Gullah Native Turns to Writing to Find Her Voice

A Short Story: “And Still They Come”

January 2022 Issue

Vernie Singleton
Gullah Native Turns to Writing to Find Her Voice
“And Still They Come” A Short Story by Vernie Singleton

Writing has helped Vernie Singleton overcome a lot in her life. A very quiet child, almost to the point of being a hermit, Vernie never spoke out or spoke up. Whether it was at school in the classroom or at home she kept most of her thoughts to herself.
“Writing is a healing process. It helps me regurgitate and process my feelings and organize my thoughts. Writing has been a way for me to take my time and communicate my thoughts and things I want to say,” said Vernie.

A multi-generational Gullah native, now well into adulthood, Vernie has come out of her shell and found her voice through prose and pen. “The older I got, the more outgoing I became,” Vernie explained. Though she has been writing since high school, she joined the Wide Oak Writers group a few years ago, which started out as a writers’ workshop. The participants, including Vernie, enjoyed it so much, the group stayed together to help each other grow in their writing and offer feedback.

The following short story, which is fictional, though it encapsulates Vernie’s concerns about the evolution of Hilton Head, was born from a writing prompt at a Wide Oak Writers’ meeting: A rutty dirt road…

This prompt automatically took Vernie back to her childhood days to her family’s land off Marshland Road on Hilton Head Island. Purchased by her great grandparents, this is her family’s heirs property. She, her 92-year-old mother and other family members still own and inhabit this land that has been in her family more than 100 years and was once was only accessible by way of… a rutty dirt road.

“This is a community of Gullah people dating way back to people working together and helping each other. Having roots in this community, it is important to hold onto and remember. We are still here and we’re still thriving!” Vernie said, proudly.

Please enjoy Vernie Singleton’s short story entitled: “And Still They Come”.

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An Original Short Story
By Vernie Singleton

“What’s going on with you, Girl?” Sally greeted me as she dropped her heavy bottom and overloaded plastic grocery bag onto the red and gray plaid cushioned seat opposite me. I must say I was surprised how quickly she detected my unhinged mood. But I guess she would. For the past four months, we meshed well in this corner booth by the bathroom where we sipped peppermint tea and hot chocolate and binged on glazed donuts. Sally once complained that this little wallpapered café wasn’t big enough to hold both our attitudes, but we agreed that the place sedated our testy spirits like a warm breeze undermining a chill.

Sally and I first met at the County Career Center during a resume-writing workshop. She had just earned her Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) license and was seeking an upgrade as a caregiver after ten years in housekeeping at the Island Inn. Me? I was a freelance writer looking for anything that would rescue me from retail work.

Sally’s husband died from diabetes complications two years ago, so she was now a single mom who aspired to become a touring poet and Christian songwriter. Nothing wrong with big dreams, but of course her four children came first. She confided that she could no longer dwarf her passion to create under a basket. So we laughed and wrote and shared our poems and stories for an hour and a half every other week until the transport bus came to shuttle her and others back home on a two-and-a-half-hour journey deep into job-dry Allenwood, two county seats west of here.

“Rose, why you so uptight today? This is supposed to be our time to unwind,” scolded Sally, spitting an orange glob of chewing gum into a paper napkin.

“What you talking about, Sally?”

“I see you over there, all deep into that paper like you’re a political aide or something.”

I showed her the headline in “The Island Herald.” TALK OF POSSIBLE AIRPORT EXPANSION UNDERWAY. That plan had lain dormant for a long time, but the old serpent had resurrected its head and was about to bite again.

Protesters had argued that expansion of the runway was a threat not only to the native Gullah heritage and landscape, but also to the entire island’s security, whether most realized and accepted it or not. Residents had come together under the old oak tree on the grounds of the threatened black Baptist church. Coalitions had been built between blacks and whites—well-to-do and not so well-to-do residents who shared common concerns over the impractical location and expansion of an airport that sat in the heart of our small, congested island. But apparently that had not been enough to stop the force of money and will behind this project, which would uproot our church that had served the closely-knit community of slave descendants since 1886.

Sally and I had never talked issues other than the high cost of education and the need for better public transportation in the Lowcountry. But today revealed something of my writing partner that caused me to wonder and fear if we as a collective people would ever get on one accord long enough to make a positive change for any of us.

"There was too much history, too much recall of waiting on and tending to their every need from the big house ‘til now, the beach house."

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After glancing at the article, Sally pushed it aside, as though unimpressed, and worse, unconcerned. “This why you so uptight today? This is our time to relax.”

I didn’t think I had to explain to Sally how selfish it was for a few high rollers to impose their bad choices on the rest of us. But she had apparently made up her mind, and quickly, too. “Let those wealthy people have their way. Let them have it! Nothing we can do. Their stones of influence are too heavy for us to move. But let God have His way with them. That’s what you do. He’ll uproot the whole darn mountain.”

“And what do we do in the meantime, Sally, until God makes His move? What do we do while these people disgrace our places of worship and historical landmarks that shape communal foundations? Do we just watch them dig up our peace of mind to make their runway to paradise in our front yards?”

Sally shrugged her shoulders and released a deep groan.

Well, you see, I didn’t expect her to understand. Not really. Because she is not from here. She just came here to work, and I must say, to make money. Sally wasn’t about breaking down barriers, or tearing down walls, or unlocking unnatural resort gates separating the haves from the have-nots and truly opening up the proverbial “beloved community” that gets mentioned at every Martin Luther King Day celebration at the high school. She just wanted her share, big or small. And the rest of us? Well, she figured that if everybody played the game right—we would all come out in the green.

As far as the decision makers were concerned, smaller details like noise pollution and the threat of planes missing the runway in a residential area didn’t matter. Their concern was whether the corporate execs could land their private jets on the extended runway and cut the one-hour commute in an air-conditioned limousine from Savannah Airport to five minutes to their front door from the tarmac of the Island airport. And it’s true. Years ago, I read in “The Island Herald” that an island executive admitted that’s why we needed the runway expansion—for him and others like him to have a quick transport time from the airport to their front door.

I couldn’t explain it to Sally the way I wanted. There was too much history, too much recall of waiting on and tending to their every need from the big house ‘til now, the beach house. It seems the one-percents’ comfort and convenience has always been the priority of the rest of us. Couldn’t Sally see that? It was all too raw. Sally and I would get into a shouting match and this little wallpapered café couldn’t handle it, even in our corner by the bathroom. But we kept at it.

“You stay right there and think you’re gonna stop them from taking what they want,” fired Sally. “They’ll find a way. Always do. And more people will come in private jets and in bigger commercial planes, too, until the Island just can’t take no more. I know all about it,” said Sally, as though she didn’t care, and it didn’t matter anyway.

“Then what’s gonna happen?” I asked her. I could tell Sally was working up for a big comeback. She swung her legs around and rested her back, giving me a chance before the finale.

“I know why they come,” I continued, “to get away from the environmental mayhem they helped create somewhere else with their constant seeking for a higher standard of living. Isn’t that the way of the world, Sally, the human cycle of civilization? So they come here to play. It doesn’t matter that our fresh groundwater is being used up and replaced with intruding salt water—or that the run-off from all the building and nonporous pavement is polluting our creeks and seafood—or that dealing with the traffic on our highways is stressing our minds and bodies. And, it’s poor planning, selfish planning, because it’s all about money, convenience and power. This island won’t be worth anything to anybody if we destroy the natural bounty God gave us.”

Sally swung back around in battle position, both forearms planted flat in front of her, her eyes locked on mine. “Girl, get over it. The end time is almost here.”

“Is that all you can think of, Sally, the end time? What about right now?”

“Well, you see where we are right now, things ain’t so bad.” Sally picked up her cup of cocoa, made a big midair toast and took a sip, smiling and smacking her lips.

“That’s what they’d like us to think,” I said. “Throw a few crumbs our way to pacify us while they hide the loaf. Things ain’t so bad?”

Sally bit into a donut, ran a paper napkin across her lips and sent a sulky look my way.

“Aren’t you the one who had to borrow money from me the other day because your son didn’t have enough to buy computer books for class at the technical college? Things ain’t so bad, is that what you said, Sally?”

“There you go—always taking things to the extreme. We all have money problems.” She tossed the balled-up napkin onto the table as though she didn’t care where it landed. But I knew she did because Sally was like that. Then she stuffed the soiled ball in her empty cup and placed the cup to the side as if she were finished with the whole matter. But I wasn’t.

“I never heard you say that rich woman you take care of had to borrow money from you.”

“That’s because I don’t talk all my business. Besides, it’s not all about money. My boss lady and I have a good thing going on. I do my job, and she pays me on time. Sometimes I fall short, but that’s life. I can’t help that.” Sally relaxed her back on the leather seat.

“You’re right, Sally. It’s not all about money. On this little sea island in the South Carolina lowcountry it’s about land—who’s got it, and what they’re gonna do with it. ‘Cause if you don’t have land to cover your roots, you’re done for. You’re just a wandering weed that’s gonna dry up and wither away—you and your offspring.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic,” Sally broke away. “I’m going for another chocolate. Chill, Girl. You’re working yourself into a frenzy. Over what? What can you do about the darn airport anyway? It’s probably a done deal. You know how that goes.”

The four o’clock shift was about to start. Only three tables remained occupied. We had another hour to go before Sally’s ride would show up at the bus stop. Sally approached the glass door and peeped down the street as though she didn’t trust the hands on the clock behind the counter. Foregoing the chocolate and leaning over to me, she whispered:

“They’re gonna make the whole darn island an airport and just leave enough space for hotels on the beach and golf courses to accommodate the tourists. Then they’ll put an automated cash register at the bridge coming onto the island to collect the money.”

“Sally, this is no joke. I have to live here.”

She nudged me over on my seat and spoke close-like.

“What you need to do is sell those acres your family has on the creek and buy some land in the upcountry. Leave these highflyers here to be swallowed-up in the next big hurricane and sea level rising like Moses and the Israelites at the Red Sea. Haul tail out of here. You hear me? Me and my kids’ll be right behind you. We’ll start a new colony in the Promised Land.”

“Sally, you’re crazy!”

“I’m serious. When Hurricane Vickie, or whoever, sweeps through here next time, or whenever, she ain’t gonna leave a thing standing if these people don’t repent of their evil economic and social sins. You might not think I know, but I know the deal. And you can let pride get in the way, saying: I’m not gonna let them run me off my great grandpa’s land,” Sally grabbed me by the wrist.

“They ain’t no good neighbors anyway. Are they? They got you pinned-in with golf courses and high-priced homes. Taxes high as the sky. And nosey neighbors spying and reporting on you. You talk about quality of life; what’s that? Between the people and the local government, they’ll make life a living hell for you with the restrictions they put on you with what you can and can’t do with your own property. Get out while the gettin’ is good.” Then Sally winked, reassured me with a pat on my hand and resumed her spot in the opposite seat in the booth.

“Sally, you know what? I can see it now. This summer, we’re gonna sit on the front porch, and you can lay back in my mother’s rocking chair, and we’ll watch the black and white birds fly over at noon. Then we’ll doze-off in the heat of the day with a slight breeze stirring from the water while my cat tracks the sun across the porch floor. What you say?”

“Girl, when am I gonna find time to do all that? By the time I get off from Miss Ann and run to the grocery store, it’s time to catch the bus back home. This one day a week is my short day when her daughter takes her out for lunch. I don’t want to impose on you.”

“Oh stop it Sally. We’ll make a way,” I assured, taking a folder from my bag.

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“What you got there?”

“Something I want to read to you. I’ve been carrying it around and wondering what to do with it. Now I know.”

“Is it about the airport?” Sally stretched her arms skyward and released a loud sigh.  “Have you ever written a letter to whoever is over this airport business telling them what you think about the whole thing?”

“Listen, Sally. As much as I want to believe we could stop the misuse of power, I feel almost defeated in my tracks as to what I can do personally.”

“So, what can you do?” Sally folded her arms and waited for an answer.

“Open someone’s eyes, Sally, so they can see. Take off the scales so that people can see the truth for themselves. Listen,” I said, “it’s over a page.”

“We’ve got time,” said Sally. So I read and Sally listened.

“And still they come. On days like today when they could be at the beach, or sipping cocktails on a patio, they come here, instead. With windows shut tight to keep in preferred air, they cruise down our little road, where wagon wheels once pressed deep into island soil to elevate our people to their humble destiny.

“They come here to an enclave of modest homes with tin and shingled roofs under a sun where my father used to plant and harvest watermelons by the truckloads. On this road we are Blacks and Hispanics sharing DNA of survival and peace—a community of hard-working people who respect and cherish our tranquility on the water’s edge.” I looked at Sally. “Go on,” she urged.

“That’s right. Broad Creek is our rich neighbor, with the creek at our back and the oaks, pines and palms lacing the natural borders, we are constantly reminded of the beauty and bounty provided by our Creator. In summer, the breeze floating off the water pacifies our deepest anxieties. We are kept through the days and nights by playback in our minds of singing birds that feed in the marsh waters just below the shallow bank and rise up in feathery formation over our abodes in the peak of day.”

“Rose, I can see those birds now, and I can feel and smell the tide changing, low to high, high to low, day to night, night to day,” said Sally, smiling. “Go on, Girl.”

“What was not even a long gravel driveway, but a quarter mile rutty dirt road is now asphalt covered. Even during the days of dusty whirlwinds before the bumpy road was paved, cars crept and brought them to this marshy panorama at the end of this drive, named for my great grandmother. The intruders had been teased by a glimpse of paradise’s pool from passing by. They came then, and even more now, to marvel at our special place on the creek.”

“There have been offers made to buy us out. And what do they all say? Oh, with the money from the sale, you could go and live anywhere. Anywhere you want, they say. Anywhere but here is what they mean, because in their thoughts, this place is too good for poor people.” I caught myself and lowered my voice. A white woman in clacking heels and a tailored navy colored pants suit passed our table on the way to the restroom. Sally was not distracted. I continued.

“Don’t they know? Poor people appreciate nice things, too and will work hard to keep what they have. Thank God for the ancestors, Namon and Dianah, who labored to purchase this land not long after Emancipation. Praise those who paid the taxes and prospered the family tree. Today it is shared with those who appreciate a peaceful place to lay their heads at night and let their children play by daylight.”

“No, not even a long gravel driveway, but a rutty, quarter-mile dirt road is where we came from. It is here where our roots are planted and here we plan to stay.”

When I looked up from reading, I honestly didn’t recognize Sally’s face. She was crying. I blinked, and when I looked again, Sally was gone. The bathroom door slammed closed with a screech. What had I done? Had I pushed her too far? I waited. She came back wiping her face. Her smile relieved me.

“What’s going on with you?” I asked. Sally took her seat across from me.

“Sally, I wrote this not to be cruel to anybody…”

“I know,” she said.

“… or hard-hearted.”

“I get you. Yes. You wrote it to make it known. To amp up a voice that grows more faint with the increasing roar of jet planes and cars coming to this island. You were here before they thought of coming. You and your people paid for land with the same money the newcomers earn and circulate. They need to know your history, and better yet, face reality and respect your right to be here and to be safe in your space. I get it. They don’t know what their coming here has done.” Sally’s hands became restless on the table.

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“Sally, I too must face my own reality with each passing car on my road hauling cold faces that won’t even look me in the eyes as they pass me in my yard, because you know why, Sally?”

Sally stopped tapping her fingers on the table and looked up, her eyes revealed a mind racing a mile-a-minute.

“No, why?’

“Because really, they don’t want to see me or my people as the rightful owners.”

“Don’t get me started. You’re preaching to the choir here.” Looking to see who was around us, she whispered:

“I know it well. You think just ‘cause I don’t sleep at night on this island I don’t know the story. We in the sticks know the same story. They searching for land everywhere.”

“Well Sally, if you know the same story, we must be in the same book.”

“And better yet, on the same page,” added Sally, followed by a joyous “Hallelujah!”

The restroom door screeched. On her way out, the woman in heels smiled at us both like she thought she knew who we were.

“So what are you going to do with it? Give a speech in your church on Sunday? The ones who need to hear it won’t even be there. They said during the Civil Rights Movement that Sunday was the most segregated day of the week and probably still is. The “Herald” won’t take it. They’d edit your message right off the page. Besides, they don’t want the tourists to read it. And it’s not even radical—‘cause you know they’re afraid of radical. It’s just what’s real and in your heart. That’s all. Just what’s real.”

Somehow Sally and I had gotten to a warm place, it seemed, on a chilly November afternoon. I had never done this, but I walked Sally to the bus stop. When the bus came, she made me promise not to fret about anything, especially the darn airport. Then she hugged me goodbye. For the first time I knew I would miss her. I was wrong about Sally. Her caring was deep, not so apparent, but present. And so, now it is my hope that, from day-trippers to transplant residents, newcomers to our island will find it in their hearts to respect the people and the land. I learned from Sally it doesn’t matter where you come from, but where your heart is. I only wish that our new neighbors would embrace that idea.

The End.

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