Thursday, April 13, 2017

Praise House

Praise House on St. Helena's Island, South Carolina

Blessed with a tour of the Gullah homeland,
St. Helena’s Island, where freed slaves
were given each ten acres upon emancipation,
we wander with Robert Middleton, our guide.
He names each place:
“This is Frogmore, this is Scott, this is Land’s End,”
as we pass from one wide-open community to another.
The Gullah people love color,
and the old frame houses, even the trailers,
are painted yellow, pink and blue.
“Everybody here is one family.”
Robert, on his ten acres,
gave a homeplace to each of his children.
“I can holler to ‘em from my front yard.”
Down a long oak-lined road we ride to its end,
where Robert says, “and here’s the Atlantic.”
People come to walk on the stony beach,
and swim when the tide goes out.
“They’d bring the slaves here in a boat,
and just unload ‘em,” he says.
All that grows here is African:
the okra, the tomatoes, the fruit.
When the white owners “skedaddled,” after the war,
land was left to the weary slaves,
and freedom, the first in the nation.
At the Penn School, two white women came
to live up on a little dirt road,
and brought reading and writing, forbidden in enslavement,
for children so eager
they’d walk six miles to school in the rain.
“We teach the young people not to sell their land,” 
says Robert,
a legacy of Penn School’s wisdom.
Gazing into the deep, lush woods lining the roads, I ask,
“Did you ever heal with herbs here?”
“Used to,” says Robert, “we had all we needed.
Didn’t need no doctors.
Life-everlasting tea with lemon,
sassafras, pine gum, elderberry and garlic.
My grandma cured a snakebite with frog blood!
Just stuffed it right in there,
and bound it up good.”
The last stop on our tour,
the white clapboard Praise House,
the last one, preserved by the side of the road.
Every community had one.
“We’d go there to solve our problems,” says Robert,
“trouble with the young ‘uns, money disputes, conflicts.
We’d go to the Praise House so as not to call the law.”
I peer in the window of the tiny house,
a pulpit and four wooden pews.
“Robert, was there praise here too?”
“Sunday nights, Tuesdays and Thursdays,” he says,
when it was too far to walk to church.”

Step it, step it, step it down.  Remember me.
Step it, step it, step it down.  Remember me.
(a ring play of the Gullah children.)

Sing, shout, circle and step.
The praise house.

Annelinde Metzner
St. Helena's Island, South Carolina

    I met Robert Middleton at Penn Center on St. Helena's Island, South Carolina.  This is a place rich in history, where a school was created for local Gullah children, which was forbidden during slavery times.  It became a center of the Civil Rights movement and is now devoted to the history and culture of the island.  I am very honored that my chapbook, This Most Huge Yes, including this poem, is going to be offered at their bookstore. 
      I ended this poem with a song, in italics, which I learned as a music teacher, part of the musical legacy of the Sea Islands.

Robert Middleton, with Sue Ann Metzner

"Here's the Atlantic"

Live oak tree with Spanish moss

Penn Center

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