As I've opined before, October is the best time of year around here -- lower humidity, fewer bugs, temperate weather and the emergence of a little fall color with a profusion of autumn wildflowers that rivals spring. And it always amazes me how the hot, muggy weather never persists into October.
Come the first of the month, it's drier and cooler no matter what, as was the case this year, although just in the nick of time. What's more, even though the season doesn't officially end until Nov. 30, I think we've dodged the bullet once again and can now forget about hurricanes until next year. But let's face it: We're due!
On a different matter entirely, anybody from Charleston born before 1970 or so had the privilege of being heavily imbued in the African-American culture, because blacks primarily had jobs back then that involved working for white people. It's different now, of course, and white children don't have the type of contact my generation had. There's greater cultural awareness, school integration and whatnot -- and all that helps -- but it's not the same. And obviously it shouldn't be.
But, honestly, growing up on James Island, I had contact with plenty of blacks and probably spoke better Gullah than English up until grade school. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I do clearly remember at some point an adult figure telling me I needed to stop talking like I was "colored." But how could it be helped?
One of my best friends, Eugene Collins, in charge of the yard, silver, brass and floorboards and just about anything else that needed attention, was an absolutely splendid character -- honest as they come, morally upright, full of laughter and amusing stories -- who couldn't read or write, spoke beautifully musical Gullah, and treated us like we were family. His family, that is. I'll never forget him or those like him who left a permanent impression on me.
Anyway, one of the huge cultural differences that came to my attention at an early age was the difference in style of worship. In the white house of worship, everything was most orderly, subdued, even somber at times, predictable, lacking in spontaneity, maybe even a little repressive. Dare I say that? (Oops -- just did.) But that's all right. The tradition, ritual, poetic language, history and theologic content more than make up for it. It's just what we do.
The black churches offer an energetically cathartic ventilation of pent-up human frustration and sin, released in a cacophony of soaring gospel, band music, impassioned sermonizing and "shouting." What is it to shout? It needs to be experienced. There's no way to describe it in print, other to say that you're getting it out, whether it be a feeling of rapture, praise, thanks, sorrow, blessing or what have you. It's another way of achieving freedom.
And the funerals -- how fantastic! Again, the sense of expressing and emoting without embarrassment. Indeed, in somewhat of a reverse type of psychology, being expected to do so lest one should risk the possibility of appearing removed or unconcerned.
Who knows? Maybe black religious services will one day affect white services the way "race music" absolutely transformed contemporary musical tastes. Wouldn't that be interesting? People down there at St. Michael's and St. Philip's bustin' loose every Sunday? It would be like Gene Wilder trying to act black in a scene from the '70s movie "Silver Streak," as coached by Richard Pryor. Put another way, it would be yet another example of how black culture has affected white culture in Charleston over the years.
Interestingly, a couple of years ago at St. Philip's during the Christmas season, the choir unexpectedly threw in a gospel-tinged arrangement of a traditional folk tune, and the place went nuts.
The above rambling is a prelude to another bit of African-American culture -- specifically, the story and diary of Janie Mitchell and her recollection of life in Charleston between 1862 and 1931. This is the second in a particular series of books by Evening Post Publishing Company and titled "Janie Mitchell, Reliable Cook," and subtitled as an ex-slave's recipe for living. By Lisa Foster and Mary Lou Murray Coombs, the book offers a historically invaluable look at that era as seen by an intelligent, wise individual with the heart of a poet.
"I hears my mother's tender warning as she takes me on her knees," Janie wrote in conclusion of her work. "And beneath each doorway shining as I gather shells of yore, and when life's long days is ended, oh how happy would I be upon God's faithful bosom reclining, in Charleston, the historical city by the sea."
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.