“Yenna wan’ cass ya eye ’bout Chaa’stun?” This invitation (Translation: Do you want to see [cast your eyes about] Charleston?) flows from Alphonso Brown’s tongue in the liquid dialect of South Carolina’s Gullahs.
Answer yes and you’ll be rewarded with an unusual perspective on this lovely city. Alphonso is one of just a few licensed, independent guides who focus on the contributions of African Americans to Charleston’s culture and history.
Stops on his two-hour tour include sites where enslaved Africans, arriving in this country in past centuries, were auctioned to plantation owners; clever hiding places, such as a staircase punched with breathing holes, where escapees hid along emancipation’s Underground Railroad; and the original Catfish Row neighborhood where the novel Porgy and the opera Porgy and Bess are set.
A middle school band director who leads tours as a sideline, Alphonso was born to the remnant culture known as Gullah. Its spoken language survives in pockets of the state’s Lowcountry, especially in isolated island communities.
“People often start out wanting to hear my whole tour in Gullah, to get a flavor for the culture,” he says. “After a few minutes, they usually ask me to go back to English. Gullah has a wonderful, singsong quality. Many of the words are essentially English but blended with West African expressions brought over on slave ships. It’s been passed down, unwritten, for generations. If you’re not brought up around it, it’s hard to understand.”
At the wheel of his gray Ford Clubwagon, Alphonso weaves through Charleston’s narrow streets, talking. He points to servants quarters behind sharply spiked walls at preserved mansions. He passes the site of a reconstruction-era bank where many freedmen signed up for “40 acres and a mule.” He notes porch ceilings painted “haint blue” by blacks convinced the color warded off evil spirits. He pauses respectfully, though with a hint of anger, at an old cemetery established in 1794 by prominent freedmen, but now paved over for a parking lot.
Alphonso tells of a butler who created she-crab soup, and spots African American craftsmanship in brick walls and iron gates. He sings examples of spirituals and field chants passed down through the ages. He begins and ends the tour at an art gallery for African American painting, sculpture, and traditional clothing.
The highlight of the tour is a visit to the backyard workshop of renowned blacksmith Philip Simmons. The octogenarian has been bending metal artistically for more than six decades, and his ornately scrolled handiwork is seen in garden gates and porch railings all over Charleston.
Near tour’s end, Alphonso dips into Gullah dialect again, for effect. “Nah uh gwi onrabble ma mout’ bout des tings, ” he says. (Translation: now I’m going to talk [ramble on with my mouth] about a few more things.) And so he does, telling of the ole maa’kut (Old City Market), cobble rock skreets (cobblestone streets), and sweetgrass baskit weeba (basket weavers).
You leave Alphonso feeling as if you’ve made friend with someone from a foreign culture. But as foreign as it sounds, Gullah is really a homegrown culture inextricably mingled into historic Chaa’stun.