By Luana Graves Sellars
Sometimes called robin’s egg blue or Carolina blue, haint blue is more than just a popular Lowcountry color. Used on porch ceilings or a home’s front entrance, haint blue is rooted in Gullah tradition and represents a deeper spiritual meaning. Based in African culture, the Gullah spiritual tradition uses the color to ward off evil or unwanted spirits, called haints or boo hags, that might want to spread chaos. The haints were thought to be distracted or tricked by the color, which prevented them from crossing a porch or entering a home. It is believed that the shade of blue, derived from the indigo plants that were grown throughout Lowcountry plantations, was similar to the sky or of water, which the spirits could not cross.
Yard after yard, in the front of Gullah homes, variations of beautifully colored bottle trees dot the neighborhood. Today, it’s considered a Sea Island decoration that symbolizes good luck and a bountiful harvest or garden. The use of bottle trees, however, is another spiritual Gullah tradition with African roots that dates back centuries. Originally created by capping the end of crepe myrtle tree branches with bottles, the tree was especially significant to slaves, symbolic of freedom. The bottles, mostly a rich cobalt blue, can be tied on and are meant to capture evil spirits prior to entering one’s home. The haints or spirits, who travel in the night, once captured, become stuck in the bottles. If wind blew across a bottle causing it to hum, they believed that it was from a spirit’s efforts to escape by swirling within the bottle. With the rising of the morning sun, the captured spirit would be destroyed.
Gullah burial traditions
In Gullah culture, there are several burial traditions that have been practiced for generations and others that have been altered over time. The placement of Gullah cemeteries, usually in the proximity of the water’s edge, was thought to enable the spirit of the deceased to cross the waters and return home to Africa. Years ago, the passing of an individual who had joined the ancestors was announced by the sound of a drum. Within the deceased home, mirrors were covered or turned so that they could not reflect upon the spirit, while relatives would “sit up” all night with the body until burial, usually the next day. Once the funeral party would arrive at the cemetery, they waited at the gates for permission to enter from the ancestors. During the service, the family would pass an infant over the coffin to protect the child from being bothered by the deceased. After the service, personal or favorite household items from the deceased were left behind to “dress the grave,” so that the spirit would not come back home. In some cases, large items marked the gravesite in the absence of a headstone. Other items, including coins, might be left behind to “pay off” the spirit from bothering you if you had not paid off your debts to the individual.
Living on the coast after the Civil War provided Gullah families the opportunity to live off the water in several ways that offered financial support. At a time when Gullah men were struggling to deal with conditions created during Reconstruction, in addition to fishing, finding work at the local ports of Charleston and Savannah as longshoreman enabled them to provide for their families. Although financially beneficial, the distance to the ports could take days of travel. Coupled with the work meant they had to spend significant lengths of time away from family.