The antebellum architecture of the South Carolina Low County around Beaufort ranges from the mansions of dignitaries and wealthy merchants to the three remaining praise houses of the Gullah people.
As much as I enjoyed looking at the former, it was my visit to a small white cabin, no bigger than a farm stand on the side of highway, that impressed me the most. Intended as places for slaves to worship, praise houses were intentionally kept small by plantation owners who feared the slaves might organize if allowed to congregate in large numbers.
There, as many as could fit on the benches of a 10×15 foot room would do the only thing they could do without asking permission, sing praises to a Christian God, while they beat out the rhythms of their West African homes with their hands, feet, walking sticks and dried gourds and created a unique culture by singing, stomping and shouting their own identity.
You don’t have to look for work alone. Find a place to meet and invite others in your situation to get together to sing, stomp and shout in order to help each other keep going.
When slavery ended these meeting places became centers of community solidarity where the isolation and economic challenges of rural living were counterbalanced by the bonds of sharing common experiences.
A Low Country resident who went three times a week as a child to the praise house I visited and is now a part of effort to preserve the few that are left and the way of living they represent, recalls that these were places where “people helped each other and depended on each other.”
The community room of the Wellfleet library, where I co-facilitated the first of a five-part series on finding and creating work on Cape Cod right before I left for my South Carolina vacation, is a lot more spacious and modern than a praise house, but the substance and purpose of the session was much the same.
Like the Gullah people of St. Helena Island, the group of craftsman and artists gathered at the library live in a place that’s surrounded by water and work in seasonal or tourism-related jobs.
They, too, have a strong sense of who they are and have had to be resourceful in finding ways to make a living. But what they haven’t done before is come together to support each other in achieving their career or creative goals.
At the beginning of the session, the participants all said their names, talked about their current work, explained why they signed up for the series, told how they felt about looking for work, and then repeated their name a second time at the end.
The repetition was important because listeners were asked to take note of those who said something that moved or interested them and then, when everyone was finished, to go and talk to the ones whose names they had written down.
No one broke into song, but the silent awkwardness of a group of strangers sitting in a room was quickly replaced by the buzz of engaged conversation.
After a break, two people who have started local businesses told their stories (at a praise house they’d call that giving testimony). Next the participants were divided into small groups and asked to create profiles, based on their own experiences, of the sorts of people likely to be successful in finding or creating work.
When we came together at the end to post each group’s findings, people began to call out new thoughts, words of encouragement or bits of humor, not unlike the call and response of a praise house hymn.
There was every indication that those who had come left with more energy than they had when they arrived and that the isolation and economic challenges of living on Outer Cape Cod were counterbalanced by the bonds of sharing common experiences.
If the hardships of slaves and sharecroppers living on a Sea Island in the Deep South could be eased by seeking mutual support, surely the challenges faced today by people looking for work can become less of a burden if people come together in the spirit of a praise house.
You don’t have to do it alone. Find a place to meet and invite others in your situation to get together to sing, stomp and shout in order to help each other keep going.