Fresh History Gullah Style

“Jesus, Hide me in a sacred place.” – an old Gullah prayer
-from Nick Lindsay’s book, And I’m Glad, an oral history of Edisto Island

Alphonso Brown in Philip Simmon's workshop

Alphonso Brown in Philip Simmon's workshop

The real thing. It’s not often one meets a real teacher, someone so infected with the real thing that they stop you, touch you, change the way you see the world. Robert Henri, who was an artist but who is most known for the jewel of a book called The Art Spirit, was one. So is Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artist’s Way and started a movement. They both emphasize that art-making is the inevitable result of living well, of being fully alive. Henri says that the public might understand art more, too, if our motive, wit, human philosophy, or evidences ‘of our interesting personality’ show up in the work.

Yesterday I went out on the cobblestones and met a man named Alphonso Brown. He is friend to Philip Simmons, the revered blacksmith, and knows the man well enough to infect you with Mr. Simmon’s gentle and soulful spirit, a man whose work and life has all of the attributes that Henri suggests we should have as artists. Alphonso Brown teaches the other half of Charleston’s history, the part not told by her many historic statues and plaques. African American slaves physically built most of this fair place, and certainly much of the famous Lowcountry cuisine was also created by a people who were enslaved as house servants.

There is something about people who can laugh and make you laugh. Something deep down strong. How do you tell the history of a people who endured so much? The story coming from this man feels like the smooth, cooled, curve of iron, like that forged in the fires of Philip Simmon’s studio. It feels strong and beautiful now, resiliant, dignified by the adversity. I particularly liked his tales involving color. Did you know that the bright red of so many roofs in Charleston is from the Bible? The Gullah say it is from story of the Passover, where, in Exodus, God says that “the Blood will be sign for you on the houses where you live”. Red roofs protect the “Holy City”, he says. And the reason that brides carry blue, and continue the tradition of “something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue”? Gullah. Blue is another protective color to the Gullah people. ‘Ghosts’ and ‘hags’ just don’t like the bright blue shade that is that painted on houses to this day in the Lowcountry.

If you want an unforgettable experience of the city, go find this man. Gullah He will pepper your experience with glorious tidbits of new history. And he will speak and teach and sing to you in Gullah, which, as a language, has a very regular syntax and phonology of its own. It is what many call a song language, and it is distinctively American, a creole, that is a clever blend of the different cultural influences of the Lowcountry. I left my time with Alphonso Brown inspired, a little awestruck, with a longing to learn more from this man. He has a book I can’t wait to order: A Gullah Guide to Charleston: Walking Through Black History.

I was called to be an artist. And as an old old midwife said to me "If the Lord wants you to do something, you won't have no good luck' til you do." So, here I am, sharing what I love, longing to illuminate the work of art, which is everywhere.

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Posted in art, Arts & Culture, Charleston South Carolina, Gullah, South Carolina History
6 comments on “Fresh History Gullah Style
  1. Speaking of people who have endured much, I was just having a conversation at breakfast today with my new writer friend, Rebecca, about how we can only take others as far as we have gone ourselves. That’s what makes pain so valuable. It never takes you down so far that you can’t be helpful to somebody else.

  2. Pinkney says:

    Cool guy. Interesting piece. I will, one day, have to find this guy and read his book. I followed your link to Amazon and got distracted by the kindle and had to get away from the thing. I read something today about having an ‘AHA’ moment with the Kindle and expectations that it will be one of those world changing things that happens from time to time. I can certainly see the appeal of carrying around 1500 books and being able to access a couple of hundred thousand without having to go anywhere. This is especially true on Edisto where a trip to Charleston is required for anything you want to read NOW.

    • Sorry about the link to Kindle, laugh. I figured it might be an easy leap to Alphonso Brown…no? (I have not figured out yet how to cut and past that loooooong link to a specific book.) Thank you, Pinkney, for reading this, and for commenting. He is a really interesting guy. You can borrow my book when it arrives :) I would really like to go do the tour one more time, so I can remember at least all he said last time.

  3. Hi Charlotte thanks for visiting me on “Ria, Say What?”. Your blog is so interesting. I’ve been reading so an amazing amount of poetic literature about the African American experience in the South since moving closer to the equator. I’ll have to share with you one I came across that fits this Gullah piece. Many Blessings! Cant wait to visit Charleston! My mother took the most ‘interesting’ pictures unfortunately they’ve disappeared since I’ve arrived all but that Angel Oak tree. (smile) One Love! Ria

  4. The African American experioence is chock full of interesting pieces of history. I found the web site:
    that gave me an educational preview to the shopping cart that was connected.
    The gullah people have such a heritage that is so interesting and needs to be remembered.
    Great piece.

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What’s this?

Welcome to my blog about the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a place proud with beauty, history and art. Sometimes we feel a call, to be, to go, to do. I was called to be an artist, and as an old midwife from Alabama said, “If the good Lord wants you to do something, you won’t have no good luck until you do it.”

So here I am writing about what I know, about the 'under glimmer' as the poet Basho, says, the way I have learned to see, to notice. I am inspired by, and talking about the history and art and culture of this place that has called me to herself. By the ancestors.

My background includes a degree in fine arts from a small private college in Florida, and before that, four years of all girls' boarding school in Asheville. I worked as a professional photographer, helped my children grow up, and now and I love seasoned things, good food, better conversation, beauty, my beloved and beautiful Italian Greyhound, Beau. Moved by the sacred places and stories of this beautiful historic land called the Lowcountry, I am here in spirit and I hope to infect you with my love of this place.

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