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Gullah tradition of storytelling alive and well

By CAROL WEIR
Packet staff writer

Trickster rabbits, lazy elephants, smart monkeys, cruel masters and God -- all these characters and many others enliven the folk tales that are passed down from one generation to another by Gullah storytellers in the Lowcountry.

The storytellers' oral tradition appears to be alive and well in native island communities, where some storytellers say their craft is experiencing a resurgence.

Anita Singleton-Prather, a Beaufort native and professional storyteller, said many Gullah stories have their roots in the slave culture. The tales often depict survival strategies that allowed blacks to endure and triumph over adversity, she said.

Singleton-Prather is a full-time storyteller who performs at schools, cultural events including Spoleto, and artists' workshops. The rights to her video tapes, "Tales from the Land of Gullah" and "Tales from the Land of Gullah For Kids," recently were purchased by PBS.

Singleton-Prather's stage persona, Aunt Pearlie Sue, is based on her grandmother. A floozy, a prophetess and a "Root Lady" who cures ailments with herbs also are part of her repertoire.

"I heard stories all the time growing up and didn't pay much attention to them," she said.

But when she saw how children reacted to her stories, she decided to pursue the art.

They listen with unwavering attention, reach out to touch her gingham skirt and shawl and sometimes leave muttering the morals of her stories to themselves, she said.

Singleton-Prather believes storytelling is making a comeback because people have become disenchanted with technology and want entertainment that is real. Also, the shame some blacks once felt about speaking the Gullah dialect is being replaced by pride in their heritage, she said.

Hilton Head Island native and storyteller Louise Cohen performed in 2000 at a local celebration of National Freedom Day at Simmons Fish Camp. The event commemorated the 1865 signing of a constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery.

She entertained the audience with a tale in Gullah dialect about a lazy elephant and a clever monkey.

People in the audience laughed and slapped their knees as the monkey, with the help of God, manipulated his master into catching the elephant in the act of stealing the master's butter.

The community event was Cohen's first public performance as a storyteller. She said she was inspired to begin performing after seeing another storyteller at the National Freedom Day celebration the year before.

"You are raised up with the stories. They are within me," she said.

Cohen said she plans to continue telling Gullah stories taught to her by her grandmother and aunts to her grandchildren and other children in the community.

Veronica Gerald, director of history and culture at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, said storytelling often occurs spontaneously at informal gatherings of family and friends.

"Average, everyday people are storytellers," she said. "It's part of the culture."

Gerald said people who have a propensity for telling stories in a lively and exciting way often are recognized and encouraged early in life. Both men and women are Gullah storytellers, she said.

In West Africa, storytellers are called "griots," and the position is inherited or passed down to apprentices. Storytellers have the important function of reciting and remembering genealogy and historical information for their villages, Gerald said.

Staff writer Carol Weir can be reached at 706-8140 or cweir@islandpacket.com.

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