A Cultural Delight
Brenda Haines Williams has much to celebrate this Valentine and Black History season. A newlywed and practitioner and promoter of African-American and Gullah culture, she adorns her body in African-style clothing and jewelry, speaks the Gullah tongue, grows and cooks traditional Gullah foods, makes sweetgrass baskets, and greets people in an affectionate way, reminiscent of the "old timers." She epitomizes the survival of Gullah and African heritage in our American mass culture, and with her new husband, demonstrates that love knows no boundary of age.
Brenda believes that her husband, Amos, is a blessing from God. "You cast your bread on the ocean and it comes back to you," says this soft-spoken, evenly tempered woman of 54 years. She and Amos dated in the early 1980s and stayed in touch for over 25 years until they united at the altar, "jumped the broom" and became husband and wife last June.
Jumping the broom, still being performed in West Africa, was practiced by slaves in the United States who were not allowed to legally marry. The practice came to symbolize sweeping away their former single lives and entering a new life as husband and wife.
But Brenda's respect for African culture did not begin nor end with jumping the broom at her wedding. Her Hilton Head Island home, located in the native community of Chaplin, is generously decorated with African artwork; from carved wooden statues to intricate pictures made from banana leaves. Gullah sweetgrass baskets, which she collects and makes herself, are a reminder of the African influence here in the Lowcountry.
The black pride revolution of the '60s and '70s that generated natural hairstyles like afros and the wearing of daishikis, was a natural progression for Brenda, who began dressing exclusively in African attire in the 1980s. "When I bought my first African garment and put it on, it was a transforming experience. From the color to the way it fit my body to the head wrap, it woke up a spirit in me," said Brenda. "That's why it doesn't bother me to dress in African attire 365 days a year, not just waiting for a special occasion."
With her new spirit ready to receive, in 1992, Brenda attended her first Kwanzaa celebration, a holiday observed by Africans and by people of African descent throughout the world from December 26-January 1. For the ninth year last December, Brenda spearheaded the Hilton Head Island community effort to celebrate Kwanzaa, which is not a substitute for Christmas, she says, but stresses principles such as unity, love, and creativity, rather than emphasize the commercialization of Christmas.
Being the co-founder of De Gullah Creations in the Mall at Shelter Cove has been Brenda's greatest accomplishment. She credits native islander, Johnnie Mitchell, who "had the vision" for the arts and crafts enterprise. But like the Bible says, "One man plants, the other man waters, then God gives the increases," said Brenda. Since 2002, the shop has showcased local and unique art pieces, from handmade jewelry to paintings and even books by local authors. The mission of the shop emphasizes making something out of nothing, a Gullah way of life, explained Brenda, like making a beautiful quilt from random scraps of cloth. Brenda and Johnnie wanted to create a place for artists to display their creativity, partake in the island's economic development and also let visitors know that Gullah culture is alive and well on Hilton Head Island.
Brenda is most grateful to her deceased grandmother, Nancy Ford, for her successes in life. Her grandmother gave her the property where Brenda has made her home. She feels grateful that in spite of obstacles like increasingly high property taxes, she has been able to hold onto this family heirloom, land, which continues to be the cornerstone of the Gullah-African heritage on Hilton Head Island.
Born: Savannah, Georgia
Has been coming to Hilton Head Island: as long as she can remember
Favorite book: The Bible (especially Psalm 91)
Hobbies: gardening, making sweetgrass baskets, biking, shrimping and fishing
Person she admires most: deceased grandmother, Nancy Ford. Known affectionately as Candy Doll, she was "a woman who showed love for her family through words and deeds. Because of things she said and did, I am who and where I am today."
Describes herself as: approachable