Out of the Rice Fields

Enduring and vibrant Lowcountry African American traditions will be explored and shared in Georgetown County, SC, from now through September 2015 in a unique project entitled “Out of the Rice Fields: Vestiges of Gullah Culture in Modern Society.” This endeavor features presentations by six scholarly lecturers, the creation of an oral-history video documentary on local Gullah cultural leaders, and physical and virtual exhibits of Gullah images and documents.

The work is made possible by a major grant from SC Humanities through its “Know Your History, Community, Family” plan. This strategy aims to connect the public to “undocumented local histories [which] have the potential of being illuminating, celebratory, and transformative.” “Out of the Rice Fields” is being directed by the Georgetown County Library, a national award-winning public library system in the coastal region of the Palmetto State.

The scholarly team for this project is led by Dr. Valinda Littlefield, the Chair of the African Studies Program at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. Dr. Littlefield has helped the Georgetown County Library in organizing the present lecture series. She will also soon be interviewing at least ten local Gullah cultural leaders for this Lowcountry area project from now through March 2015.

Over a decade ago, this educator began working with the Georgetown County Library to help capture through video the insights and memories of local residents. Her work commenced in Georgetown County during the course of two grants funded then by the Humanities Council SC entitled “The Women of Georgetown County” and “The Men of Georgetown County.” Through her interviews of ten elderly ladies and ten older gentlemen – both black and white – she helped to inspire the Georgetown County Library to continue this effort to gather history digitally, with the result that this small public library system has now assembled over 800 such videos on topics ranging from the Great Depression to World War II to Hurricane Disasters.

The power of tradition in Gullah culture will be the subject of an upcoming lecture at the Georgetown Library at 405 Cleland Street in Georgetown, SC, on Sunday, February 8th, from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m.

In a program entitled Embodied Memories of Africa: Music, Song and Dance of the Gullah-Geechee People of the United States, Dr. Birgitta Johnson of the University of South Carolina (USC) will explore the high occurrence of African retentions or “survivals” among the languages, the labor skills, crafts, art, and religion still practiced by Gullah-Geechee people in the Southeast coastal areas of the United States.

“We’ll engage one of the most vibrant and visible aspects of Gullah-Geechee culture still practiced today,” Johnson said. “The music, songs, and dance of the Gullah-Geechee not only represent the expressive arts of the culture but they embody the power of memory, tradition, and cultural aesthetics to endure across the passage of time and space, regardless of social conditions and oppression.”

The “Out of the Rice Fields” project will also result in physical and virtual Gullah exhibits that will use state of the art technology to bring the past to life.  The physical exhibit will consist mainly of images selected from the Georgetown County Digital Library (www.gcdigital.org), a database of over 30,000 online items developed by the Georgetown County Library in concert with nine other local cultural agencies and a number of individual contributors. As the project progresses, an aim will be to add new Gullah materials to the online source while updating the physical, portable exhibit, too.

While the grant period for “Out of the Rice Fields” will end in March 2015, the exhibits and the film documentary will be featured at the “Rice Forum 2015” which is currently planned to occur in Georgetown County from September 17, 2015 to September 20, 2015. “The Rice Forum 2015” is a signature scholarly and popular multiday event planned by the Lowcountry Rice Culture Committee (http://www.lowcountryriceculture.org), a 501(c)(3) organization spearheaded by the Gullah cultural leader and artist Jonathan Green.

For any additional information, please feel free to contact Georgetown County Library Director Dwight McInvaill by telephone at 843-545-3304 or by email at dmcinvaill@gtcounty.org .


Photograph tagline: “Woman Fanning Rice,” circa 1900. Source: Georgetown County Digital Library (http://www.gcdigital.org/cdm/ref/collection/Georgetown5/id/309 )