- Babylon Is FallingThe State of the Art of Sweetgrass Basketry
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Anyone who travels along Highway 17 North or visits Charleston's downtown market cannot fail to notice the unique local art sold on the side of the road in Mount Pleasant and on street corners in the city. Sweetgrass baskets have become the most prestigious and sought-after emblem of African American culture in South Carolina, and they constitute a tangible piece of history tourists admire and want to take home.
Basket makers have come a long way since their ancestors arrived on these shores. The plight of enslaved Africans, brought in captivity to the colony of Carolina, forced to labor on Lowcountry rice plantations and to make baskets to prepare the crop for market, is poignantly expressed in Bob Marley's rendering of Psalm 137, "By the Rivers of Babylon." Yet, as we move into the twenty-first century, another reggae song's lyrics may be more apropos: Babylon is falling. The colonial hierarchies and coercive practices that relegated African Americans to a fixed place at the bottom of the social ladder, to work as servants and manual laborers, have been challenged, and the once denigrated Gullah culture has begun to draw attention, and protection, from friends in high places.
"Gullah," and the more recent composite "Gullah/Geechee," are identities now widely embraced by people of African descent whose forebears came to the Low-country, beginning in the late seventeenth century, with the first waves of European colonists. In 2006, the South Atlantic coast from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida (since extended to St. Augustine), was designated the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and placed under the authority of the National Park Service—the same year that sweetgrass basketry was declared the state craft of South Carolina and a stretch of roadway heading north from the Cooper River Bridge was named the Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway. Like many state mandates, these tokens of recognition come late in the day and are largely unfunded, but slowly the Heritage Corridor is emerging as a series of historical sites dedicated to interpreting Lowcountry African American culture. Ironically, just as the highway department posted billboards naming the stretch of road with the majority of stands for the sweetgrass makers, it widened the highway to six lanes, separated the asphalt from the shoulder by a concrete curb and sidewalk, and increased the speed of traffic, making the stands much harder to access by travelers zooming past.1
Stretching along the tidewater regions of four states, the Heritage Corridor coincides precisely with the range of the Lowcountry rice kingdom. There, for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, enslaved people of African descent using indigenous grasses, rush, and other plant materials sewed fanner baskets for processing rice, the export crop that made South Carolina the wealthiest colony and state in North America. A hundred years ago, when commercial rice production in the Lowcountry ceased and the bulrush work basket fell out of use, decorative [End Page 99] household forms made from sweetgrass became a viable source of income for cash-poor farm families near the village of Mount Pleasant. By 1930, basket sewers—coiled baskets are "sewn," rather than "woven"—found a way to reach a moving market. They began selling baskets on the side of Highway 17 (then Route 40), the main North-South artery carrying tourist traffic between Florida and the Northeast.
Today, Lowcountry baskets enjoy international recognition as a collectible form of art whose finest examples are prized by curators and connoisseurs. The inventiveness and skill level of the basket makers have never been higher. In 2008, Mary Foreman Jackson, the tradition's foremost practitioner, won a MacArthur Fellowship for her outstanding work, making her, in the words of another basket maker, "a half a millionaire." She has dined with Prince...