Margaret Washington on Butler Island and slave life
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Q: Please describe some aspects of African American culture at Butler Island.
A: Butler Island was part of that fringe of islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, where the island people lived. This sea island culture, in spite of the fact that it crossed two states (Georgia and South Carolina), was very similar. The Africans produced the same kind of products (rice, cotton). They came from the same geographical regions of Africa at the same time. For various historical reasons, the Africans in the South Carolina Sea Island were called Gullah; the Africans in the Georgia Sea island were called Geechee. But their cultures were very, very similar.
They believed in good and bad medicine. And an individual could bring good medicine, and that would be from God. An individual could bring bad medicine, and that would be from the devil. So in a way, they incorporated Christianity when they became associated with Christianity, with their African roots. Because they came from African societies that had a concept of a supreme God, and they simply embedded that with their own African purview and provenance.
Another interesting aspect of their culture was their concept of the afterlife. In African culture, the afterlife was going to be pretty much as it had been in the earthly life. But the island people coming to America reversed that, because if the afterlife was going to be as it was on earth, then they were going to be slaves. So in embracing Christianity, while they kept some of their own African aspects of good and evil, they accepted the Christian idea that in the world beyond, the good were going to go to one place and the bad were going to go to the other, which was not an African concept. And in their minds, whites were going to hell and blacks were going to heaven. And you would see very few whites in heaven, only a few who had been kind to their slaves. But heaven was to be no heaven if you were going to have to meet white people there.
Women on the islands and in other parts of the South were very important to the community: spiritual leaders; they were healers, the midwives, not only taking care of women and men who were ill, women in childbirth, but sometimes even being sent for by the master's family to help out, to bring their roots and herbs and cure people. So they were extremely important in that sense.
And then, of course, women had their own sense of bonding and networking, that again was a carry-over from Africa, where women had their own palavers and their own space, where they would go out in various clearings and structures, and talk about the problems that were peculiar to women. And this was a kind of female community that enslaved women continued. So they had their own internal network. At the same time, they had a status symbol within the community itself, because spirituality was so important and women were spiritual leaders.
Associate Professor of History
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