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  • Creolization, Decreolization, and Being "at Home" in the Diaspora
  • Stephanie J. Shaw (bio)

I have admired Down by the Riverside since I read it the first time, and I appreciate it even more each time I read it. What especially caught my attention during that first reading was the way that Charles treats the creolization of culture: "What might be called the 'creolization of culture' involves the unconscious 'grammatical' principles of culture—the 'deep structure' that generates specific cultural patterns."1 This idea of a deeply structured grammar of culture was tremendously thought-provoking for me, and it now influences the way I read diaspora studies, an area that began to grow exponentially only a few years after Down by the Riverside appeared.

The particular framework of my comments here comes from a book by Tina K. Ramnarine on the migration and transformation of Caribbean music and dance. Ramnarine uses "architecture of cultures" in a way that is suggestive of Joyner's use of "grammar of culture."2 But I have superimposed what it suggests for me onto Joyner's work so that it becomes the foundational structure that allowed the "grammar of culture" to manifest the way it did in All Saints Parish—in the form of creolization and decreolization.

Joyner makes clear in his study that creolization goes beyond language. Using Edward Brathwaite's definition, Joyner describes it as "a cultural action—material, psychological and spiritual—based upon the stimulus/response of individuals within the society to their environment and—as white/black, culturally discrete groups—to each other." Joyner also notes that "[t]he location of study is not precisely the same thing as the subject of the study."3

This location is, however, important. None of the cultural changes that we associate with creolization could have occurred the way they did in All Saints Parish if it had been a place with dramatically different physical and material characteristics. The area is a long, narrow strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Waccamaw River. It appears (based on the map in the book) to be about twenty miles almost square, a little longer than wide. This strip of land was, in one way, slightly isolated, with ocean and inlets on one side and a series of rivers on the other. But it was simultaneously accessible by those same waters. The waterways were the "highways" that brought more and more slaves in and moved the products of their labor out. The western side of that strip of land was a somewhat sickly environment that was flat, wet (even swampy), and hot. It was perfectly suited to rice production. And, finally, on this little strip of land was a concentration of a handful of landowners who by 1860 owned better than 90% of the acreage. In the whole district, about fifteen owners or estates controlled close to 90,000 acres of land. Most of them were related by blood or marriage. And between 1850 and 1860 the bottom three-fourths of whites in the parish went from owning 13% of the land to under 2%. The top 2% of the landowners doubled their acreage from 26% to 50%. Joyner tells us, further, that

According to the 1860 census, only eighty-eight slaveholders in the United States owned more than 300 slaves. Twenty-nine of those slaveholders were rice planters, and seven of them planted on the Waccamaw. Only fourteen planters [in the U.S.] owned more than 500 slaves. Nine of them were rice planters, and three of them planted on the Waccamaw. Only one planter [in the country] owned more than 1,000 slaves—Joshua Ward, a Waccamaw rice planter.

Thus, there was a serious concentration of wealth in that little strip of land. And Joyner tells us that this "rice coast aristocracy was held together by blood as well as by class.… By 1860 virtually all the planter families… were related to one another."6

Together, these factors provide the bases for a structure, an architecture, if you will, that allowed the creolization of culture to take a particular shape there. This was not the "closed" community or society that Stanley Elkins described.5 Rather...


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