I took pictures, (after his wife ran in to put on her best Sunday wig) and kept questioning this piece of living history. I told him that we would like to write an article about him, the Gullah language, and his stunning creations. He said, “Nah…It ain’t nothing special.” I pushed.
An Uncelebrated Artist
When people learn that I am a former journalist many ask, “Who is the most famous person you have ever met?” I always hesitate, because “famous” is not important to me at all. It is true, that some famous people are also extraordinary, and I celebrate those people, like President Jimmy Carter, Benazir Bhutto, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Lakota Olympiad, Billy Mills, and others. The better question is – who is the most extraordinary person you have ever met? Ah…there are many. All of them humble-risk takers, and most do not see their exquisite gifts, do not realize that they are extraordinary.
We came to hear Geechee or Gullah, the nearly extinct language born of slavery. Taken captive, from different African countries, slaves created the language as a way to communicate amongst themselves, to tell stories, share secrets, and plan escapes from their lives of misery. Mixing African, English, French and Portuguese, this creative blended language, provided a cloak of protection for the lips that spoke it. The man with the whip; frustrated, but none the wiser.
As we stepped onto Sapelo, a barrier island off the coast of Georgia, we were seduced by the laid back rhythm of the island. Nothing, or no one is in a hurry to go anywhere, or do anything. We rented the only possibility on the island, a broken down, just roll the windows down for a little relief from the heat, 1960 Ford station wagon. It nearly drowned us in waves of silt as we choked our way towards what we learned was a family that had descended from slavery, and spoke the melodic old language. The car stalled in the silt and we walked a mile or more through brushy marshland that we were later told had a “few varmints” we were lucky not to have met.
We are nosy journalists, so yes, we just showed up.
A man, worn by some of life’s most punishing seas, sat in a lawn chair weaving an intricate basket from Sweet Grass that grows over much of the island. We introduced ourselves and told him we wanted to know more about the Gullah language and hear it spoken. He threw his head back and laughed, then shook his head and muttered ummm…ummm…ummm. We prodded him.
He walked us back through history, in the language of his people first, then translating, as his fingers worked the design in the grass to the cadence of this melodic language. His words were beautiful. But I couldn’t keep my eyes off his hands. Deeply lined by life, misshapen from arthritis, decades of working, and weaving, they were kinetic art themselves. His movements seemed to come from an inner voice, a collective memory spanning generations.
He caught my eye, shook his Sweet Grass creation, and said it was nothing special. It was just one of those things his grandpa taught him to do. And like his grandfather, he taught his own grandchildren. Some were more interested than others, but his basket weaving, gave him a little spending money.
My wallet flew out of my bag. I wanted a piece of artistry created by those magnificent hands, which seemed to tell stories as he turned sweet grass into art. I bought, and now cherish one of his creations.
His wife spoke for him. “Sum a his stuff is in DC.”
Where” I puzzled out loud, trying to figure out where her question would lead us.
“Let me show ya somthin,” she replied and scurried into the little clapboard house and returned with a newspaper clipping in her hand. My fingers met newsprint, so loved with time and touching, that it felt like my grandma’s favorite linen handkerchief before she starched it. I looked down and my heart stopped.
In the photo, James Green stood with three of his extraordinary baskets. His “ain’t nothing special” artistry is part of a permanent display in America’s most prestigious museum. The Smithsonian. He repeated, “It’s nothin.”
To me and my fellow journalist, this was more than somthin! This Gullah speaking man and his creations were EXTRAordinary.
This story could have been little more than data:
§ When were the first slaves of the Gullah community brought to Sapello? 1802.
§ How was the language created? They combined languages.
§ When were their ancestors freed? 1864.
Important, data for historians, but the story of the people who lived, and live there, is far more powerful. In fact, facts are often downright forgettable. The facts become almost irrelevant after you are invited to walk into the story of extraordinary people like this humble basket maker on Sapello Island.
That is just one story, amid many, about people who do not recognize that their individual experience, their life, or their actions, become a story filled with color and expertise. Their story, and who they are become a rich gift of the person, they may not even realize that they are.
Inside each of us is an extraordinary person. Yes, there is. Look for it in others and recognize it in yourself.