Here’s the amazing history behind the Sapelo sweetgrass basket and how you can use one to decorate your home or enjoy a fun picnic!
Picture: Me and Mrs. Yvonne, Grovner. This basket was used a focal point of the Gullah Geechee float for President Barack Obama’s second inaugural parade. In it, is a copy of Golden Isles magazine (Sept-Oct 2020) which features her (and her) hands at work. Photo: Palmer’s Photography
Mrs. Yvonne J. Grovner is a cultural gatekeeper of Gullah Geechee culture. Last time I visited my home town, McIntosh County, Ga I was able to chat briefly with her on how important it is to keep this legacy going.
As a resident of Sapelo Island, which is also home to my direct family linage (Wylly or Wylie- depending on who you ask) she continues to keep this Geechee tradition going. If you don’t exactly understand what my culture is, here: The Gullah Geechee culture IS the oldest, most preserved, and most important culture among African Americans in the United States.
This basket is simply beautiful! Thank you Mrs. Yvonne for allowing me to capture it.
Image: Bragg Photography, Darien, Ga
I will be writing more on my culture, but simply put: we are the closest African Americans to Africa that you will encounter. Slaves were brought over from West Africa and landed on the grounds of Coastal Georgia and Carolinas (and a little bit of North Florida).
Because my ancestors rarely moved away from the area, we have been able to keep cultural elements going strong. This is not limited to our language, cooking, customs, and general way of life.
Sweetgrass baskets have proven to be an important element of this as it has been a custom directly tied to West Africa.
What is a Sweetgrass Basket?
A sweetgrass basket, also known as a slave basket is made from the sweetgrass and palmetto plants. It was used by slaves to store dry goods and if it was made right and tight, liquid as well.
There are different techniques to creating a basket and they can take up days to finish. You might have seen photos of slaves using this to winnow rice, tossing it up to blow away the husks. A smaller plate or “fanner” is 12-13 hours, for reference.
And to be honest, our culture is not for sale but please pay for the energy. Larger baskets can be sold for up to a few thousand dollars depending on size.
Mrs. Yvonne is one of the few Gullah Geechee people who still maintain this meticulous art form of cultural excellence. She is THE sweetgrass basket weaver in Georgia.
The others are her nuclear family as she has taught her daugher, grandaughters, and other children on Sapelo Island. My goal is to learn next.
Upon researching, there are other Gullah pioneers like South Carolinian Mary Jackson who has done amazing work as a sweetgrass artist. Knowing how to create this basket and about its importance is apart of keeping this cultural link to West Africa alive.
Mrs. Yvonne (because apart of our culture is never addressing elders by first name without title) shared with me that she learned how to create these baskets from her elder, Allen Green. As a blogger of Gullah Geechee decent, I can only hope to one day keep my culture going by sharing the food, customs, and our stories alive.
Where to Purchase and Support Sweetgrass Basket Makers
You can purchase sweetgrass baskets from through etsy.com. Just make sure you purchase from an authentic vendor.
If you’re in the Charleston area, you may be able to snag an authentic basket from the Charleston City Market.
And you can also purchase homemade sweetgrass baskets from the lovely ladies at Charleston Sweetgrass.
Ways to Use a Sweetgrass Basket
I loved being able to showcase these beautiful baskets on my picnic photoshoot. And you can also use them in your home.
Enjoy these baskets:
- On a special picnic
- As a decorative piece in your living room
- To house special items on a desk, dresser, or vanity
- To store blankets
- As a centerpiece for your holiday table
Every time I go home to McIntosh County, Ga I find it important to enjoy and appreciate my culture.
I hope you enjoyed learning more about my amazing heritage and the amazing Sapelo sweetgrass basket.
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments!
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