Drums and Shadows, by Georgia Writer's Project, , at sacred-texts.com
Turning off from the coastal highway near Riceboro a tree-shaded dirt road leads to Harris Neck, a remote little settlement connected to the mainland by a causeway and located about forty-eight miles south of Savannah. Narrow, ruffed roads curve and turn unexpectedly through the densely wooded area. Set singly or in little clusters of two or three and sometimes almost hidden by the trees and foliage are the houses of the inhabitants. There is a peaceful atmosphere about the entire island; life flows along in a smoothly gliding stream; the people seem satisfied for the most part with a simple, uneventful scheme of existence.
The first house we stopped at was that of Ed Thorpe, 1 a familiar and well liked character in the section. A small, neatly inscribed placard placed near the gate bore the owner's name. The attractive house was set well back from the road in a large grove of oak trees. A whitewashed fence protected the property.
The old man, who was eighty-three years old, was working in the side yard adjoining the house. His broad, erect shoulders and his bright alert eyes made him appear to be much younger than his actual age. He told us proudly that he had lived in this particular house for twenty-five years. Then he apologized because his present circumstances prevented him from having the house and fence repainted.
We discussed native Africans and Ed Thorpe remembered that his grandmother had come from Africa.
"She come frum. Africa an uh name wuz Patience Spaulding," he began. "She tell me dat in Africa she use tuh eat wile tings. I membuh she use tuh go out in duh woods roun yuh an bring back some kine uh weed wut she cook. She call it 'lam quato.' It look lak pokeberry tuh me.
"She say all duh people in Africa loves red. Das how dey ketch um. I mean duh folks wut bring um yuh as slabes. Dey put up a red clawt weah dey would see it. Wen dey git close tuh duh boat, dey grab um an bring um yuh. She say das duh way dey ketch huh.
"Wen muh gran pray, she kneel down on duh flo. She bow uh head down tree time an she say 'Ameen, Ameen, Ameen.'
"Muh gran say deah wuz lots uh cunjuh in Africa. Deah wuz some men wut could make a pot bile widout fyuh an deah wuz some wut could fly. 48, 69c She tell me dat deah wuz witches wut rode folks. 69 Dey could take off deah skins an hang um up an go out as cats. 68 Wen dey come back duh nex mawnin, dey would put on duh skins. Deah is folks roun heah tuhday wut says dey caahn sleep nights cuz duh witches ride um.
"Folks say duh road tuh Maringo is hanted. 59 I use tuh lib at Maringo some time back, but I nebuh did see no spirits. Once I tink I see one. Wen I git closuh, it tan out tuh be a big dog." 54
Later that day we stopped at a neat whitewashed cottage and talked for a while with Isaac Basden, 1 a blind basketmaker 70a about sixty years of age. The old man had learned his trade during his youth before he had gone blind and now supported himself comfortably in this manner.
We found him sitting in the front room, surrounded by his work. A number of finished baskets were also in evidence. They varied widely in size and shape and were all of the coil type. 70i Many were fanners, while there were also a number of large round baskets, about twenty inches in diameter, with matching covers that fitted well down over the rim. Isaac
used bulrushes and grasses for his material and worked with a sure deft touch that insured sturdy construction.
He remembered that drums had been used for a variety of purposes during his youth. He said, "I use tuh dance tuh duh drum. 23 I recall wen dey beat duh drum tuh call duh people on Harris Neck tuhgedduh fuh a dance aw fewnul. 26 Cose, dey hab a diffunt beat wen dey call um. tuh a settin-up aw fewnul frum. duh one dey use tuh call um tuh a dance. Deah wuz two kine uh drum. One dey call duh kittle drum, an one wuz duh bass drum. It stan bout two an a half foot high. Dey use tuh alluz hab a settin-up wen somebody die. Wen folks would go tuh duh settin-up, dey would gib um bread an coffee. 37b, 37c
"Dey still hole ribbuh baptisms yuh. Dey git tuh duh ribbuh an attuh dey pray an sing up on duh bank, duh preachuh take duh candidates down in duh ribbuh. Fo be baptize each ub um, he say a prayuh tuh duh ribbuh an ax fuh all duh sins tuh be wash away." 63
Remembering what we had been told about the haunted road to Maringo, we questioned Isaac and he said, "Yes'm, I hab heah bout duh hanted road tuh Maringo on duh Young Man Road. Lots uh folks say deah is spirits roun deah. 59 Wen yuh try tuh pass duh fawk in duh road, duh spirits stop yuh sometime an wohn let yuh by. Some uh duh spirits mus be good, fuh Ise heahd one story bout a man who wuz passin by an all ub a sudden his hawse jis stop shawt in his tracks. Jis wouldn go anudduh step. Duh man try an try, but he couldn make duh hawse moob. Den he see a spirit come long an it take bole ub duh hawse bridle an lead him long. Duh hawse go right long. Den duh spirit disappeah. I hab heahd lots uh stories bout dat road but uh nebuh see nuttn muhsef."
Our next interview was an unusually delightful one. Sitting on the front porch of Liza Basden's 1 small, compactly constructed brown house, we listened to her comments about the prevailing beliefs and customs. The scene before us was restful. The garden planted at the sides and front of the house was enclosed by a low wire fence. Within this enclosure a number of dogs and chickens scuttled about. At a
short distance from the house stood an iron pump and an immense rusted iron pot, probably used in the past for boiling clothes. On all sides as far as the eye could see were vas stretches of green land, shaded by massive-trunked, moss-draped trees and covered with an abundance of semi-tropical foliage and underbrush. Here and there could be glimpsed the slanting roofs of neighboring houses.
When we first arrived Liza, a pretty golden-skinned, rather heavy-set woman about eighty years of age, and a small black grandchild were the only occupants of the porch. She told us she had recently come home from a visit to children in the North. Presently her husband and a daughter approached without speaking and sat down unobtrusively in a corner. For the most part they listened to the conversation, contributing only an occasional remark.
"I wuz bawn with a caul," Liza told us, pausing in her task of peeling and eating figs from the pan that she held in her lap. "That means I see ghos. 4 Least I could see em. till aftuh I stop havin chillun. Then I stop seein em.
"Three of my chillun they bawn with cauls too. They wuz always skedduh than othuhs. They wuz always fraid of the dahk an nevuh lak tuh go off by themselfs. I nevuh know jis wut they see."
"What did the ghost that you saw look like?" we inquired.
A reflective expression crossed Liza's round pleasant face and she nodded her gray head with its neatly pinned braids.
"They peah jis as nachral as anybody. Most of em ain got no heads. Jis go right along down the path. 59 One time I see a man go right down that path theah. I go out tuh see who he wuz an all of a sudden he disappeah. Theah wuzn't no foot tracks aw nuthin. I nevuh see im no mo. I think maybe he wuz gahdin buried treasure. 61
"Anothuh time I look out in the yahd an theah wuz a hawg jis a eatin up the cawn. 54b That wuz the biggest hawg I evuh did see. He stand theah an keep eatin an eatin. I run an tell muh huzbun an he drop wut he wuz doin an come runnin. Wen we git theah, the hawg done disappeah. Theah wuzn't no sign of im an the cawn wuz all right theah. It didn't look lak anybody bin eatin on it uhtall.
"Then one time I see a crowd of cows in the field. 54b
Theah wuz a big bull in the middle. They wuz jis a cuttin down the cawn. Theah wuz a big empty space weah they have already eat. I run tuh weah muh brothuh wuz an tell in, tuh come quick. We run weah the cows wuz but wen we git theah, they have all vanished. They wuz all gone. Theah wuz no tracks an all the cawn wuz grown back. All of a sudden I feel a terrible pain. I could hahdly git tuh the house. That's the way it is bout the spirits. Ef yuh tell yuh see em an they disappeah an no one else can see em, then it cause yuh tuh git sick."
After a while Liza remembered an incident that had been related to her by her grandfather and she told us, "Muh gran, he see a deah come down the bluff. He run quick an jump on his back. The deah run all aroun the woods. He teah an scratch an try tuh shake muh gran off. He couldn do it. Finally he run intuh the rivuh. Muh gran jump off an make it tuh the sho. He wuz so tired he wuz mos dead."
Was there no protection against the visits of these creatures from the spirit world, we wanted to know. Ah of the little group assembled on the porch shook their heads and mumbled a reply.
"Yes'm, mos of the folks carry sumpm fuh pruhtection," 8 said Liza. "These keep othuh folks frum wukin cunjuh on em too. They's made of haiah, an nails, 10 an graveyahd dut, 9 sometimes from pieces of cloth an string. They tie em all up in a lill bag. Some of em weahs it roun the wrist, some of em weahs it roun the neck, 11b an some weahs a dime on the ankle. Then ef somebody put down cunjuh fuh em it tun black an 12a, 12c, 12d they git anothuh one tuh wawd off the evil." Some of em has a frizzled chicken in the yahd. People do say they kin dig up cunjuh an keep it frum wukin gense yuh. 13a
"Yuh heah all the time bout folks wut is cunjuhed. They gits crippled up an ef they dohn do nuthin bout it, some of em dies." 15
We asked if river baptisms were still held in the section and Liza answered, "Yes'm, they hole the baptisms right down yonduh in the rivuh. They always hole em on the ebb tide; that's so the sins be washed away. All the pruhcession mahch down tuh the rivuh. The preachuh leads the way. Fus
the preachuh Stan on the bank an pray. Then he take the candidates one by one an dip em in the watuh. Then he make a prayuh fuh the rivuh tuh wash away the sins. 63 I call that prayuh 'the matrinal.'"
Liza was unable to explain just what this term meant, but she said it was always applied to the prayer to the river. She told us, too, that "settin-ups" were held for those who died and that the mourners sat up all night with the body and sang and prayed. "In the ole days they always use tuh beat the drum at the funeral an they still does it tuhday. As they take the body tuh the graveyahd, they beat the drum as they move long. 24 They put the body in the grave. Then they mahch roun an sing an beat the drum."
We had been told that several midwives rendered services to those residing in the section. We asked Liza about this and she told us, "Anna Johnson, she's my sistuh. She's a midwife an she tends tuh lots of folks roun heah. Those midwifes sho knows wut tuh do. 48 They use a shahp knife aw sizzuhs tuh cut the pain. Once wen I wuz in pain a midwife put a peah of sizzuhs unduh muh pilluh. All of a sudden the pain stop right quick. The pain wuz cut right off." 12b
Josephine Stephens, 1 one of the older residents of the island, lived a short distance from Liza Basden. Her house was set back several hundred yards from the highway in the midst of a large field. There was no pathway and in order to get to the house we had to cut directly through the field. As we neared the gate at the front of the house a tall gaunt woman, who we learned was Josephine's daughter, ran to meet us, It appeared that the mother had been ill for some time past and the younger woman had been caring for her.
As we talked with Josephine, the daughter stood in an adjoining room, ironing clothes. She stopped every now and then to take part in the conversation. The two women were utterly different types. Josephine, dressed becomingly in a blue and white checked gingham outfit, was the antebellum type of Negro. The daughter, tall, thin and dashing, and probably in her forties, represented a more modern era. She had on a blue checked sport shirt, a white skirt upon the
surface of which was the dim outline of the trade name of a flour mill, and a pair of shiny black satin bedroom slippers. Her two front teeth were gold and shone and sparkled as she talked. Two large gold hoop earrings dangled beneath her close cropped straightened hair.
"I bin wukin ovuh at St. Simon," she explained to us. "Befo that I had a good job up Nawth. My mothuh git sick tho, an she need me tuh take keah of huh. That's why I come heah an stay. She gittin tuh be long in yeahs an caahn do so well by uhsef."
The mother did not know exactly how old she was but said she had been about fourteen at the close of the War between the States. We questioned her about her recollections of early days, but her memory was rather clouded. She answered pleasantly, however, and when she was not talking to us mumbled softly to herself.
"I do know dat folks bawn wid a caul kin see spirits," 4 she admitted. "Plenty uh folks roun yuh say duh spirits peah tuh um." 59
When we inquired about drums being beaten at funerals, she shook her head stubbornly and refused to say anything on the subject.
The daughter, overhearing the conversation, paused in her task of ironing, and said, "Yes'm. Dasso. They beats the drum tuhday at the fewnul. 24 Specially ef yuh blongs tuh a awganization, they goes right along in the fewnul pruhcession an beats the drum as they mahch. I remembuh heahin bout in the ole days they beat out messages on the drum. 26 Let the folks know wen sumpm wuz bout tuh happen. Wen they give a dance ovuh on St. Catherine, they beat the drum tuh let the folks heah know bout it."
At a funeral, the bottles and dishes and other possessions belonging to the departed person were left on the grave, the Women informed us. "The spirit need these," 47 the younger woman explained, "jis lak wen they's live. Evrybody mahch roun the grave in a succle an shout an pray."
We inquired if some people in the section were afraid to eat certain foods. Once more Josephine shook her head in negation.
The obliging daughter who listened intently to everything that was said again interceded. "I do heah bout that. Theah is some folks wut caahn eat suttn foods. They say it's bad luck an they nevuh do eat it. Right now theah's lots of foods wut some folks dohn eat." 65
At this point in the conversation the older woman brightened and told us about the harvest festivals held during plantation days.
"We hab big feas. Ebrybody bring some ub duh fus crops. We all gib tanks fuh duh crop an we dance an sing." 38
Shortly after this she again fell to mumbling and muttering unintelligibly and seemed unwilling to be drawn again into the conversation. She did confide in us that she had lived in her house for over fifty-eight years and she proudly displayed her immaculate blue outfit which she said her daughter had recently purchased for her. As it was growing late and we had other interviews to obtain in the vicinity, we concluded our visit. The two women urged us to return soon. Setting out again to make an uncertain jagged path across the field, we looked back and saw Josephine, a rather tragic tall figure huddled at the end of the porch. The daughter waved gaily. Her gold earrings glinted in the sun.
When we found Anna Johnson, 1 she was standing in the front yard of Ed Thorpe's talking with a tall middle-aged woman who, we later learned, was Rosa Sallins, 2 her niece and Liza Basden's daughter.
The two women walked over to the car and greeted us. We inquired about the various methods the midwife employed and she said, "Tuh cut a pain yuh use a shahp instrument, lak a knife, aw a peah of sizzuhs. Yuh put it unduh duh pilluh on duh bed. Duh pusson who is sick musn see yuh do it aw it wohn wuk. Sometime yuh use a smoothin ion. Dat cut duh pain too." 12b
Rosa, who had been rather impatiently waiting an opportunity to speak, now offered, "Lots ub duh chillun bawn wid a caul. Ef dey is bawn wid a caul, dey kin see spirits." 4
The midwife looked solemn. "Folks hab tuh be mighty
keahful wen duh chile is bawn lak dat. Ef dey dohn do sumpm bout it, duh chile will be hanted all its life. It'll alluz be fraid uh ghos." 59
"What can be done so that the child won't be haunted?" we asked.
"Dey dry duh caul an make a tea out ub it an hab duh chile drink it. 8 Den all duh ebil will disappeah. Duh chile will see ghos, but dey will nebuh hahm um an he wohn be afraid ub um."
Rosa exposed her large white teeth in a broad smile. "I wuz bawn wid teet. Had two front teet wen I wuz bawn." 66
Neither Rosa nor the midwife knew the significance of this unusual occurrence, though both women thought it was probably a good luck sign.
Anna was reminded of some old remedies that she had found beneficial to teething babies. "Yuh take a alligatuh tusk an clean it an shine it an hang it roun duh neck uh duh chile," she explained. "Den yuh kin take duh foot ub a groun mole. I fuhgits wich one it is. Wich is it, Rosa?"
"Dohn mattuh wich one it is jis so long its duh foefoot."
"Yuh dry it, put it in a sack made out ub a new piece uh clawt an hang it roun duh baby's neck. 8, 12 Sho heps wid duh teethin. I knows plenty bout cuos lak dat," she concluded. "I ain lak deze root folks, dough, das alluz fixin people."
Rosa agreed with her aunt. "Sho is plenty rootin yuh. It goin on all duh time. Deah's plenty uh root people wut is alluz wukin gense folks." 15
"Dey git a grudge gense yuh an put down sumpm fuh yuh," supplemented Anna, "an pretty soon yuh dohn know yuh ownsef."
"Sometime dey put it in yuh food," this from Rosa again. "Ef yuh got a enemy, yuh dohn dare eat wut yuh lak. Nubuh know wen deah's sumpm in duh food, an ef deah is, yuh sho wohn las. Cose ef yuh weahs a han, it'll wahn yuh an keep duh cunjuh frum wukkin. 12a, 12c, 12d Lots uh folks carries some kine uh chahm all duh time." 8
"Some uh our folks yuh keep frizzle chicken. Dey dig up cunjuh wut is laid down fuh yuh an let yuh know wen somebody is aftuh yuh." 13a
The midwife told us that she had recently returned to Harris Neck, after having lived for many years in Waycross. We asked her which community she preferred, and she said, "I lak it in Waycross, missus. Duh two places jis ain nuttn lak. Tings is sho diffunt yuh. Duh folks jis dohn ack duh same. Yuh wouldn even know dey wuz human. Soon as kin Ise goin back tuh Waycross. I jis dohn lak it heah."
The conversation turned to drums and in regard to this subject Rosa spoke up emphatically. "Yes'm, I membuh bout how some time back dey use tuh beat out messages on duh drum. 26 Dat wuz tuh let us know wen deah wuz tuh be a dance aw a frolic. Wen dey hab a dance obuh on St. Catherines, dey beat duh drum tuh tell us bout it. Duh soun would carry obuh duh watuh an we would heah it plain as anyting. Den duh folks heah beat duh drum tuh let em know bout it in udduh settlements."
The women also spoke of drums in connection with death customs. They told us that they were still beaten by those in the procession accompanying the body to the grave. 24
"Ebrybody put duh hans on duh body tuh say goodbye," 31 Rosa told us.
"Yuh speak tuh duh pusson, too, an tell um a las message," said Anna.
"Yuh put dishes an bottles an all duh pretty pieces wut dey lak on duh grabe. 47 Yuh alluz break deze tings fo yuh put um down." 47a
We wanted to know the reason for doing this, for we had been informed on other occasions that it was done so that no one would be tempted to steal.
Rosa, however, stated an entirely different motive.
"Yuh break duh dishes so dat duh chain will be broke, Yuh see, duh one pusson is dead an ef yuh dohn break duh tings, den duh udduhs in duh fambly will die too. Dey will folluh right long. Folks alluz hab two fewnuls. We hab one wen dey die an den once a yeah we hab a suhvice fuh ebrybody wut died durin duh yeah. 42 Duh preachuh say a prayuh fuhrum all."
From this source we obtained added verification of the fact that river baptisms were still held.
"We alluz baptize on duh ebb tide," said Rosa. "Duh watuh washes duh sin away. Duh preachuh pray up on duh bank an den wen he baptize duh candidate, he pray tuh duh ribbuh tuh take away duh sins." 63
Later in the conversation the women recalled harvest festivals 38 that had been held many years before. "Dat wuz allaz a big time." Anna's rather somber face lit up at the remembrance of the festive occasion. "Ebrybody bring some ub duh fus crop tuh duh chuch an we prepeahs a big feas. We pray an gib tanks fuh duh crop an pray fuh duh nex yeah. We all eat an sing an dance. One uh duh dances call duh Buzzud Lope. 17 We still dance dat tuhday."
Rosa told us proudly that she was a granddaughter of Katherine Basden who had been recognized as a leader among the Negroes in the section.
"Me an muh brudduh wuz muh granmudduh's favorites," she said. "She alluz said she lak us bettuhn all duh udduh chillun. Wen I wuz only bout twelve yeahs ole, she tell me wen I grow up I would take huh place an carry on duh wuk she wuz doin."
Moving her powerful shoulders in rhythm and clapping her hands together, the woman sang us a song that her grandmother had crooned to new-born babies as she held them in her arms. The words were, for the most part, indistinguishable. Over and over we caught one repeated phrase, "nikki yimi, nikki yimi."
"Muh granmudduh wuz took very sick. She knew she wuz gonuh die. Dat wuz jis wen muh oldes chile wuz bawn. Muh granmudduh jis refuse tuh die fo she seen me an duh baby. She say she hab tuh see us fo she die. Ebry day she ax fuhrus. She git weakuh an weakuh but she jis wohn die. Wen duh baby wuz a few days ole, I git dress an go tuh see uh. Fus I wuz fraid tuh bring duh baby intuh duh sick ruhm fuh dey say it bad luck fuh somebody bout tuh die tuh look at a baby. Sometime duh baby die too. I tell dis tuh muh gran an she laugh at me an tell me she ain gonuh take duh baby wid uh. Den I bring duh baby in an she sing tuh uh an hole uh in uh ahms. She tell me she wuz gonuh die now an dat I wuz tuh continue uh wuk wid duh folks yuh. Right attuh dat she die."
For a while longer the woman chatted on in a friendly manner, discussing various incidents that had taken place ill tho neighborhood. In parting they presented us graciously with some fresh figs from the garden and asked us to visit them again whenever we returned to the settlement.
113:1 Ed Thorpe, Harris Neck.
114:1 Isaac Basden, Harris Neck.
115:1 Liza Basden, Harris Neck.
118:1 Josephine Stephens, Harris Neck.
120:1 Anna Johnson, Harris Neck.
120:2 Rosa Sallins, Harris Neck.