Shari Stauch of Main Street Reads referred me to Herb Frazier, formerly with The Post and Courier and other South dailies. He is now a special projects editor at the Charleston City Paper. Frazier wrote “Behind God’s Back: Gullah Memories of Cainhoy, Huger, Wando, St. Thomas Island and Daniel Island” and co-wrote “We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel” with Dr. Bernard Edwards Powers, Jr., and Marjory Wentworth. His latest — “Ukweli: Searching for Healing Truth, South Carolina Writers and Poets Examine American Racism” — is a compilation of 47 top writer’s works released by Evening Post Books. He will have a book signing at Main Street Reads, 3-5 pm on April 10.
Regan: What led to your latest book?
Frazier: A five-part lecture and poetry series, “Ukweli – In Search of Healing Truth” organized by Poet Horace Mungin at McLeod Plantation Historic Site on James Island. This began in early 2020, was interrupted by the pandemic and resumed and concluded in the fall of 2020. Horace wanted to name it Black History for White People Only but settled on the Ukweli title — the Swahili word for truth. He felt White Americans misunderstand or they simply ignore Black history altogether. He approached McLeod with the series idea that he would take an essay and pair it with a poem to stimulate a conversation. I have recruited five people, including me, to bring about this public dialogue. Horace called me in late 2020 and said that Middleton Place invited him to bring one of the Ukweli presentations there. This went over so well at McLeod and now that Middleton was interested, I thought, let’s capture this magic in a bottle and do a book! We reached out to a range of essayists and poets on the Black experience in America. We started working on the book in early 2021. Evening Post Books published “Ukweli” because it was familiar with his lecture and poetry series at McLeod.
A: How did your first book, “Behind God’s Back: Gullah Memories,” come about?
F: In 2005, while I was at The Post and Courier, the Coastal Community Foundation asked me to go over to the Huger/Cainhoy/Daniel Island area to do a 75-page historical sketch to document the African American experience there. The people who remained saw a spike in development after the Mark Clark Expressway (I-526) opened in 1992 to connect North Charleston to Mount Pleasant. It was bringing people to the area. The foundation wanted this book to not only be a gift to the longtime residents, but it would also tell newcomers about the area’s history. It took me five years to write it as there was so much material. There were still stories I was not able to tell. The title was chosen because people there who live in a somewhat isolated area in lower Berkeley County before the Mark Clark highway opened said they live behind God’s back.
A: You have been around the world and are a member of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission. What is a memorable highlight?
F: There were many, but when I went to Sierra Leone, I found the foods to be similar to the food here, like red rice and so forth. In The Gambia (within Senegal), I saw baskets that looked just like our sweetgrass baskets. While there are at least 11 languages there, the one common language is Krio which sounds somewhat like the Gullah language. That was noted in 1988 when then-Sierra Leone’s President Joseph Saidu Momoh came to visit the Penn Center in St. Helena Island and he heard the people speak Gullah. He was amazed at how similar the two languages were. In 1989, people from the Gullah area and Georgia visited Sierra Leone. An SC-ETV documentary, Family Across the Sea, talks about this event.
A: The audio book of “We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel” was movingly narrated by the late actor Barry Scott. How was that writing experience for you?
F: It gave me an opportunity to write about growing up in the neighborhood around the church. I had a pleasant childhood in a very difficult time in the city’s history. It was segregated during the Jim Crow laws. I grew up in public housing in the Ansonborough part of Charleston. I was fairly protected from the segregation as I was in a Black neighborhood and went to a Black school and church. The “triumph” part of the title was due to people forgiving the shooter. In the city’s history, the city tried to suppress Black people’s ability to hold church, but they did so anyway. The original Emanuel church was located at Hanover and Reid streets, but it was burned in the early 1800s. One of the leaders of the early church was Denmark Vesey who was alleged to have organized a slave revolt inspired by the Haitian Revolution.
A: You are working on “Sleeping with the Ancestors, Slave Dwellings Matter” (co-written with Joseph McGill). When will that be released through Hachette Book Group?
F: It’s about Joe McGill’s travels around the country starting in 2010 at the Magnolia Plantation & Gardens where he is the history consultant. It was there that he kicked off the “Slave to Freedom Tour” where he began to travel the US by sleeping in slave dwellings. He has spent over 150 nights in 25 states and continues to do so to bring attention to the need to preserve these structures to tell the full story of American history.
A: Will you continue writing historical-based books?
F: The next two after “Sleeping with the Ancestors” will be about my travels as I have gone to over 25 countries that I would like to highlight, and another future book will be about a local person.
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Mary E. Regan, columnist, is a freelance publicist with her ProPublicist.com consultancy.
Seeking new publicity clients and writing projects. Story ideas? Email: Mary@ProPublicist.com