Floridawater IV, 2019. Archival pigment print, 24 × 36 in. Courtesy of the artist and the Marianne Boesky Gallery. © Allison Janae Hamilton.
I began to realize that I lived within a cultural heart of Gullah Geechee people at the age of nine, during a trip planned by Emory Campbell, longtime family friend and the former director of St. Helena Island’s Penn Center. As the folk say, he knew me from before I was born. I recall an overcast and humid sky and sitting in the back of a motorboat with a red life jacket pressing high under my chin. The motor was burring loud in the salt water, spraying my face. I had no clear idea what we were doing. We were in a boat, having an adventure on a neighboring island. Everyone looked somber. Grave faces, gray skies, salt water, opaque journey. And then we landed on Daufuskie Island. Dark brown male hands helped pull my smaller brown hands ashore. People gathered and Emory Campbell delivered the words. I don’t remember many of them, but he said something about land loss and culture and hotels and gated neighborhoods like the ones on Hilton Head called plantations, where Black people worked as maids and cooks on land they had once owned but couldn’t afford anymore. He also spoke of the people across the water, brought here against their will to toil by force and survive by choice. Those gathered around me looked pensive and mournful and determined.
I was determined to remember. And I did.
We ate Frogmore Stew (a Lowcountry boil of crab, shrimp, sausage, new potatoes, and corn) and drank red punch from paper cups. Over food, when people stopped talking about land loss and started laughing into bowls, I stepped away from the group. I walked a short distance down a sandy dirt road, flanked by live oaks and Spanish moss. It was an island and the road ended at the water. (If you picture a still from Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou, or Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, or Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album, or a paragraph from Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, or a magical realist photograph by Allison Janae Hamilton, you’ll have some sense of that moment.) The water was gray, with a base of fertile earth that made it impossible to see to the bottom. I looked out and thought about who was looking across the sea at me. I thought about all the souls who had touched Daufuskie. I thought about Mr. Campbell telling us to remember how important this place is—sacred. Before then, I had associated the word sacred with church buildings. In my childhood belly, I knew at once that my days in blackberry bushes and sitting between Gullah knees to have my hair combed—these things, that island, those trees, that water—were all sacred. I was determined to remember. And I did.
I became mesmerized by the marshes at sunset, grasses emerging at low tide, golden, sometimes wind-bent, sometimes erect in the humidity. If it had been permitted, I would have stood, barefoot, calf-deep in the muck, searching for pearls in the oyster beds. In my nine-year-old dreams, I believed I could shape-shift into a mermaid, diving over and over into the crest of the smaller waves, arcing, toes in the salty air, fingertips touching sea-bottom sand, pelicans overhead, dolphins in the near distance. I yearned for gills to breathe at the bottom of this murky, brown coast. I yearned to find something, a message, a marble, a button, a bead, from the ones who didn’t make it. The trees too were my sanctuary. There seemed to be stories in their understory, memory in the moss, ground truth in the loam, hidden worlds in the branches I’d climb.
In my childhood belly, I knew at once that my days in blackberry bushes and sitting between Gullah knees to have my hair combed—these things, that island, those trees, that water—were all sacred.
Gullah people see these woodlands and waterways as sacred. A Gullah Christian in search of salvation may be directed by a church elder to go seeking in the wilderness for the will of God, to await the presence of “Grace” in the quiet of trees and the land of dreams. Perhaps a white egret would rest in a pine, majestic, signaling the “Holy of Holies” or the arrival of a beloved ancestor. Many a Gullah grave is set to face the water so the soul can fly home to the Motherland or to heaven’s rising suns, or both.
For many years I have considered the moment on Daufuskie Island, at the meeting place of land and water—perhaps one of the first footfalls of disembarking Africans not killed by the Middle Passage—as the moment I was called to be a folklorist. If Daufuskie Island was my calling into the workways of Zora Neale Hurston and Anna Julia Cooper, then it is also true that this calling received sustenance at my maternal grandmother’s kitchen table back in Columbia, South Carolina. Anne Grace Richardson Caution served family lore like grits and communion, a curative to the symbols of white supremacy that marked the capitol grounds we’d walk to, including the battle flag that flew forebodingly and mockingly over my cousins’ heads and my own. Grandma’s table was a Black “oasis space” where she spoke of freedom and uplift, brilliance and wonder. As the wife of a career drill sergeant, she found herself, her children, and her grandchildren in South Carolina, but North Carolina was her birthplace and ancestral home. It is also now my chosen home and the birthplace of my child, Eden.
After settling in North Carolina as a new graduate student in folklore, I restlessly and ravenously began seeking the scattered bits of earth that held our familial memories. I traveled to the small plot of land where Grandma first walked. I poured libation at the formerly all-Black asylum for the so-called “insane” (Cherry Hospital) where, according to census records, a four-times great aunt, Henrietta, spent most of her life, along with fellow inmates Bessie, Winnie, and Cinda. I sought and seek out the old schoolhouses, the flat and rolling landscapes, the formally segregated barbecue spots, the city blocks, the battlefields, the planters’ homes, the wattle and daub dwellings, the formerly all-Black park (with carousel), the Jim Crow–era libraries, and the praise houses that served as backdrop and proving ground for our roots. Recently and retrospectively, I have been realizing that these formative moments of identity and seeking, of Blackness, southernness, womanhood, and the career they have inspired, have been as much about land and place as anything else.1