullah culture through director Julie Dash’s seminal 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust. The first feature film by a Black woman to get general theatrical release, Daughters of the Dust chronicles the lives of a group of women living in the Sea islands off the coast of South Carolina dealing with the ways in which modernization will affect their lives and their unique culture.
The Gullah are the descendants of enslaved Africans of various ethnic groups who live mainly in the so-called Lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina though historically the culture has extended as far north as the Cape Fear area of North Carolina and as far south as northern Florida. The Gullah live on both the coastal plain and the Sea Islands. Partly because of the relatively sparse presence of white plantation owners in the area, they developed a culture much more heavily influenced by Africa than that of other African Americans. The language is a form of English Creole that is very close to the Krio spoken in Sierra Leone and their religious, folk beliefs, farming techniques, food, and crafts hew closely to West African culture as well.
One of the most important aspects of African culture kept alive by the Gullah is basket weaving, or basket-making. According to one of the foremost Gullah basket makers in the country, Henrietta Snype, “Basket making is an art that came from the Senegal area and when our slaves were brought here, they had to try to figure out how they were going to preserve the past.”
Obviously, the enslaved workers were confronted with this conundrum with regard to many aspects of African culture including religion, family practices, etc. Basket making would receive less resistance for a very practical reason. Rice played a crucial part in building the wealth of America. Rice was one of the biggest industries in antebellum South Carolina and Georgia. Plantation owners specifically bought slaves from the Senegambia area, and paid a premium for those Africans, for their technical knowledge of cultivating rice. The baskets were an essential part of that process.
Snype explained, “South Carolina was known for growing a lot of rice so you had to know how to make a fanner because when you collect the rice, it would go in that particular style basket for harvesting.” The fanner was a type of shallow basket used to separate the grain from the chaff. The baskets were made from materials like sweet grass, palmetto leaves, and pine needles. In addition to those used for rice cultivation, Snype told the AFRO,“There were baskets for fruit, baskets for carrying Bibles, etc.”
Of course, with the advent of technology and the shifts in industry, basket-making isn’t a crucial aspect of contemporary business. However, it remains an important cultural link to Africa. “My ancestors and theirs before them, knew they had to find a way to preserve the craft.” Snype explained. Learning the craft was, she said, “mandatory” when she was growing up. “My great grandmother, Sally Turner, taught my grandmother, Elizabeth Johnson, my grandmother taught my mother and my mother, Mary, taught me. I taught my daughter and now she has a daughter who she taught. So it’s passed down. Once you learn as a child, you never forget.”
When Snype first entered adulthood, she lost her connection to the art. A traumatic family event renewed her commitment. “I went to school and I worked for a while and I got away from it. Then my grandmother became ill. I decided I had to preserve and protect it.”
She also wanted the basket making to be respected as a form of art in its own right. She recalled, “I started taking photographs of my work and I submitted it to the South Carolina Arts Commission because I wanted to be recognized as an artist and not just a basketmaker.” She was accepted and has gone on to teach basket making in museums, schools, social organizations all over the United States.
Snype acknowledges that not all Gullah basket makers feel the same way she does. “A lot of basket makers will not teach because they feel like it’s giving away the craft but I feel you’re not actually giving it away. You’re sharing it.”
The baskets can sell for anywhere from $40 to upwards of $5,000 and on average take about eight hours to complete one of average size. Snype continues to do what she does though, for reasons much beyond monetary gain. “It gives me.” she said, “A different perspective because it doesn’t just reflect me. It reflects that I am part of a community as a whole. When a community can preserve and protect its art it just gives you a great feeling because it’s something that no one else has.”