Drums and Shadows, by Georgia Writer's Project, , at sacred-texts.com
St. Simons, one of the larger coastal islands, lies off the Georgia coast not far from Brunswick on the mainland. For about fifteen years it has been connected by causeway and bridge to the Coastal Highway. St. Simons has always had a considerable Negro population, owing to the fact that from early times many large plantations as well as smaller settlements flourished on the island. This has given the Negroes considerable contact with white people and of late years with the rather sophisticated type of tourist. Fearing that the old customs would have been forgotten, we had little hope of good field work here.
However, we had not worked half a day in the north end settlements of the island before we were happily surprised. Around Harrington and Frederica there still live many old Negroes who remember the customs and beliefs told them by their parents and grandparents. Most of them are intelligent, reticent, and proud. Not easy of approach but with good manners, they responded to the request to help record the traditional beliefs of their forefathers. Once they had realized the object of our conversation, they talked freely and graciously, and several were outstanding for their keen comprehension.
We went to see Catherine Wing, 1 who lives at the corner of the Harrington Road and the main Frederica Highway. Her comfortable frame house was set in the midst of a flower garden and her washtubs were conveniently placed under a
grape arbor and spreading live oaks. On the side road stood three stately pine trees from which hung silvery festoons of Spanish moss. Catherine was black, small, and lively at sixty-nine.
"Ise bawn in Meridian," she said, "but Ise lib mos muh life heah. Muh people belong tuh duh Atwoods ub Darien an tings heah on duh ilun is pretty much duh way dey wuz deah. Some tings is changed wut hadduh change, lak wen we hab a fewnul duh unduhtakuh come an git duh body an dey dohn lak yuh tuh hab no settin-up. In duh ole days we would sing an make prayuh all night an dey would come an measure duh body wid a string tuh make duh coffin tuh bury em in. Dey use tuh alluz sen yuh home tuh bury 1 ef dey could git duh money but dey ain eben alluz do dat no mo. Dey nebuh use tuh bury no strainjuhs in duh buryin 3 groun but heah dat am kep strick needuh."
We asked about the dances and festivals of her youth.
"We use tuh hab big times duh fus hahves, 38 an duh fus ting wut growed we take tuh duh chuch so as ebrybody could hab a piece ub it. We pray obuh it an shout. Wen we hab a dance, we use tuh shout in a ring. We ain hab wut yuh call a propuh dance tuhday.
"One uh duh dances wuz call duh Buzzud Lope. 17 Its a long time sence we done it, but I still membuh it. We ain hab much music in doze days but dey use a drum tuh call duh people tuhgedduh wen dey gonuh hab games aw meetin. 26 It sho bin a long time sence I tought bout dem days."
Catherine told us that Ryna Johnson, who lived about a mile down the Harrington Road, was one of the oldest people on the island. Leaving the main highway, we followed the narrow, less traversed side road. It was a heavily wooded section. We viewed the massive-trunked hoary oak trees through a misty curtain of hanging moss. The fences along the road were covered with honeysuckle and wild grape. Shortly before we arrived at our destination, the road divided to give way to a growth of towering oaks; then it joined again, resuming its winding trail through the quiet, shadowed countryside.
The little settlement now known as Harrington was formerly
the property of the Demere family. A little less than a mile north of this settlement was Harrington Hall, home of Raymond Derriere, who came to this country with Oglethorpe after serving ten years under Lord Harrington at Gibraltar.
To the left of the road was a small unpainted store operated by Ryna Johnson's daughter with whom she lived. Various advertisements on the front of the small building gave splashes of color to the green of trees and foliage.
Set back from the store was Ryna's house, surrounded by an expanse of short grass upon which a horse was grazing. The house was weathered with age, as were the vertical boards of the fence that enclosed the garden; here and there in the fence a new unpainted board, regardless of length, had replaced an old, and the top presented an irregular, jagged pattern. The cabin was the usual two-room affair but with a hall through the center and a lean-to in the back. The walls were papered with newspapers and, although there was a motley collection of objects and furniture, everything was scrupulously clean.
Ryna 1 was blind from cataracts and had not been feeling very well; so she had just got up from bed. Although her body was bent and very feeble, her mind was still clear.
"Ise bout eighty-five yeahs ole, but I caahn tell zackly. I belong tuh duh Coupers wen I wuk on duh plantation. It bin sech a long time I mos stop studyin bout dem days. But I membuh we use tuh hab good times."
In answer to our inquiry regarding any Africans whom she had known during plantation days, Ryna told us, "Alexanduh, Jummy, an William, dey is all African. I membuh ole William well an he tell me lots bout times in Africa. Dey ain weah no cloze, he say, but a leedle clawt string roun em.
"William say dat dey ain hab much trouble gittin tings tuh eat in Africa cuz so much grow free. Dey cut duh tree an let duh suhrup drain out. Duh women tie duh leedle chillun all duh babies on tuh deah back tuh carry em roun.
"He say wen dey come in duh boats tuh ketch em, dey trail red flag an dey ain use tuh see red an das duh way dey git duh load. William he talk funny talk. He hab funny wud
fuh tings. I use tuh know some ub em, cuz he teach em tuh me but it so long, missus, Ise fuhgit. But I membuh he say pot call 'sojo' an watuh 'deloe' an he call fyuh 'diffy.' He sho did dat, but das all I kin membuh. Ef uh study bout em, maybe I kin membuh some mo."
We wanted a description of William, the African.
"William a good size man, heaby set. He hab two leedle line mahk on he right cheek." 14
Ryna mused: "Tings is sho change. Wen we is young, we use tuh hab big frolic an dance in a ring an shout tuh drum. Sometime we hab rattle made out uh dry goad an we rattle em an make good music." 23, 25
We wondered if she, too, remembered the Buzzard Lope and she assured us, "Yes'm, sho I knows it. Ebrybody knows it." 17
Shortly afterward the conversation turned to conjure and the old woman told us, "I sho heah plenty bout da ting. Way back we hab plenty discussion bout root makuhs. 22, 48 I membuh my huzbun Hillard Johnson speak bout a root makuh in Darien wut make duh pot bile widout fyuh. My huzbun he frum Sapelo. He could tell yuh bout sech tings ef he wuz libin."
A short distance away lived Charles Hunter, 1 whose small board house was set well back from the road. The front yard enclosed by a wire fence was planted with a profusion of brightly colored flowers along the sandy walk leading to the house. Across the road to the left was a field which had been planted in corn.
Charles, a medium-sized, intelligent man, very black of skin and rather small-featured, talked to us about his people.
"Dey is long libin people," he began. "Muh fathuh lib until he a hundud an muh mothuh wuz ninety wen she die Muh gran, she name Louise an come from Bahama Ilun. 2 She lib tuh hundud an fifteen. Das duh way dey do an I guess I'll do duh same."
Did the people around Harrington believe in the old customs
the way his mother and grandmother had believed in them?
"Yes'm, dey sticks tuh em but duh times is changin an yuh hab tuh change wid em. Duh unduhtakuh come now an mone lakly he bring yuh back tuh duh chuch an dey ain no watch an singin."
In the course of our talk he told us that the river baptisms were held by members of the local churches. "Yes'm, we still baptize in duh ribbuh," Charles said. "We hab one not long ago. We hab tuh wait till a Sunday wen a ebb tide come at a good time, cuz; it duh ebb tide wut carry yuh sin away." 63
Charles confirmed what the other residents had told us regarding conjure.
"Well, dey's some belieb in cunjuh an some wut dohn. Dey's lots wut say sickness ain natchul an somebody put sumpm down fuh yuh. 15 I ain belieb in it much muhsef but dey's curious tings happen. Now, wen I wuz a boy deah's a root makuh wut lib yuh name Alexanduh. He wuz African an he say he kin do any kine uh cunjuh wut kin be done an he kin cuo any kine uh disease. 48 He wuz a small man, slim an bery black. Alexanduh say he could fly. 68b, 69c He say all his fambly in Africa could fly. I ain seen em fly muhsef but he say he could do it all right. We's sked ub im wen we's boys an use tuh run wen we see im come."
During the interview Emma, Charles' wife, hovered nearby, seemingly very much interested in the proceedings. Finally we asked her to come and talk to us. Although she said that she was too young to remember much of the old times, she gave us some recollections regarding superstitions and African customs.
"Now muh gran Betty she wuz African an she plant benne seed. Once yuh staht plantin benne, yuh got tuh plant em ebry yeah aw yuh die. I tell yuh who kin tell yuh sumpm bout ole times an das Chahls Murray. He ain tell me how ole he is but I ketch he age jis duh same. Yuh go down tuh duh main road a lill way an duh road spring off tuh Chahls Murray house."
Emma also told us how to reach Ben Sullivan, one of the oldest men living on the island.
From Hunter's we turned left on a lane flanked by a thicket
of low trees and bushes. After about two or three miles we came to a clearing where there was a scattering of houses and sheds.
A tall, spare man was plowing in a field to the left of the road. We hailed him and asked him if he could help us find Ben Sullivan. He left his mule and plow and came over to the car. He was tall, as straight as a soldier, with a lean agility that bespoke youthfulness. Over his long jaws and rather straight features his copper skin was smooth.
"Ise Ben Sullivan," 1 he said, and we were puzzled.
"But," we said, "the Ben Sullivan we are looking for is an old man."
"Ise duh only Ben Sullivan," he answered. "Ise eighty-eight."
It seemed incredible that this active, intensely alive man could really be so old. We asked him who his people were and what he remembered about the old times.
"We belong tuh duh Coupers. Ise son tuh Belali. He wuz butluh tuh James Couper at Altama. I membuh we hab lots uh time tuh play wen we's chilluns." He smiled pleasantly at the memory.
This man, too, remembered native Africans he had known, for he told us, "I membuh lots uh Africans, but all ub em ain tame. But I knowd some ub em wut is tame an I knowd one tame Indian."
We asked again about old Alexander, the African root maker.
"Yes'm, I membuh him. He wuz a lill black man an he belong tuh duh Butlers but I ain know him well cuz we's diffunt people. Now ole man Okra an ole man Gibson an Ole Israel, dey's African an dey belong tuh James Couper an das how I knows em. Dey tell us how dey lib in Africa. Dey laks tuh talk. It funny talk an it ain so easy tuh unnuhstan but yuh gits use tuh it. Dey say dey buil deah own camp deah an lib in it.
"Ole man Okra he say he wahn a place lak he hab in Africa so he buil im a hut. I membuh it well. It wuz bout twelve by foeteen feet an it hab dut flo an he buil duh side lak basket weave wid clay plastuh on it. It hab a flat roof wut he make
frum bush an palmettuh an it hab one doe an no winduhs. But Massuh make im pull it down. He say he ain wahn no African hut on he place.
"Ole Israel he pray a lot wid a book he hab wut he hide, an he take a lill mat an he say he prayuhs on it. He pray wen duh sun go up an wen duh sun go down. Dey ain none but ole Israel wut pray on a mat. He hab he own mat. Now ole man Israel he hab shahp feechuh an a long pointed beahd, an he wuz bery tall. He alluz tie he head up in a wite clawt, an seem he keep a lot uh clawt on ban, fuh I membuh, yuh could see em hangin roun duh stable dryin."
Asked if he remembered any other Africans who tied their heads up, the old man told us, "I membuh a ole uhmun name Daphne. He didn tie he head up lak ole man Israel. He weah loose wite veil on he head. He waz shahp-feechuh too an fight uh complexion. He weah one ring in he eah fuh he eyes. 27 I hab refrence to it bein some kine uh pruhtection tuh he eyes. Wen he pray, he bow two aw tree times in duh middle uh duh prayuh."
We asked about the music they used to have and what they used for dancing in the old days.
"We ain dance den duh way dey dances now. We dance roun in a succle an den we dances fuh prayin. 19a I membuhs we use tuh hab drums fuh music an we beat duh drum fuh dances. 23
"Now, ole man Dembo he use tuh beat duh drum tuh duh fewnul, 24 but Mr. Couper he stop dat. He say he dohn wahn drums beatin roun duh dead. But I watch em hab a fewnul. I gits behine duh bush an hide an watch an see wut dey does. Dey go in a long pruhcession tuh duh buryin groun an dey beat duh drums long duh way an dey submit duh body tuh duh groun. Den dey dance roun in a ring an dey motion wid duh hans. 18 Dey sing duh body tuh duh grabe an den dey let it down an den dey succle roun in duh dance.
"Dey ain hab no chuch in doze days an wen dey wannuh pray, dey git behine duh house aw hide someweah an make a great prayuh. Dey ain suppose tuh call on duh Lawd; dey hadduh call on duh massuh an ef dey ain do dat, dey git nine an tutty.
"Dey ain marry den duh way dey do now. Attuh slabery
dey hadduh remarry. Dey hab big baptizin in duh ribbuh lak dey do tuhday an dey dip em on duh ebb tuh wash duh sins away an duh preachuh he make a great prayuh tuh duh ribbuh. 63
"Ole man Okra he a great un fuh buil drum. 25 He take a calf skin an tan it and make duh side uh maple, Ise pretty sho it wuz maple. He stretch em obuh it good. It wuz bout eighteen inches wide an fifteen inches deep wen he finish it. He beat it wid a stick. Ole man Okra he sho kin chase a drum. Ole man Jesse he frum. Africa, too, an he make he own drum."
When we asked Ben if he remembered any African words, he replied, "I know dat deah wuz a ole man, it bin so long I caahn relate his name, at duh plantation wut wehn roun wid ole man Okra an I membuh well he call all duh fish an ting uh duh ribbuh by duh name uh 'nyana' an den I heah pancake call 'flim.' Muh granmothuh Hettie, duh mothuh uh muh mothuh Bella, he come from Africa too an he huzbun come frum Africa. He name wuz Alex Boyd. Alex wuz bery small felluh but heaby an he hab dahk skin an shahp-feechuch. Yes, ma'am, he talk African but he stuttuh so he dohn talk much roun us chillun, cuz we make fun at im, an as I say befo, I wuz small lad den. Alex wuz knock-kneed an he tie he head up in a clawt."
Had his grandmother, Hettie, ever talked to him about Africa, we wanted to know.
Ben told us, "Many time. He tell some tings I membuh. He say he mus be bout tuteen aw foeteen wen dey bring im frum Africa. He say deah wuz great talk bout comin tuh dis country an some men tell em it would take only two aw tree days tuh git deah. Dey wuz all happy tuh come. Him an lot uh friens come tuhgedduh.
"Wen Hettie fus come, he say he feel worried cuz he couldn unnuhstan duh talk yuh an many udduh tings bein so diffunt frum he own country. He hab two sistuhs an tree brothuhs but dey couldn git a chance tuh come. He hab mo refrence tuh he mothuh dan tuh he fathuh. An he say dat in Africa he lib in a 'groun house.' It wuz a squeah house, an he say dat he didn lib close tuh a salt ribbuh but weah deah wuz a lot uh wile swamp. Wen he fus come tuh dis country, he didn unnuhstan bout fish. But he tell a lot bout monkey
an parakeet. An, too, he say nuttn ebuh die way. Duh crops is come back ebry yeah widout habin tuh be planted.
"Das all I membuh Hettie tellin bout Africa. Muh fathuh's fathuh come frum Africa too but wen muh fathuh Belali wuz a small young lad, muh granfathuh wehn tuh Dungeness on Cumberland Ilun tuh trade in slabes an nebuh wuz seen agen. It wuz muh fathuh Belali dat made rice cakes."
When asked about his father's mother, Ben continued, "Muh fathuh's mothuh lib at Altama. Huh name wuz Luna, but muh fathuh's fathuh wuz a unmarried man. Deah's many tings I do not membuh, it wuz sech a long time ago. I know dat wen deah wuz tuh be a buryin, dey alluz bury duh dead at night at duh plantation. Dey alluz come in frum duh tas befo dahk.
"In doze days deah wuz no way tuh git tuh Savannah cep by boat an wen Mr. Couper wannuh go, he use a boat bout fifty foot long an bout six foot wide. He take six strong oahsmen an dey would make it in ten aw twelve hours. I heahd tell ub a house buil by a man frum Africa, wid cawn stalks an mud an wid a straw filluh."
The flying story about old Alexander, the root maker, had interested us and we asked if Ben Sullivan had heard of it.
"I ain heahd specially bout him but Ise heahd plenty Africans talk bout flyin. Deah's plenty ub em wut could fly. 68c, 69b I sho heahd em talk bout great doins an Ise heahd ole Israel say duh hoe could wuk by itsef ef yuh know wut tuh say tuh it. 39 It bin a long time sence Ise tought bout tings lak dat, but ef uh studies bout em, dey comes back tuh me."
On the way back from Harrington to St. Simons village we stopped at Nora Peterson's 1 small cabin to talk with her. Nora, the daughter of Tom Floyd, an African who came to this country on the Wanderer in 1858, is a nice looking, middle-aged woman, pleasant and up to date. She told us about her father.
"I wuz bery lill wen he died--not mone bout fo yeah ole, uh spec. I do know he come frum Africa. I membuhs dat an uh membuh muh Uncle Slaughtuh wuz his brothuh an he
come frum Africa, too. I nebuh heahd him talk much bout it but maybe uh wuz too lill tuh membuh."
Although she had been so young at the time of her father's death, the woman still retained a vivid picture of him and she gave us the following description:
"He wuz shawt an dahk, an heaby buil. Yuh see, he wuzn but bout sixty yeah ole wen he died. Muh mothuh wuz Charity Lewis an uh got one brothuh, Caesar Prince, but he's younguh dan me an dohn membuh nothin."
From Nora's we went to the old tabby slave house of Floyd White 1 who was related to her. Floyd was of middle height, black, and of a powerful build. When we were uncertain and groping as to the right questions to ask, Floyd was clear and helpful.
"Ise nephew tuh Charity Lewis, so Nora is muh cousin, but Ise olduhn Nora an I membuh ole Tom Floyd well. I bout fifteen wen he die. He waz shawt an tick set. I tinks he wuz Ibo. He used tuh whoop an holluh. He say dey do da way in Africa. He wuz doctuh too an he could cut yuh wid a knife an cop yuh. I wish he wuz yuh right now tuh cop me. I sho needs it an it make yuh feel lots bettuh. 48 I heah him talk plenty bout Africa but I caahn membuh so much ub it cuz uh wuz young boy den. He say he lib in a hut on a ribbuh an dey eat coconut an bread wut grow on a tree. Dey plant yam ebry seben yeah an dey dohn hadduh wuk it. Dey hab peanut an banana. He call it by anudduh name but I caahn membuh it. I seen plenty ub African people an dey all say dey plant duh crop an dey dohn hadduh wuk it. I heah lot ub em tell how dey git obuh yuh. Dey trap em on a boat wid a red flag."
Old Tom Floyd was not the only root doctor Floyd could remember. There were many others, he said, some still living and plying their trade. 48
"I knows a root makuh now," he told us. "Uncle Quawt, he root makuh. Does yuh know him?"
We replied that we had known Quarterman for some but that he had never told us he could work roots.
"Maybe he ain tell yuh but he kin wuk em all right. 48 He kin put a cunjuh on wid a goofa bag as good as anybody.
[paragraph continues] Now, I tell yuh bout im. Deah's two felluhs in Brunswick wut does a lill killin an wen duh case is call, two buzzud fight on duh cote house an wen duh men come up befo duh jedge, he let um go free. Now, Uncle Quawt, he had sumpin tuh do wid dat. Dey ain so many root makuhs lef."
Floyd, too, had heard of Alexander, the old African root maker.
"Yes'm, Ise heahd much bout im. He wuz still libin wen I wuz a boy. Ise heahd em tell plenty uh tales bout im. Dey say duh boat leab fuh Savannah an Alexanduh he yuh. He say good-bye frum yuh an tell em tuh go on widout im but he say he see em deah an wen duh boat git tuh Savannah, Alexanduh he in Savannah on duh dock tuh ketch duh line."
Pleasant memories associated with the social activities of the past caused Floyd to ponder abstractedly for a time. Finally he roused himself and told us, "We use tuh dance roun tuh a drum an a rattle goad. Dey could make good drum frum hawg an bass drum frum cow. 25 Doze days dey ain only beat duh drum fuh dancin; dey beat it on duh way tuh duh grabe yahd. 24 Dat wuz fuh duh det mahch wen dey use tuh carry duh body in a wagon. Dey hab lot uh singin den too an dey hab singin at duh baptizin. Den dey baptize em in duh ribbuh jis lak dey does now. Dey sing wid all duh candidates walkin in wite robes tuh duh ribbuh an duh preachuh he dip em on duh ebb tide an he pray duh ribbuh tuh take duh sin away. 63 Dey ain mine gittin wet in duh ribbuh.
"Heahd bout duh Ibo's Landing? Das duh place weah dey bring duh Ibos obuh in a slabe ship an wen dey git yuh, dey ain lak it an so dey all staht singin an dey mahch right down in duh ribbuh tuh mahch back tuh Africa, but dey ain able tuh git deah. Dey gits drown."
165:1 Catherine Wing, St. Simons Island.
167:1 Ryna Johnson, Harrington, St. Simons Island.
168:1 Charles Hunter, Harrington, St. Simons Island.
168:2 A number of slaves accompanied their masters from the West Indies to this country. It was also the custom for slave ships to stop at the Bahamas en route to America with a cargo.
170:1 Ben Sullivan, St. Simons Island.
173:1 Nora Peterson, St. Simons Island.
174:1 Floyd White, St. Simons Island.