Drums and Shadows, by Georgia Writer's Project, , at sacred-texts.com
Our car came to an abrupt stop in the sandy road before the board fence which enclosed a small group of weather-beaten clapboard houses. We called to a young Negro girl who lounged in a doorway and she came forward to see what we wanted. Almost simultaneously there appeared from the other houses scattered about the clearing a number of other persons.
Two women about thirty-five years old and nine or ten small children all approached the fence. At first they were rather wary, but their attitude gradually turned to friendliness and they hung over the high board fence, talking and laughing in great good humor. Elizabeth Roberts, 1 the young girl whom we had first seen, appeared to be the leader of the group.
We were interested to know if these people had river baptisms any more. "Duh Sunbury Baptis Church an duh Palmyra Baptis Church both hab baptizins," Elizabeth told us. "Cose it depend on how many folks wants tuh leab duh Presbyterian Church an jine duh Baptis. Mos ub us is already baptize."
"Where do they hold the baptisms?" we inquired.
The group all pointed in the direction of the river. "Right Obuh deah in duh Sunbury Ribbuh," they chorused.
Elizabeth again took the initiative. "All duh candidates is robed in wite," she explained. "Duh preachuh come frum Savannah an he is dressed in a long robe. He walk long an
duh folks all mahch behine im. Dey goes down tuh duh ribbuh an sing as dey go. Dey alluz hab duh baptizin wen duh tide is goin out so duh watuh will wash duh sins away. Attuh dey all gits tuh duh ribbuh, dey stop an duh preachuh ast duh candidates tuh step fawwud. One by one he dip em in duh watuh an dey is buried in baptism. Wen dey is all baptize, duh preachuh pray tuh duh ribbuh an 63 ast dat all sins be taken away. Den all duh folks sing an shout an praise duh Lawd."
The little group leaning on the railing nodded in agreement and as if in memory of the ceremony their bodies swayed rhythmically. As we listened and watched we could almost see the white robed procession winding to the river bank; we could almost hear the chanting of the converts as their sins were washed away.
The conversation turned to burial customs in the section and the women told us that "settin-ups" were still held for those who died.
"We all sit wid duh body an sing an pray an keep duh spirit company," said one of them.
Another added, "At duh fewnul we sing an we puts our hands on duh cawpse tuh say goodbye. It bad luck not tuh do dis." 31
We had heard in other communities that in case of death away from home the body is brought back to its native town for burial. This custom is also prevalent in Sunbury, we learned.
"Ebrybody wannuh be buried in deah own town,"' Elizabeth said. "An we nebuh bury strainjuhs wid our own folks. Ef a strainjuh die yuh, we bury em in duh strainjah's lot." 3
Emma Stevens, 1 tall and slim, a baby in her arms and several small children gathered about her, spoke up, "Yuh got tuh be plenty keahful bout duh spirits. Duh spirit is hungry jis lak duh pusson. Yuh hab tuh put food in duh ruhm fuh duh spirit tuh come eat." 58
"Dat is duh truth," agreed young Elizabeth. "Ef duh spirit is hungry, it will sho come back an hant yuh." 58f
This talk of spirits started us on a new train of thought
and we were curious to learn of the local theories regarding ghosts and witches.
"Duh spirit nebuh go in duh groun wid duh body," 56 volunteered Emma. "It jis wanduh roun. Dey come out wen duh moon is noo."
Mary Stevens, 1 whose short, stocky figure was clad in bright pink and who wore a sailor hat perched rakishly on her head, stated, "Duh spirits is ebryweah. Dey peah mosly at duh fus dahk an in duh middle night."
Young Elizabeth, too, had something to say about spirits. "I sees em all duh time," she said. "Dey dohn hurt yuh none, jis walk long wid yuh an talk. Some hab duh head on an some hab duh head off." 59a
From ghosts and shadows of the night the discussion followed its natural course to even darker powers, such as conjure, evil roots, and counter charms. The little group glanced slyly at one another. It was in lowered tones that they volunteered remarks on this subject.
"We do heah bout folks rootin each udduh all duh time. 15 Yuh sho hab tuh be keahful. Some folks weahs a dime aw a penny tied on duh ankle an wen it tun black, dey knows somebody is tryin tuh root em." 12a, 12c, 12d
"What are the conjures made of?" we wanted to know.
"Dey make em uh haiah an nails an frum lots uh tings," we were told. 10
Elizabeth said, "Duh heabiest root I ebuh heard bout waz a cunjuh made uh some funny oily stuff in a bottle. Duh enemy ketch duh pusson's spirit in dat bottle an dat wuz a powuhful spell. 8 Duh man fell sick an had tuh go tuh a root doctuh 48 fo he git cuod."
"Yuh sho hab bad luck ef yuh do a lot uh tings," warned one of the women. "Nobody ebuh carry a hoe aw a rake tru duh house. Das a bad sign."
"It's bad luck tuh carry wood on yuh shoulduh tru duh house," was added to this information.
"But it ain bad luck ef you weahs a Lucky Haht;" interposed Emma.
"And what is a Lucky Heart," we inquired.
"It's fuh good luck. All duh people roun yuh carries Lucky Hahts and Lucky Mojoes an sech tings." 8
Respecting harvest festivals one of the women said, "I hab heah tell how dey dohn do dat no mo." 38
"We do git tuhgedduh an hab dance an pahties an big suppuhs," stated another. Her eyes sparkled at the pleasant memory. "We does duh Snake Hip an duh Buzzud Lope."
The others chorused, "An addalas dance we did duh Fish Tail an duh Fish Bone an duh Camel Walk." 17
All efforts failed to persuade the women to describe these dances. Evidently thinking of the antics of their neighbors at the recent dance they laughed repeatedly, shaking their heads and nudging one another but refusing to be cajoled into a demonstration.
After learning that we wished to record the old customs as far back as possible, the women suggested that we visit Uncle Jonah, 1 who was the great grandfather of Elizabeth. In answer to repeated halloos the old man came trudging down the road. As he drew nearer the car, we could see that he was a spry, erect little figure, clad in a blue chambray shirt and a pair of dark trousers. Although he carried a gnarled stick for support, he appeared to move with considerable rapidity. His salutation was, "Dis is Uncle Jonah, duh man wut swalluh duh whale."
Uncle Jonah told us that he was eighty-seven years of age and that he had been born on a plantation on Harris Neck. He had remained there until after the time "uh duh big raid," he said and he had been in Sunbury for a period of about sixty years.
When asked if he could remember any of the slaves who had come from Africa, a faraway expression came into his eyes. Finally he offered, "Yes'm, I membuh two. Ole man Ben an Sally dey bote come frum Africa. Dey sho use tuh use some funny wuds. Wen it would tunduh, dey would alluz say it wuz 'maulin a bumba.'"
Uncle Jonah tried to recall some of the African stories he had heard in his youth. He knit his brows in deep thought. After a time he said, "I membuh heahin bout a boatload uh
[paragraph continues] Nigguhs wut wuz bring frum Africa. Dey wuz kep hid in duh cabin till. dey git tuh Sunbury. Wen dey let um out an dey see dey wuzn in Africa, dey jis take wing an fly back home. Cose now, ma'am, I didn see dis but I heah bout it many times."
Another story that the old man told us was as follows: "Deah wuz two countrymen wut bote come frum Africa libin on duh plantation. One ub dem die an dey bury um widout duh udduh knowin bout it. Pretty soon he lun bout how he frien die an he make um dig um up. He say he wannuh say a few wuds tuh um. Dey dig up duh man an he speak tuh um an den put um back in duh grabe. It wuz all right attuh he say goodbye." 30
"Uncle Jonah," we asked, "do you remember much conjuring in those days?"
The white head nodded slowly. "Yes'm, deah sho wuz cunjuhin, but deah's mo cunjuhin 15 in deze days dan deah wuz in doze. I heah bout it all duh time roun yuh."
Our interview concluded, we set out in search of Siras Bowen, who, we had been told, carved wooden tombstones. 70a, 70h We rode down the sandy, tree-lined road until we came to the Sunbury Baptist Church, a white frame building set back from the highway against a background of verdant spreading trees. The Bowen family burial ground was to the right of the church and here we discovered that Siras' skill in wood carving was manifested in many unusual markers.
These were wooden images set on graves that were close together. One resembled a large bird; another represented a snake writhing upon a stand; and the third was the figure of a man, round and pole-like of body, with a head that resembled a ball and rudely sculptured features. 41e Another Bowen marker was of clay painted yellow; in its surface was roughly cut the outline of an open hand with a small mirror glittering in the palm.
Most of the graves were decorated with possessions of the departed persons. 47 There were many glasses, bottles, and vases, most of which had been turned a shimmering purple from long exposure to the sun. For a time we wandered
through the little cemetery, reading the inscriptions on the various tombstones.
The same day we visited another cabin on the dirt road leading back from Sunbury Bluff. We had already driven past the little two-room shack, painted green, its dark roof patched in many places, when our attention was attracted by a stout, middle-aged woman who was sitting on the porch idly playing with a long, dangerous looking knife. At once we reversed the gears and rolled backward to a stop. Near the woman was seated the husky figure of a young girl. She wore but one garment, a faded green dress which hung raggedly to about the knee. Beneath the skirt were large muscular legs that were twisted about the rungs of the chair. Long, staring yellow eyes looked out at us with disturbing, unblinking fixity. The girl's hair stood out stiffly in a number of tight little braids. She was slowly, laboriously stringing weights on a fish net.
The older woman spoke at first in a grudging, reserved manner. The girl continued her work on the fish net, occasionally glancing at us with that impenetrable expression.
After much persuasion we gained the older woman's confidence and she spoke to us freely. She, too, attended the baptisms held by members of the two churches and also remembered various "settin-ups" she had gone to. She told us that food was usually prepared for the watchers.
"Bread an coffee," she said, "das wut dey gie yuh at a settin-up."
"We thought they ate chicken," we remarked.
"No, dey dohn hab no chicken. Jis bread an coffee."
The subject of food led us to inquire if she knew of any persons who refused to eat certain things.
"Muh huzbun wohn nebuh eat chicken. Ain nebuh eat it sence he wuz bawn, an needuh his mudduh befo him." 65
"Why is that? Doesn't he like it?"
"Ain no mine wedduh he lak it aw ain lak it. He jis wohn eat it. Lots uh folks say deah's some food wut dey dohn eat. I nebuh eat rabbit. An none uh muh folks wouldn eat it needuh. Dey say it wuz no good tuh eat."
The conversation drifted on until the talk of food brought
to the woman's mind gala occasions at which she had feasted and danced in her youth.
"We use tuh dance all duh time tuh duh drums," she said. "We would dance roun an roun in a succle an clap our hans an sing. Dey would hab duh dances obuh on St. Catherine Ilun."
"How would you know when they were going to hold a dance?"
"Dey beat duh drums on St. Catherine. 26 Den dey heah it at Harris Neck an folks deah tell all ub us yuh bout duh dance. We all go obuh tuh St. Catherine in a boat an dance an dance till mos daylight."
When the talk finally turned to roots and other potent elements of conjure, we were told of a recent incident in the neighborhood. 15
"I sees dis wid muh own eyes," asserted the story-teller. "Deah wuz a ole man roun yuh wut wuz cunjuhed an hab lots uh trouble wid his eyes. He dig roun his yahd tuh see ef any dose is buried deah. Attuh a time he fine a dawl baby buried unduh duh doe step. 8 Its two finguhs wuz stuck in its eye. Duh man tro duh dawl in duh ribbuh an duh trouble disappeah."
She said that she knew of no other recent case of conjure, but it appeared that both women had had experiences with witches. We were informed that it was a common occurrence for "folks tuh hab witches ride um at night." 69 The girl contributed little to the conversation, but occasionally nodded her head in agreement when the older woman made a statement. Only once did she speak, and then it was to issue a brief sharp rebuke to a very small child who was scampering naked about the yard.
After a time the older woman, too, sank into a heavy, unresponsive silence. When she answered our queries at all, it was with a flat, "No, ma'am, I ain nebuh heahd uh dat," or an exasperating, "Wut, ma'am?"
We left the two women as dusk was falling. Looking back, we saw the older woman again slowly waving the knife and the girl still in the same almost motionless pose, her slow methodical work on the fish net continuing.
105:1 Elizabeth Roberts, Sunbury.
106:1 Emma Stevens, Sunbury.
107:1 Mary Stevens, Sunbury.
108:1 "Uncle Jonah," Sunbury.