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Drums and Shadows, by Georgia Writer's Project, [1940], at

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Wilmington Island

Uncle Jack Tattnall 1 and Uncle Robert Pinckney 2 are river men. For many years they have earned a frugal living by casting for shrimp or crabbing or fishing in the Wilmington River. Apparently they are in little fear of the elements. Winter or summer, at whatever hour of the day or night the tide is "right," they are on the water in their bateaux.

Many of the Wilmington island Negroes depend upon the river for their livelihood. In leisure hours, here as in other sections, skillful fingers carve or weave to pass the time away. We were fortunate in being shown a walking stick carved some years before by an old fisherman of the island. 3 The delicately detailed figure of a human being formed a third of the stick, with hair, features, fingers, and shoes carefully executed. The narrow thin figure stood stiffly gowned in a garment edged with a saw-tooth design.

For some time we had been anxious to obtain interviews with Uncle Jack and Uncle Robert, who were among the oldest inhabitants of Wilmington Island, in order that we might learn something regarding beliefs and customs that had been handed down to them. Until the present time, we had met with little success.

A barbecue to be held in the side yard of Celia Small, one of the islanders, at last gave us the long hoped for opportunity of meeting a number of the residents at one time.

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[paragraph continues] When we arrived, it was just getting dark. Black masses of trees were outlined against the sky. To the south a shining river curved into shadows. A little wind blowing up from the marsh tasted of salt.

The party was in full swing. Small groups clustered about the open fire, chatting amiably and tending the juicy pork which was slowly roasting on a grill. The light of the fire lit up the shiny black faces and touched here and there on a bright blouse or turban.

Uncle Jack, tall, bony-framed and lanky, had worn his usual workaday clothes to the party. His kindly, near-sighted eyes shone with excitement. Uncle Robert, small and spry, had dressed up in honor of the occasion. He was conspicuously proud of his derby hat, neatly brushed and cleaned. It was about two sizes too large and came down to Uncle Robert's ears at the sides and to his eyebrows in front, but, almost new, it gave the old man a certain air of assurance and seemed to make him forget that his brown suit was faded and well worn.

When the opening merriment had somewhat subsided, the crackling of pork fat and the smell of hot yams drew the party around the fire where Uncle Jack and Uncle Robert were exchanging reminiscences of old times. For the most part the others listened, occasionally interjecting a sentence or two.

We asked how long the old men had lived on the island and Uncle Jack answered, "All muh life I lib right yuh on Wilmington Ilun. Bawn yuh an nebuh want tuh lib no place else. I got ebryting I want right yuh."

Uncle Robert, who was eighty-one, about ten years older than Uncle Jack, said that he had come to the island from Clinch County just before the War between the States.

The long journey undertaken so many years ago had made a vivid impression on him. With a far-away expression in his eyes, the old man told us about that trip.

"We come in a wagon hitch up tuh a double team uh hawse. We pile ebryting in duh wagon, all duh pots and pans an beddn. Duh women ride in duh wagon an duh men trudge longside.

"It take us days an days tuh come frum Clinch County

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tuh yuh. We cross tree ribbuhs. We git tuh one ribbuh wut take us a half day tuh git obuh. Wen night come, we sleep in duh houses long duh road wut duh folks desuhted. I membuh one time we stay at a house wut dohn hab no flo. Jis walls an a roof. We put duh beddn right down on duh groun an sleep deah.

"We done sell tuh Mistuh Barnard. Yuh know duh Barnards, missus? Mis Barnard come outn a Barstow. Dey lib yuh, too. Well, wen we git tuh Wilmington Run, deah wuz jis a few houses on duh ilun. Deah wuz still some folks yuh wut hab come frum Africa. I recollect dat one gang uh slabes wuz brung frum Liberia. Dat wuz fo I git yuh. Duh las gang wuz brung attuh I git yuh an dey come ovuh frum Africa an dey stop an add tuh um at Santo Domingo.

"Yuhs heahd bout dat lot, ain't yuh? Big boat try tuh creep up duh Savannah Ribbuh, but dey chase um out tuh open sea an dey keep chasin um till wen dat boat git way an kin lan dem slabes, it way down tuh Jekyll Ilun. Den attuh dey git um deah, dey steal some ub um back an carry um up yuh tuh Hutchinson Ilun. I tink dasso, missus.

"I membuh doze Africans wen dey fus come couldn walk on duh groun bery good. Dey hab lill clumpy feet an dey ain weah no shoes needuh."

We asked if Uncle Robert had ever heard the Africans say how they had been captured and he nodded. "Yes'm, I heahs um talk bout dat many times. Dey say duh wite mens git um tuh come on ship an dey fool um wid all kine uh pretty tings. Den dey lock um in duh hatch an wen dey git out, dey way out on duh open sea."

Did Uncle Robert remember any particular words that the African people had used?

"Ole man Pompey he say, 'skinskon' ebrytime he git mad. Wen he wuz bery mad he alluz say dat. But nobody know wut he mean. He call a watuhmelon a 'balonga.'

"I membuh duh African mens use tuh all duh time make lill clay images. Sometime dey lak mens an sometime lak animal. Once dey make a big un. Dey put a speah in he han an walk roun im an say he wuz duh chief. But dat clay got too much ribbuh mud in um an he ain las long. Sometime

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dey try tuh make duh image out uh wood, but seem lak duh tool ain right, so mos times dey's ub clay." 41g,  70c,  70e

We questioned the old man about any other recollections he might have concerning African people and he added, "Doze Africans alluz call one anudduh 'countryman.' Dey know ef dey come frum. duh same tribe by duh mahk dey hab. 14 Some hab a long mahk an some hab a roun un. Udduhs weah eahring in duh eah. Some weahs it in duh lef eah an doze frum anudduh tribe weahs it in duh right eah.

"Deah's two Africans buried on duh ilun right now. Lonnie Green an his brudduh, dey buried right neah duh Indian mouns. Jack Pinckney yuh, he bury um."

At this point Uncle Jack and Uncle Robert engaged in an animated discussion of the types of funerals which had been held in those early days.

Uncle Jack said, "Wen a pusson die, we beat duh drum tuh let ebrybody know bout duh det. 26 Den dey come tuh duh wake an sit up wid duh body."

Uncle Robert added, "Wen one uh doze Africans die, it wuz bery sad. Wen a man's countryman die, he sit right wid um all night. Den in duh mawnin he go out an pray tuh duh sun. Yuh know, missus, doze Africans ain got no Christianity. Dey ain hab no regluh religion. Dey jis pray tuh duh sun an moon an sometime tuh a big stah. Attuh dey pray, dey come in an put deah han on duh frien an say good-bye. 30,  31 Den dey go home."

"We beat duh drum agen at duh fewnul." 24 This from Uncle Jack. "We call it duh dead mahch. Jis a long slow beat. Boom-boom-boom. Beat duh drum. Den stop. Den beat it agen."

We wanted to know what the drums looked like and the, two men took turns in supplying the information.

Uncle Robert spoke first. "Duh ole drums wut duh Africans make wuz make out ub a skin uh some kine uh animal stretch obuh a holluh lawg. Dey didn eben take duh haiah off duh skin. Jis put it on datta way." 25

Here Uncle Jack spoke up, "Ain so long sence dey stop makin drums. Wen I wuz a young man, we use tuh make um. Dey wuz fo-cawnuhed sometimes an wuz cubbuh wid a skin.

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[paragraph continues] Dey wuz bout fo feet hiah. At duh fewnul wen we beat duh drum we mahch roun duh grabe in a ring."

We asked if any of them knew any spider stories. There was some hesitancy; then they all said, "No'm."

Celia Small, 1 a slim, middle-aged Negro woman, listened intently, nodding her head. We asked Celia if she had heard of them.

"Yes'm, muh granma she speak ub em many time an say dey's wicked." Celia laughed slyly. "She say dey talk bout um mung duh mens."

We asked if the spider had a name, like Brer Rabbit.

"No'm, he ain got no name. Lease, I ain nebuh heahd it. Only time I knows yuh call a spiduh wen yuh say, 'An Nancy got um,' an das wen he ketch duh fly. 53 Duh spiduh is wicked. Hab tuh be bery keahful bout um. He drop right down out uh duh sky on yuh."

"What about the spider stories?" we persisted.

Celia looked at us warningly. She laughed softly, "Spiduh stories mus be bad. Caahn git duh mens tuh tell um tuh dis day. Dey jis say dey ain know nuttn bout um. Dey ain want tuh tell um tuh duh ladies."

Gene, 2 Uncle Jack's stalwart son, who had for the most part stood quietly at the fringe of the little group and had volunteered no information at all, now contributed, "Doze spiduh stories ain nuttn but duhty jokes. Dat's all dey is. Yuh call a duhty joke 'An Nancy story.' Ain no stories tuh tell duh ladies." 33

A sudden silence followed and we asked if any of the group had heard of flying Africans. Uncle Jack's face brightened. "Long as I kin membuh, missus, I been heahin bout dat. Lots uh slabes wut wuz brung obuh frum Africa could fly. Deah wuz a crowd ub um wukin in duh fiel. Dey dohn lak it heah an dey tink dey go back tuh Africa. One by one dey fly up in duh eah an all fly off an gone back tuh Africa."

As the old man was talking, the others nodded in agreement and mumbled that they too had heard of "folks wut could fly." Peter McQueen, 3 small and middle-aged, said,

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[paragraph continues] "Deah's folks wut kin fly eben now. Folks is alluz complainin bout bein rid by witches. 69

There was again a murmur of agreement and we were able to catch snatches of conversation dealing with people in the neighborhood who had been ridden by witches.

Celia Small told us, "Dey's mosly folks yuh know. Jis change deah shape at night an come in duh house an ride yuh." 68

"Now das sumpm reel," approved Uncle Robert. "I bin rid lots uh time by witches. Jis sit on yuh ches an ride yuh. Yuh wake up an feel lak yuh smudduhin. Ef yuh kin git duh succulation an tro um off, it all right."

The talk of witches suggested other apparitions and we were informed that a variety of spirits were said to be seen on the island. These, it seemed, took different sizes and shapes and frequently appeared to the local residents. 54,  55,  59

"Sometimes," said Celia, "doze spirits put spells on yuh, fix yuh."

"Spirits ain duh only ones," added Peter McQueen. "Folks kin wuk wid cunjuh too. 15 Ain dasso, Uncle Robert?"

"Dasso," Uncle Robert nodded sagely. "Muh own brudduh wuz cunjuhed. He hab a spell put on um. He hab fits all duh time--hydrophobical fits--act lak he crazy. Nuttn we do hep im, an attuh a few yeahs he die."

"Only ting yuh kin do tuh keep frum bein cunjuhed is tuh carry a ban," said Peter. "Mos folks tote a ban wid um." 8,  12,  12a,  12c,  12d

"Plenty folks kin fix yuh wid a ban dey make deysef," said another voice.

"What are the charms made of?" we wanted to know.

"Haiah," "Nails," 10 "Frum duh cloze" were the various responses and Celia enlarged on this information. "Ef yuh hab a enemy, nebuh let um git a piece uh yuh cloze. An yuh bun yuh haiah an yuh nail parins. Dey kin sho make powuhful han frum deze."

We inquired if many persons made a profession of this, and Peter informed us, "Sometimes dey git um frum a root doctuh." 8c, ,  48

"Duh root doctuh kin hep yuh too," added Uncle Robert.

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[paragraph continues] "Dey is powful smaht. I use tuh heah tell ub a root man Dame Smaht McCall. 6,  48 Ef yuh git in any trouble, yuh jis go see um an he git yuh out ub it. Deah wuz a man wut got rested. He wuz plenty skeah bout wut would happen tuh um. He go see Smaht McCall an Smaht say not tuh worry cuz be would hep um. Duh day uh duh trial come an wen dey try duh case, a buzzud fly in duh cote house winduh. 68b He fly roun. Den he light on duh jedge desk. Well, sub, wid dat buzzud deah duh jedge jis couldn do nuttn. He jis had tuh pick up an go. Duh case wuz dismissed."

"Tell bout wut Smaht McCall done tuh Doctuh Rogers," requested Uncle Jack.

"Well, Doctuh Rogers, he wuz a regluh doctuh an sometime duh folks would go tuh see um wen dey git sick stead ub goin tuh Smaht McCall. Smaht, he git mad. He say he fix dis Doctuh Rogers. He put a spell on duh hawse. Wen Doctuh Rogers go out nex time an git in he carriage, duh hawse run right intuh a tree an Doctuh Rogers git kill." 15

As an afterthought he finished with, "Sometime deze root doctuhs is smahtuhn duh regluh doctuhs. Long time ago a doctuh tell me I hab tuh stop eatin meat. He say it ain good fuh me an ef uh eat it, I git sickn die. I bin eatin it ebuh sence an Ise still alibe. Dat doctuh bin dead fuh yeahs. Mos deze root doctuhs knows plenty; dey know nuff tuh lib."

There were a number of palmetto trees in the section and we asked if any of the people had ever heard of eating palmetto cabbage.

"Yes'm," they answered.

"Palmettuh cabbages is good eatin."

"Yuh kin jis cut it up an eat it raw an yuh kin cook it up wid fat meat," Uncle Robert told us.

"Yuh kin make good palm wine outuh duh berries," volunteered Peter McQueen. 45

Various members of the party asked Peter McQueen to tell one of the numerous stories about Brer Rabbit and Brer Wolf. Peter pondered for a minute; then he started:

"Bruh Rabbit and Bruh Wolf wuz alluz tryin tuh git duh bes uh one anudduh. Now Bruh Wolf he own a hoe an it wuk fuh crop all by itsef. 39 Bruh Wolf jis say, 'Swish,' tuh it. Den he sit down in duh fiel an duh hoe do all duh wuk.

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"Bruh Rabbit he wahn dat hoe. He hide behine bush an watch how duh wolf make it wuk. One day wen duh wolf way, Bruh Rabbit he steal duh, hoe. He go tuh he own fiel an he stan duh hoe up an he say, 'Swish.' Duh hoe staht tuh wuk. It wuk and it wuk. Fo long duh crop is done finish. Den rabbit want hoe tuh stop, an he call out an he call out but hoe keep right on wukin. Bruh Rabbit dohn know wut wud tuh say tuh stop it. Pretty soon duh hoe cut down all Bruh Rabbit wintuh crop an still it keep on wukkin an wukkin. Bruh Rabbit wring he hans. Ebryting he hab is gone. Es den Bruh Wolf come long an he laugh an he laugh out loud wen he see how Bruh Rabbit steal he hoe an how it done ruin all duh crop. Bruh Rabbit he keep callin out, 'Swish, swish,' an duh hoe go fastuhn fastuh. Wen he see Bruh Wolf, he ax um tuh make duh hoe stop. Bruh Wolf wohn say nuttn uhtall cuz he mad dat Brut Rabbit steal he hoe. Den attuh a time he say, 'Slow, boy,' an duh hoe he stop wukkin. Den Bruh Wolf he pick up he hoe an carry um home."

By this time it had grown late, and the figures about the fire were shadows. From the direction of the marshes the wind was blowing more sharply and it was time to go home. Uncle Jack came up to say goodbye to us and said that he was going to spend the night on the river, shrimping. When we expressed surprise, he laughed and said that this was his usual custom.

Uncle Robert nodded in agreement. "We's at home in duh ribbuh," he said. "Bin out deah so many yeahs. Ain nuttn tuh, be feahed ub."


97:1 Jack Tattnall, Wilmington Island.

97:2 Robert Pinckney, Thunderbolt.

97:3 Property of Edward A. Sieg, 128 West Jones Street, Savannah.

101:1 Celia Small, Wilmington Island.

101:2 Gene Tattnall, Wilmington Island.

101:3 Peter McQueen, Wilmington Island.

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