A journalist friend and I went to hear Geechee or Gullah, the nearly extinct language, born of slavery. Taken captive, from different African countries, slaves created the language as a way to communicate amongst themselves, to tell stories, share secrets, and plan escapes from their lives of misery.
Mixing African, English, French, and Portuguese, this creative blend of languages, provided a cloak of protection for the lips that spoke it. The man with the whip; frustrated, but none the wiser.
Finally, we found a family that spoke Gullah! We had no invitation, no appointment, and James Green made it unnecessary.
A man, worn smooth by some of life’s most punishing seas, sat in a lawn chair weaving an intricate basket from Sweet Grass that grows over much of the island. We introduced ourselves and told him we wanted to know more about the Gullah language and hear it spoken. He threw his head back and laughed, then shook his head and muttered, "Mmm…Mmm…Mmm. We prodded him.
As he told the old stories he created art as if he was listening to inner whispers, a collective memory spanning generations that worked the grass with him.
He caught my watchful eye, winked, shook his Sweet Grass creation, and said it was nothing special.
It was just one of those things his grandpa taught him to do, he told me. And like his grandfather, he taught his own grandchildren.
Some were more interested than others, he said with a chuckle, and added that his basket weaving, gave him a little spending money.
My wallet flew out of my bag. I wanted a piece of artistry created by those magnificent hands, which seemed to tell stories as he turned sweetgrass into art. I bought, and now cherish one of his creations.
I took pictures and kept questioning this piece of living history. I told him that we would like to write an article about him, the Gullah language, and his stunning creations. Again, he said, “Nah…It ain’t nothing special.” I pushed.
His wife, also a weaver of these stunning creations, spoke for him. “Sum a his stuff is in DC.”
“Where?” I puzzled out loud, trying to figure out where her question would lead us.
“Let me show ya somthin,” and she scurried into the neatly cared for, little-white clapboard house and returned with a newspaper clipping in her hand. My fingers met newsprint, so loved with time and touching, that it felt like baby powder in the palm of my hand. I looked down and my heart stopped.
In the photo, James Green stood with three of his extraordinary baskets, part of a permanent display in America’s most prestigious museum.
He repeated, “It’s nothin.”
To me, and my fellow journalist, this was SOMTHIN! This Gullah-speaking man and his creations were EXTRAordinary! James has now passed, but the beauty he and his wife created lives on in the Smithsonian.
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