A Plague in Paradise

TWO CENTURIES AGO, ships plied the vast Atlantic loaded with humans bound in chains. Wrenched from rice-growing West Africa, the slaves were deposited on a coast similar in environment but far away in distance and culture.

Today, only the ruins of the slave quarters stand on South Carolina's Sea Islands. But if you rub a hand over the crumbling, lichen-covered walls of "tabby"--a mixture of oyster shells, lime, sand, and water--you can still hear the echoes of another time.

You can hear the lilting cadence known as Gullah, the creolized language that melded the richness of African dialects and the tongue of the master. You can hear the "trickster tales" being told around the fire to wide-eyed children--the stories of Bruh Rabbit who always outwitted Bruh Bear.

You can hear the hushed tones of new parents giving their children "basket names" in the African tradition--names such as Rain or Hardtimes, Boney or Handful--that reflected a trait of the child or conditions at the time of the birth. You can hear the "shouts"--the rhythmic clapping and movement that accompanied the singing of the spirituals and the soaring of ecstatic prayers--that went on, sometimes all night long, in the "praise houses."

These were the reverberations of resistance. A unique language, stories that symbolized the undermining of the powerful by the cunning, a ritual of naming that refused the power of slave names, and prayers to a liberating God forged a courageous and strong African-American culture--a culture not only of survival but of artistry, beauty, and hope.

But if you listen, you can also hear the sound of the lash, the cry of children separated from their parents, the slamming indignities of human beings being forced to live as property on Sea Island plantations.

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