The air, mixed with the smell of the paper mill and swamp water, was thick with fog. I strained my eyes to see street signs as we slowed the car near the Plantersville Community Center.
The tannish yellow building where we held my grandparents 50th wedding anniversary party filled the intersection. Nearly everyone we knew in Jackson Village had come out to celebrate Willie Shaw Morant and Bertha Lance Morant. Jackson Village, one of three black communities in the small unincorporated town of Plantersville, South Carolina, had its own beautiful rhythm.
The community of mostly kinfolk with Gullah Geechee heritage are descendants of enslaved West Africans brought to the South Carolina coast from Senegal, Gambia, and Angola. The culturally rich group remained connected to ancestral Africa and was able to thrive on the rice plantation in ways that enslaved Africans in other areas were not. History suggests the humid wet climate bread diseases. This led the white owners to leave the enslaved to oversee other enslaved for long periods of time. The lack of exposure to white culture led to a blending of West African cultures undisturbed by mainstream society.
A century and a half after emancipation, the remnants of plantation life are still present. Tall fields of rice conceal the big white house sitting far off the road as we neared my dad’s childhood home. I peered out the window at the enormous estate I’d driven past during every childhood visit to Plantersville. But, now instead of wonder, I am conflicted. On one hand, I am burdened by the poignant reminder of the enslavement of my ancestors; yet on the other, I am full of exuberant pride having come from such a beautiful lineage of people.
Most of the Gullah Geechee people purchased their family land or it was deeded to them after emancipation. Generation after generation families passed the land down remaining connected to their ancestors and building a legacy for generations to come. For my family, in particular, Jackson Village was named after an ancestor Jack (Mayrant) Morant who divided up his land and gave it to family members. A century later the area remains mostly inhabited by his descendants. While it’s fair to assume that African Americans can trace their history to enslavement, few have a clear story of their family’s early history on American soil.
The details of my family’s authentic history wasn’t a topic of conversation at reunions, dinners, or casual hangouts, yet I see the influence it has on my father’s life and perhaps my own. I suppose my grandparents, and later their children didn’t talk about the rarity of their experiences much because while extraordinary to outsiders, to them, it was their everyday life. Into his late 80s, my grandfather would ride his bicycle around town, greeting neighbors and kinfolk who were visiting from upnorth. Grandma, sitting in her chair would lean forward and say, “come here, let me pinch them fat cheeks” in a crackling voice that sounded laborious to my young ears. No one I knew upnorth had a village with street signs named after their family, but we did in Plantersville. Driving down Morant Lane I am reminded how deeply my family’s roots are embedded in the community, yet I am saddened by the silence that surrounds our cultural history.
I suppose direct experiences with racism and acts of discrimination were less common in Plantersville because just as their Gullah ancestors, the community was mostly isolated from whites. Shopping trips to town and work on the beach or the paper mill were the only other interactions between residents and the white world. On the rare occasion that outsiders visited the community, they were usually owners of plantations in search of laborers. The houses of worship, social life, and voluntary interactions of Plantersville residents were insular and their own. It seems growing up in a self-sustaining all-Black community during a period in American history when Black bodies were legally mistreated created a certain level of security, self-confidence, and normalcy that Black people in other parts of the United States may not have experienced. In other words, whiteness was not the measure of normalcy or acceptability in Plantersville. The community, as did their ancestors, used their cultural identity to set their rules, roles, and normative behaviors.
My perception of life in Jackson Village was vastly different than my mostly white neighborhood in the north. While we attended a Pentecostal Black church and half of my parents’ siblings lived in the same city as us, I still operated out of a space that seemed unheard of in my father’s hometown. In Plantersville, my dark completion wasn’t an oddity. I wasn’t cute for a “dark-skinned” girl. I was beautiful because of, not in spite of, the deep rich melanin-filled completion that adorned my skin and the skin of my family. In Plantersville, we were the norm. We set the standard rather than function as an aberration of mainstream society. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until my 20s, and now more purposefully my 40s, that I grew to understand my family’s direct connection to the beautiful Gullah Geechee cultural experience and its impact more broadly. Although there may not be an appointed family griot or storyteller to pass on my family’s oral history, throughout this process, I found that many voices contribute to a collective understanding of my family’s identity. Moreover, even when we are unaware, the implicit or latent implications of our history are carried on in our lived experiences.
****Update: Through this process I learned that there is a family Griot and a number of available historical documents. I look forward to expanding!
Over the last few years, I’ve grappled with how to unpack the enormous significance of a healthy father-daughter relationship. Research supports that young women with supportive fathers are more likely to excel and have a greater number of protective factors. My first attempt to highlight this position was in my Huffington Post blog. In it, I allowed the reader to catch a glimpse of my relationship with my father. A few years later, I delivered a TEDx Talk that expanded upon the foundation established with the blog. Now, I am writing a book. What you’ve just read is a small part of the introduction (working draft) of my family history. I invite you on come along on this journey as I continue to expand. More to come!