Identity in Basketry from Past to Present

Pok Man Tong

I visited Florida 4 years ago. The only vivid feelings I could remember now is the sunshine, wildness, and all the outdoor activities. And I bought a straw hat to shade the sunshine in a grass-product souvenir shop. I noticed that there were many fabulous handmade grass baskets in a corner of the shop, although the only image I remembered at that time is that “Nice, a very tough and practical basket. But who will need a basket nowadays? Well, it makes a good souvenir though.” I did not recall this part of memory until I read a section about self-exploitation by Dunaway. The amazing artworks I had seen might come from the inheritance back to slavery or even earlier, so I delved into the history of African American Basketry. I researched the background and history of the baskets, and examined the influence of basketry to African lives and subsistence.

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African-Americans made and are still making grass baskets along the entire coastal south, even though the baskets have become most famous within the South Carolina lowcountry nowadays. These artifacts provided useful and practical “work baskets” in agriculture and domestic use on the plantations originally; today, the baskets have become attracting souvenirs to tourists and even elegant arts presented in museum. (R.J. Dufault, et al.) Basketweaving was once a typical technique from North Carolina to northern Florida, where African American has been enslaved for years (Ron). Sweetgrass, which was a common material for grass baskets, grows in band 50 meters away from the high tide along the water from North Carolina to Texas (R.J. Dufault, et al.). Clusters of Long, strong grass can be easily spotted in my trip to scuba-diving in Gulf of Mexico. Therefore, it was not uncommon to find one in Florida four years ago. I had never imagined those raw materials could made a basket as an important tool in slavery.

Africans from the West African Windward Coast, from Senegal to the Ivory Coast, and the mouth of the Congo River, area of Gabon, Zaire, and Angola, brought  basketweaving techniques to America through transatlantic slave trade and rooted in the new world. (R.J. Dufault, et al.) And the techniques of basketweaving continue to be passed down from generation to generation in both North America and West Africa. As in different parts of Africa, basket makers in the America would experiment a basket with new materials and perfect their techniques from their parents and grandparents. (Johnson) After decades of efforts, African American developed a unique art and techniques of basket-weaving with native sweetgrass.

Grass basket is not created by a single individual; it is a collaborative family work. A child sews the bottom of a basket when an older relative points out how to shape the baskets and strengthen the basket. Family members always enjoyed close cooperation in basketweaving. (Johnson) They felt a sense of an important part of their cultural heritage from this basketweaving tradition (Marguerite S, et al.). African American would cherish their basket products as the baskets could be memories and connection of generations.

2

African American Grass baskets were created in large amount and employed in field during the days of slavery. Throughout 18th and 19th centuries, rice cultivation and cash crop plantation, such as tobacco and cotton picking, caused a great demand of those grass baskets for agricultural purpose. A slaveowner was willing to pay a higher price for a man or woman who could make baskets than those who could not (Johnson). Slaveowners asked slaves to make baskets and even sold those baskets to other plantation owners, so slaveowners earned extra income and benefited from grass basketry (Marguerite S, et al.). African American made all kinds of baskets for food processing and storage. Coiled trays could winnow maize and dry honey; the winnowing baskets are called the “fanner” which tossed hulls into the air to separate the chaff from rice (Johnson). Different kinds of bowl-shaped baskets were used for serving, measuring, and carrying food. Large agricultural baskets were popular for collecting and storing vegetables, grain, and cotton. Some work baskets are designated for catching fish and shellfish (Marguerite S, et al.). On one hand, baskets in slavery helped different aspects of subsistence and life of African American, and pushed them to a more severe slaveowners’ exploitation on the other hand.

Basketweaving was not only a work for their masters, but also a form of subsistence production and self-exploitation. Subsistence production meant a “work for the family” to the slave. In many cases, slaveowners would never give enough food and clothing to the slaves, so the slaves had to produce own craft commodities necessary to operate their household for themselves (Dunaway). Moreover, subsistence production could make them money; for example, some slaves sold these grass baskets to earn money through their masters. However, this types of production was also a desire of the slaveowners to maximize profits that slaveowners allowed slaves to supplement their primary occupations with artisan production. Slaveowners even ordered older slaves who were not able to work in the hot sun to make baskets for profits (Ron). This is an example of how masters exploited the labor of slaves and worked their slaves to death. For other healthy slaves, Craft production was assigned to more than half of the slaves after sunset, in addition to their 58 hours of field work each week (Dunaway).

Interestingly, basketry could also reflect gendered division of labor. Although sweetgrass baskets are now mostly produced by black women, back in the time of slavery, male slaves usually made large grass baskets for the field from marsh grasses called bulrush. (Ron) These agricultural baskets were used for productive activities like gathering, hunting and fishing. Women focused on the functional baskets for everyday living in the home, such as bread, fruits, and clothes storage. (Marguerite S, et al.) This gender-orientated basketweaving techniques further limited women to the house and domestic work. While men were producing the stronger and more practical baskets for and selling these baskets to the plantation owners market for extra profits, women could make baskets for domestic uses. Even when women assisted with the field baskets, their contributions were not documented. (Dunaway) However, the “women-made” baskets were made from the softer and pliable sweetgrass, which has a pleasant fragrance of smell of fresh hay, and become the heritage, the Sweetgrass Baskets, treasured by tourists and artists nowadays. (Marguerite S, et al.)

The end of slavery did not change the importance of grass baskets, but African American basketry underwent a great transformation from its original agricultural purpose at the end of 19th century. After Emancipation, some of the newly freed slaves became grass basket makers because weaving grass baskets costs nothing but time. (Ron)  The need of baskets was still high for agriculture long after Emancipation because most of the ex-slaves were still working in field as sharecroppers and peonage tenants.  Nevertheless, a serious of storms and hurricanes destroyed vast fields along the coast from North Carolina to Florida, so most field baskets were not needed. Then basket makers started to produce flower baskets and other decorative forms that were sold to tourists. (Vlach, John Michael.)

Ironically, basketry has a close relation to slavery and sexual inequality, but some ex-slaves made a living from this tradition after slavery. I am not questioning the African identity that is connected by baskets from the past to now. It has rather a deeper meaning of the inhumanity of labor exploitation and slavery. This reflection should never be forgotten behind the beautiful art.

Before the basket makers figured out the way to keep this heritage, the Lowcountry almost lost this valuable art. In the 1930s, souvenir shop owners, hand-craft collectors, and museums showed interest to the “show baskets” which allowed a basket maker to show-off her talents. (Marguerite S, et al.) I would see these traders and collectors, who are dominantly white at that time, as people who tried to exploit the black labor by trading their precious production in a unfair way since the thirties were a relatively uncertain era in terms of economics and racial issues. Yet, basket makers began marketing their production from roadside basket stands along the coastal highway (Route 17), which has become a famous tourist attraction nowadays. They are now selling a small basket for twenty dollars to a large basket for a few hundred dollars. Is it worth? I have no opinion, but it is definitely a reasonable price for some people because they are now trading in a free markets, which is an evidence of great improvement and transformation to freedom.

My past experience has brought me a deeper understanding of African American culture and their lives. Through this basket research, I understood the art and history of African American. African American could blend from their African heritage, men and women made baskets from natural producing baskets that were used for all kinds of household purposes in the difficult time of slavery. Absorbing experiences in the harsh condition of self-exploitation and techniques shared by the whole family, this heritage has been passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter for generations and remains alive today. Future generations could trace an identity and tie to Africa through basketry. I was amazed by creations and wisdoms that African American shared.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Dufault , R.J., M. Jackson, and S.K. Salvo. 1993. Sweetgrass: History, basketry, and constraints to industry growth. p. 442-445. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.

 

Dunaway, Wilma A. The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Cambridge University Press. Print.

 

Johnson, Nathaniel. Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art. Museum for African Art, New York. 2008.

 

Marguerite S. Middleton. Mary A. Jackson. The Sweetgrass Basket Tradition. The Mount Pleasant Town Council and the S. C. Dept. of Parks, Recreation & Tourism.

 

Rosengarten, Dale. “Social Origins of the African-American Lowcountry Basket.” Dissertation Abstracts International 58. (1997).America: History & Life. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.

 

Ron. April 2011. Low Country Sweet Grass Basket Weaving. Web. 3 Nov 2015.

 

Vlach, John Michael. “Rooted in Africa, Raised in America: The Traditional Arts and Crafts of African-Americans Across Five Centuries.” Freedom’s Story. National Humanities Center. 3 Nov 2015.

 

Pictures

Johnson, Nathaniel. Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art. Museum for African Art, New York. 2008.

 

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