If you’re looking for something fun, informative and cultural to do with your family or guests this time of year, it’s worth the drive to visit the African-American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey’s (AAHMSJ) "Grassroots" exhibit before it leaves on Jan. 7.
With grandparents from South Carolina, I felt a strong connection to the people of this Lowcountry area of the eastern U.S. when I visited years ago on a Gullah-Geechee tour.
“Gullah” and “Geechee” are used interchangeably to refer to the people, language and traditions with African origins in the northern Florida, Georgia and South Carolina Sea Island areas.
I’ve wanted to return since my tour so I could hardly wait to get over to the museum in Newtonville (Atlantic County) to see what was in store.
The soft greens of the frames and glass painted with palms and sweetgrass gave an island air to the whole room of the exhibit.
"Grassroots: African Origins of an American Art" explores the art of basket-making from both historical and aesthetic perspectives. From a historical perspective, basket-weaving is one of the longest lasting remnants of our African heritage. Numerous photographs in the exhibit document the history of enslaved Africans brought specifically from countries where rice was cultivated for thousands of years to plantations in the Americas.
Along with the photographs and vivid descriptions of plantation life, you can see examples of baskets used originally to winnow rice on the plantations of what became known as the “Rice Kingdom.”
This is Lowcountry, an area where many African traditions were retained partly because of isolation from the mainland. An informative video shows modern-day basket makers in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, and men and women in Senegal, Africa, using the exact same techniques to weave a wide variety of baskets for a wide variety of uses.
Most of the baskets in the exhibit are “coiled.”
People in all parts of the world have used baskets in many different ways for untold millennia, but especially in the Charleston, S.C., area, basket makers are now considered artists.
After the utilitarian uses of baskets during slavery, people were able to focus more on their creativity.
Along Route 17, there have been ongoing efforts to establish the makeshift basket stands on roadsides as historical landmarks worthy of preservation. At the AAHMSJ, you can experience the beauty of these baskets as well as their utility.
Listening to the family histories of several basket makers on the video was one of my favorite parts of the exhibit. A third generation man remarked, “This is a culture and heritage that’s been kicked around but still remains. It’s getting harder and harder to find sweetgrass and bulrush, but me and my brother go miles to where we know we can still find them.”
Another explained, “You’ll find most of us in rural areas, rural families and communities who love their way of life.”
Many of the people interviewed on the video complained about “highway and commercial development trying to displace us and destroying our natural environment.” In the end, however, they all agreed with Nakia Wigfall, whose baskets — and her teen grandchildren’s, by the way — are on display.
Wigfall said, “We can’t forget the elders who taught us this beautiful art. This [the fight to preserve the art and roadside stands] has drawn me closer to keeping the culture alive.”
Enlightening, inspiring and educational, this exhibit at the AAHMSJ exhibit is partially sponsored by the National Endowment of the Humanities.
Turiya S.A. Raheem was born and raised in Atlantic City. Currently an English teacher at Atlantic Cape Community College, she loves to describe her neighborhood as “the other Atlantic City,” because it was not the casino-resort mecca most people know today. It was a place with a “cozy, down-home feeling” as she describes in her 2010 book, Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City: Wash’s and the Northside.
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