This fabulous rare painting, according to the painting’s original owner, Mary E. Lyles of Columbia, South Carolina, was painted by one of her forebears, probably on a plantation in South Carolina somewhere between Charleston and Orangeburg between 1777 and 1794. It shows a rare glimpse into the original culture of the slaves, the clothes, the musical instruments that we can trace to Africa. The women are playing what Sierra Leoneans easily recognize as the shegureh, a women’s instrument (rattle). Scholars think what’s portrayed here is actually a communal social dance gathering, participants forming a circle with the dancers taking turns in the center to express themselves through the medium of dance as well as to perform a solo exhibition of their dancing skills.
On the sea islands nearby, the Gullah tradition of the Ring Shout continued as a blend of traditions and was a form of praise and thanksgiving to God.
By 1710 South Carolina became the first mainland colony to have a black majority and by 1740 the black population outnumbered the whites by two to one. The African influence was obviously a big one on the English, French, and Barbadians who settled Charleston. Slaves adapted to Christianity and the planters began to eat rice and okra and watermelon. We all (even the French, in France!) say “ok”, a word derived from the Gullah word, “okeh”.
Old Charleston was always a proud city, proud certainly of her old beauty, but proud I think, too, of her individuality, her blend of cultures, of her religious tolerance. She has soul. I would like to think that we are ready, now, as Southerners, as Americans, to hold hands in a circle. We have a smart and accomplished American President who is African American. Michelle Robinson Obama’s family were slaves, from Georgetown, which north of Charleston.
Don’t you think we need a little more dancing in lives, in our everydays? Yes. The circle dance will work for me.