Gullah Culture, Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) and The Boo Hag
Gullah culture of Sapelo Island and Coastal Georgia, recorded by the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project (FWP).
Our story “The Boo-Hag” is based on an old Gullah folktale passed around the coastal islands of Georgia for years. Many of these folktales were collected and preserved in written form for the Federal Writers Project (FWP), an ambitious government program providing jobs for unemployed writers during the 1930s and 1940s. Boo-hags, also known as simply “hags,” are evil, supernatural creatures that can be found in stories and folktales throughout the world (such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet). In most tales, they are ugly, malicious old women who are believed to be in leagues with the Devil or the dead. They can take the form of witches, sorceresses, she-devils or evil spirits. They can also appear as beautiful young women who seduce and weaken rich and handsome young men.
At night, a boo-hag would typically sneak into a sleeping victim’s home and commit all kinds of dastardly deeds, such as sucking his blood, stealing his voice and causing nightmares. One of the most common boo-hag tricks is to “ride” a sleeping victim like a horse for miles, tiring him to the point that he would die of exhaustion. The term “hag-ridden” is used to describe someone who is distressed by nightmares or hallucinations of being ridden at night.
The Gullah people came up with unique ways of battling the boo-hag. One method was to put a loaded gun across the head of the bed, since boo-hags hate the smell of gunpowder. Another method was to sleep with a fork under the pillow to keep from being ridden. Yet another was to lay a broom on the floor, since the boo-hag would be inclined to stop and count every straw until the sun came up.
Cultural ties with Africa are scattered throughtout the Sea Islands, especially on Sapelo Island, where several descendants of West African slaves live in the tiny community of Hog Hammock. Some speak a unique Creole language known as “Gullah,” which developed from the slaves communicating secretly across the islands. Because of their relative isolation from the mainland, the Gullah people have preserved West African customs, craft techniques and storytelling for future generations.
Despite their predicament, the slaves were able to preserve and expand upon many of their African traditions. Besides the Gullah language mentioned above, the more notable traditions involved death and the afterlife. The slaves would often speak about spirits from Africa, which they called “h’ants” or “fixuhs,” coming to visit their homes. To protect themselves from the bad “h’ants,” they would often paint a blue ring around their doorways. Some slaves could detect these spirits better than others, especially babies who were born with a special “caul,” or membrane, over their eyes that enabled them to see ghosts. Naturally, most of the plantation owners dismissed the slaves’ beliefs.
The slaves also had unique burial customs, some of which can still be seen on Sapelo Island. When a relative died, his or her body couldn’t be removed from the house until the preacher said a few words. After burial, the graves were kept mounded by members of the family. Favorite and symbolic objects of the deceased were placed on or around the headstone, which was kept clean and shiny to attract protective African gods. As a sign of daily recognition of their ancestors, the slaves would pour libations on the ground – a tradition that can be seen in one form or another throughout the African-American community today.
On the outside, it seems that little has changed for the African-American Sea Island communities since the early postwar days. Many families continue to live in low income housing, and opportunities are scarce. As a result, the steady migration toward the large cities has continued, leaving an aging population to subsist on the islands. Surrounding lands are slowly being gobbled up by largely white-owned beach resorts, educational facilities and preserves.
But for the time being at least, the shared wealth of these island communities is in their memories and traditions. Because of their isolation, islands such as Sapelo serve as virtual time capsules from another era. Practically nowhere else in the country are everyday West African traditions more readily on display.
It is hoped that, by returning to these islands, African-Americans will, at least in spirit, keep their connection to the Motherland alive.
FEDERAL WRITERS PROJECT
Many beloved Southern folktales like “The Boo-Hag” could have faded into obscurity were it not for an ambitious U.S. government program of the 1930s called the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). The FWP was a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal — a sweeping set of reforms created to help America recover from the Great Depression.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of the programs under the New Deal that helped give government jobs to thousands of unemployed Americans during this time. The FWP was part of this program and, at its height, hired over 6,000 unemployed writers, both novices and experienced, at a modest salary of $20 per week. Many famous writers were employed by this program, including Saul Bellow, John Cheever and Zora Neale Hurston.
The FWP writers were originally hired to produce a series of state guidebooks, which would later become classics of Americana. The Folklore Unit of the FWP was specifically instructed to collect “life histories” from a wide variety of Americans from all walks of like. The everyday stories of stone cutters, department store clerks, painters, textile workers, farmers and many others were recorded for future publication. The government hoped that this project would provide the nation with a symbol of multi-cultural strength.
In 1938, the Folklore Unit was placed under the direction of Benjamin Botkin. Concerned with the rise of fascism in Europe, Botkin felt that the folklore project was very important in that it could help foster tolerance between Americans of different backgrounds. He instructed his writers to conduct one-on-one interviews with their subjects, and to do everything they could to make their subjects feel important and, consequently, speak freely.
Although many of these writers were amateurs when it came to collecting folklore, they soon learned their skills on the job. Without the benefit of latter-day tape recorders, the writers reconstructed the life histories they collected from notes and memory. Botkin encouraged them to listen for characteristic speech patterns and vernacular language. From 1938-1942, the writers documented traditional statements, expressions, songs, essays and stories from across the country.
The American South was seen as particularly fertile ground for folklore. The South was still a largely rural and agricultural region back then, and had not had its “old ways” buried under large cities and so-called “artificial civilization.” Botkin found that the South’s black population, mountaineers and poor whites were the main sources of folklore, and was impressed with the amount of good storytelling and singing he heard during his travels. He particularly credited the friendliness and camaraderie between natives and visitors for the wealth of storytelling material.
The FWP was not without it’s critics, however. Academic folklorists considered the FWP folklore collection to be undependable, since it was collected by amateurs. Detractors of the Roosevelt administration considered the WPA program as a whole to be wasteful, slow and excessive (they joked that WPA stood for “We Piddle Around”). Some congressional leaders even believed that the folklore collections were Communist propaganda.
When World War II broke out, the FWP came to an abrupt halt, and most of the folklore collection was left unpublished. The vast piles of records lay virtually unnoticed in the Library of Congress until recently. The Internet, in particular, has made many of these life history manuscripts more accessible to the public.
For more information on the Federal Writers’ Project and the New Deal, check out these sites:
American Life Histories
Part of the Library of Congress’s American Memory series, this excellent site features life history manuscripts from the FWP, as well as historical information on the program itself.
New Deal Network
A project of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute (FERI), this site is a research and teaching resource devoted to the public works and arts projects of the New Deal.
If you’re interested in learning more about Gullah culture and the Sea Islands, you may want to check out the following sites:
Georgia Sea Island Singers
For over 20 years, this unique group has toured the world sharing songs and stories set against the history and mystique of the Georgia Sea Islands.
Golden Isles Navigator
A very comprehensive site about the region and its people. Especially helpful if you’re planning a trip.
Photo courtesy of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources
Karen Lawrence, Photographer
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4 Responses to “Gullah Culture, Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) and The Boo Hag”
Is there still a need for writers? I am very interested in some of these stories.
Sure, Deven. Whatcha got?
Hello! I’m student working on a screenplay based off these Gullah culture stories. Who do I talk to to by writes for these stories? Thanks!
The original folktales are in the public domain, but we own the rights to our versions of the stories.