Beauty, Her Basket (2004) by Sandra Belton, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera.
In this book, a young girl is spending the summer with her Nana and cousin out on the Sea Islands. No particular island is named, but for those uninitiated, the Sea Islands are a chain of 100+ islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. The Gullah culture and language still survives there to this day. According to wikipedia: “The Gullah are known for preserving more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African-American community in the United States” and “Gullah storytelling, cuisine, music, folk beliefs, crafts, farming and fishing traditions, all exhibit strong influences from West and Central African cultures.”
Beauty, Her Basket is an story of cultural resistance to slavery and the importance of passing down and preserving Gullah culture over generations. Our young protagonist wants to learn how to weave sea grass baskets and know the story of Beauty, Her Basket. Her Nana tells her.
Nana’s voice is quiet. “The old blacks. The ones made to slave. Like the father before my father and the father before that. They bring the secrets of growing the rice with them from Africa and know Beauty, Her Basket will help.”
… “They bring the knowing of how to make nets for catching the fish. Like Uncle Richard make the nets on this side.”
… “The old blacks bring a lot of knowing with them. How to carve the wood and build the boat and make the pots for carrying the water from the sea.”
…Nana touches the flower in my hair. “Every morning I put a flower in my basket. Beauty from this side. Something to go with beauty from the other side. Beauty, Her Basket.”
I look into Nana’s face. I want to understand.
Her voice is soft. “So much ugly in the slave times. Much too much ugly. But the basket like the flower– always a child of beauty. No matter what.”
I haven’t come across Cozbi Cabrera before so I was in for a gorgeous surprise. Her illustrations are lyrical and sway with the ocean breeze of the story, creating a perfect counter-point to the beauty that grows and survives the harshest of times. In fact, there are five double page illustrations without any print at all so that we can stop and absorb all the richness of the artwork alone.
Beauty, Her Basket is a triumph. It is a prayer. Belton and Cabrera weave their words and art together like master basket-makers. We all can be thankful.
There is a story to glean, but it is more a lecture of culture and identity; the tale that is told is an excuse to raise the issues at hand. But it remains fascinating to watch as the Gullah culture is exposed, often due to its contrast with the invading Christian faith that is seeping into their world. Some aspects are wonderful, almost progressive, while others are steeped in old and oppressive ways of thinking.
This is more curio than film for me. Visually beautiful (it deserves a blu-ray remaster) and like a wonderful puzzle as you put together relationships and issues. It is ultimately more a well-crafted explanation, but it never really rises to be a story. If you are willing to just go along for a ride, or would like to know about a culture that you likely know little about, this is worth your time. If you are interested in a costume or family drama circa 1900, you are probably going to be disappointed.