The Importance of Cultural Memory

My family and I got to spend time in Hilton Head, South Carolina this past week. We had fun, ate good, and a sista walked away with a bit of sunburn. But, I left with a little something else too.

If you've never had an opportunity to spend time in Gullah country, I strongly encourage you to do so whenever you are able to. This call is especially true if you are a US-born African. A great number of our ancestors were brought into the United States plantocracy through the port in Charleston, South Carolina. Throughout the coastal region from South Carolina down to Florida, our ancestors left behind unique cultural traditions and legacies that we all deserve (and need) to learn more about.


Not only is the land beautiful with its stately trees and Spanish Moss, the culture left here is evidence of the wisdom and tenacity of the Gullah people. Inheritances from West and West Central African peoples helped our ancestors survive and created life where white folks didn't want to be (until relatively recently).


Because plantation owners would typically live on the mainland away from the day-to-day realities of our ancestors, our people were able to hold close to their indigenous belief systems, foodways, and more. Now, the 12-mile island has over 18 golf courses on it. In fact, as we traveled the island, we frequently ourselves as only a few Black folks spending time there (Insert teeth-sucking and huge eye-roll here).


In many cases, the land hunted, farmed, and fished by our ancestors has now fallen into the hands of white developers and tourists. In this way, the story of the Gullah are being re-written. The land doesn't look quite like it would have in our hands. Here, like other places, we are being written out of the story of land.


During our time, we decided to take a Black History Tour (heck, ya'll know your girl had to). When we took our first stop, I snapped a photo of this "bottle tree." I've written about Bottle Trees before. They have a long-standing presence in our history, but this is something completely commercialized.

Blue, red, and orange bottles are upended on iron to mimic the shape of a cultural marker of Black (hoodoo) heritage..
A commercial bottle tree in Hilton Head, SC.

It's not even a tree, it is bent iron shaped like branches with wine bottles on it. It's completely decorative and was likely created by someone without the initiations or cultural knowledge to practice conjure or hoodoo (insert more teeth-sucking and eye-rolling here).


In a generation or two, without oral memory and disciplined book writing, the real legacy of the bottle tree may be forgotten and replaced with this watered-down version of a powerful spiritual tool.


In fact I witnessed a similar watering-down, not even a few miles away when the tour took us to Mitchelville. Mitchelville once stood as one of the first post-slavery villages established as a Freedman's Village in the post-bellum south. The village's land-facing end was once guarded by a fort built by Black Union soldiers who sought to protect the village from those who preferred Black folks to be in bondage.


While there is no secret about Mitchelville's history, the history of the fort is being deliberately re-written. In fact, our tour guide evidenced that the historical marker at the fort had once read "built by colored troops." Now, the marker reads that the fort was built by "US troops." To some, that may be a simple re-wording for political correctness. But, its long-standing effect could be the re-writing of the narrative to neutralize messages Black tactical and military resistance. In a generation or two, will Mitchelville's history be re-written like that of the bottle tree? Without our action, I would suggest yes.


The Black historical marker for Mitchelville, SC on Harriet Tubman Way
The historical marker for Mitchelville, SC on Harriet Tubman Way

A question I'd raise is if our history (and land) is deemed as so valuable that it has been sought after by others, what value does it hold for those of us to whom it rightfully belongs?


I guarantee that once we learn more about ourselves and deliberately and consciously occupy our ancestral homelands, we'll be able to answer that question with authority and confidence.


To Learn More About The Gullah and This Region visit the following texts:

African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee (Michael Gomez, Allison Dorsey, and colleagues)


Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (Lorenzo Dow Turner)


Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in the Kongo and Low Country South in the Era of Slavery (Jason R. Young)








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