The Story Tellers

story teller louise miller cohen. – photo: john fulton photography 


The Story Tellers

Sometimes it's our privilege to tell stories of the storytellers, like Hilton Head Island native Louise Miller Cohen, legendary storyteller among the island's native Gullah.​

Featured in Faces of the South: The Trilogy Edition now on newsstands. Click here to order your copy of Faces today. 

Stories With a Mission

A living example of the African-American oral tradition is Hilton Head Islander Louise Miller Cohen. She often gives presentations in vibrant African dress, with a brightly printed cloth around her head and a cowry shell pendant at her neck. "My stories are mostly about the Gullah/Geechee culture," says Cohen, who is in the process of creating the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head. "They have been passed on by my ancestors, the elders of the community, and it was something that helped them endure the hardships they had to go through. They aired a lot of things and released a lot of stress. For me it is very important to keep that alive."
When Cohen was growing up on then undeveloped Hilton Head Island, modern conveniences were scarce. Instead of sitcoms and video games, storytelling was the main form of entertainment. Talking animals were often the principle characters, and their antics would have kids doubled over with laughter. "There is a lot of humor in thee stories, and that's therapy," says Cohen. "Our people need to laugh."
Unique to slaves and their descendants was a code system hidden in folktales and songs. The songs sung by Harriett Tubman are well-known examples of this. "When she came around, the people knew she was talking to them," sas Cohen. "'Go where I send thee/How will I send thee/I'm gonna send thee one by one.' Whatever the number was she said in that song, that was the number  of people she was going to help escape."
Thanks in part to a federal grant, Cohen is able to share such stories during educational presentations she gives in Beaufort County schools. With her "traveling museum" of baskets, handmade cast nets, quilts, oil lamps and a miniature replica of a wooden bateau-objects she often uses as props for her stories-Cohen brings to life Gullah culture and the old Sea Island days. "Stories bring people together and cause them to start communicating," concludes Cohen.

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