Baskets, rice help pass on Gullah history

November 3, 2010 

"The grasses brought him comfort

His fingers knew their secret

"Never forget" they whispered,

as he sewed palmetto strips

in and out, around and through.

His circle grew and grew

And when his fingers talked just right

his basket held the rain

and he remembered from where he came."

From "Circle Unbroken" by Margot Theis Raven

In 2008, Don Doggett, then principal of Davis Elementary School, presented his staff the book "Circle Unbroken" by Margot Theis Raven and illustrated by E.B. Lewis. That's when I fell in love with the story and decided to use the book to enhance an appreciation of the Gullah heritage.

Basket making is a skill of the native islanders of Hilton Head and St. Helena island. Their materials include bulrush, sweetgrass, palmetto and pine needles. The art was once taught at Penn Center, and many homes still have baskets made by Penn graduates.

The story of Africans sold into slavery is painful. But their arrival to South Carolina brings out a deep heritage connected to a grain â€" rice. The same people who came to grow and harvest rice were those that used the grasses that also grew in their native land to make sweetgrass baskets. The baskets were not made for decoration or as a hobby, but to winnow rice.

Louise Cohen and I are Gullah Heritage Scholars, and we often discuss this connection between basket making and rice with children. While teaching at Whale Branch Middle School, students were taught about the basket grasses and encouraged to find them. We read "Circle Unbroken" while the children enjoyed rice dishes we brought with us.

In the book, the grandparents tell their granddaughter never to forget the journey. Just as the basket is a coil made with fingers "talking just right," so is the culture of a people who always remember where they came from. Each generation must share the story, teaching all that they know.

So the two of us share as we teach, hoping to make laughing eyes dance and fingers "talk just right." Prepare some rice dishes and appreciate the rich culture behind them.

Shrimp and Sausage Rice

2 cups rice, cooked 1/4 pound medium shrimp, cooked, peeled and deveined 1/8 teaspoon pepper 1/4 teaspoon paprika 1/3 pound Polish sausage, cut into 1/4-inch slices 2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped

In a bowl, mix all ingredients. Pour into a casserole dish. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed.

Spicy Flavored Rice

1 pound turkey sausage 1 1/2 cups rice 3 cups water 1 onion, diced 1 teaspoon black pepper

Brown turkey sausage in saucepan. Add diced onion, cooking until onion is brown. Add rice and water, cooking until rice is done.

Crab and Rice

1 pound crab meat 1 bowl rice, freshly cooked 1 teaspoon thyme 1 small onion, diced 2 tablespoons oil

Fry cab meat and onion in oil until tender. Add rice, stir in thyme. Cook slowly, stirring until well-blended.

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