Tales of Daufuskie Island
The Author From the Land of Gullah
By, Alex Starace
Roger Pinckney’s family has lived in South Carolina’s Lowcountry since the 1690s. So, to say he knows the area is an understatement. He’s spent his life writing about the historic region, and two of his novels, Little Glory and Reefer Moon, have been optioned for film. So he knows Lowcountry, a coastal plain in South Carolina marked by islands and estuaries, where the tides run high – as high as nine or ten feet along its concave coastline. “My county, for instance, Beaufort County, at high tide it’s half under water,” explained Pinckney without a hint of exaggeration.
Daufuskie Island, where Pinckney now lives and writes, in many areas looks just like it did years ago, despite its being sandwiched between the much more developed Savannah, Georgia, and Hilton Head, South Carolina. The region runs thick with rivers stained by tannins from the surrounding sub-tropical wetlands. “The freshwater rivers are about the color of strong coffee,” Pinckney said. And, indeed, it’s an area dependent on its waterways, for both food and transportation: “We grew up on these rivers, they’re like a freeway in Los Angeles, you know, that’s part of life. On Daufuskie, there’s no bridge; it’s about a 7,000-acre island with 300 people on it – about a 45-minute boat ride from the nearest traffic light.”
Pinckney has long been enchanted with the waterways. As a boy, he would sometimes travel with his father, a dock builder who was also “a gifted storyteller in the best Southern oral tradition – he could keep you spellbound,” said Pinckney. It’s a talent that runs in the family: Pinckney’s maternal grandmother, Chlotilde Rowell Martin, was the first female journalist in South Carolina. She wrote the “Low country Gossip” column for the News and Courier during the Depression. “She was a widow; she raised two babies banging on a typewriter. She was an enormous influence on me,” said Pinckney.
As Pinckney explained, Lowcountry has a distinct Southern subculture – and it’s also known as an African outpost. For 200 years, slaves made up the majority of the area’s population. The slaves retained an African-based language (often referred to as Geechee) and created a culture that eventually became pervasive. Among the descendants of the slaves, who are referred to as the Gullah, the art of African Magic is prevalent. A practitioner is called a Root Doctor – and Lowcountry has its own distinguished line: “These hoodoo men will take the name of an animal. There’s a Doctor Snake, a Doctor Crow, a Doctor Fly and a Doctor Bug. And, actually Doctor Buzzard is the most famous,” said Pinckney.
Success breeds fame: In the early 1980s, developers intended to make Daufuskie the “Martha’s Vineyard of the South.” Foolishly, they promptly built their real estate office on top of a slave graveyard. This infuriated the Gullah, who went to see Doctor Buzzard. According to Pinckney, the Gullah “put The Root, which is the bad mojo, on the developers in Daufuskie. And so they’ve suffered any number of collapses. [There’s] a saying here, if a corporation goes bankrupt, or a developer has a nervous breakdown, or the tractor won’t start, any mishap large or small, the standard response is: ‘The Buzzard got ‘em.’ There’s a strong belief that the African ancestors are still protecting the island,” explained Pinckney.
In fact, Daufuskie remains mostly undeveloped to this day, though it’s not without its problems. One of Pinckney’s most popular novels, Reefer Moon, deals with drug smuggling. “As you can imagine, with its high tides and flat country and all these rivers and inlets and creeks, this has always been – even since Colonial days – a hotbed of smuggling. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the preferred product was South American marijuana… I think probably half of my graduating class in high school went to Federal prison,” said Pinckney. He dubs Reefer Moon a “smuggler’s love story,” and notes that while it’s fictional, it’s heavily based on real-life events. These days, Pinckney notes, the cocaine trade is rampant. However, with its heightened violence and danger, it has the locals on edge.
As for Pinckney, he just keeps writing what he sees. He’s currently working on his fourth novel. He’s previously collected his non-fiction essays in Signs and Wonders and Seventh Son on Sacred Ground, and he’s a two-time winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project. He’s even authored a work of cultural anthropology, Blue Roots, that catalogues the Gullah’s African Magic. Clearly, his talent is far ranging, even if his subject matter is confined to the fascinating, little-known Lowcountry.