One of the first places we headed was for the downtown market. Everyday, hundreds of merchants set up their wares to sell to us good ol' tourists. My favorite thing to look at are the sweetgrass baskets. The black ladies that make the sweetgrass baskets sit and weave their baskets right there on site at the market. The baskets are actually quite expensive - more so than you would first suspect - until you realize that it takes about three to four days to weave a medium size basket. The tradition of sweetgrass basket weaving is one that began with the slaves and has actually been handed down through generations. Originally, the baskets were woven for use in the fields for gathering, as well as in the households for work baskets. The tradition was brought over from Africa by the slaves, and they adapted to the different materials here in the USA by using pines needles, strips of palm leaf, and of course, sweetgrass. I was talking with one of the ladies making the baskets and she said that the sweetgrass is getting harder and harder to come by because of the expansion of the tourist industry in Charleston. Condos, shopping malls, and restaurants now stand where sweetgrass used to grow. In her words, "ya'll are good for business, but you just may be the death of it." She said they actually had to go to Florida or Georgia to gather some of the materials because they are so hard to come by in South Carolina now. This factor too lends itself to the high basket cost.
The girls were very taken with the baskets and watching the ladies make them, especially Maggie. We were talking to one of the ladies that makes the baskets and Maggie was asking her some questions. The lady had her daughter there helping her make the baskets, and indicated to Maggie as such. She then asked Maggie, "Do you help your mama?" to which Maggie responded, "yes....she says that we are her servants." I froze in place and turned to look at Maggie, willing her to explain the context of why she make such a remark. (for the benefit of my occasional outside reader who do not know - - my husband and I are white, our children are black.) I thought to myself, "why didn't you just say that you're slaves???" I have just finished reading a biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, so I think I am especially sensitive to that topic.
At any rate, I feel the compulsion to explain. We have a game that we play with the kids - allow me to elaborate; a few weeks ago, we read the kids the book of Peter Pan and watched the movie. The kids would then say things like, "I'm Tinkerbell....I'm Peter Pan.....you're Captain Hook, etc..." One of the other story lines that the kids love to discuss is that of kings and queens and princesses and such. A few days ago, they were playing that game, and I said, "I am the queen and you are all my servants!!" (ma...ha...ha...ha...) They knew I was kidding....I was so totally just teasing.....and yet.....here it was, getting thrown up in my face in front of the descendent of a slave. Great. I was ready for her to give me "that look."
But I was pleasantly surprised. She said, "so what do you have to do at home?" Maggie honestly answered, "Clean my room and pick up the toys in the basement." Whew. The lady laughed and said, "honey...I think you have it pretty good."
A SWEETGRASS BASKET LIKE THIS WOULD SELL FOR ABOUT $175 IN THE CHARLESTON MARKETS: