April 1994

Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor

Writer and Broadcaster

Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor

To many Americans, she is an author and popular broadcast personality. To her family, she is affectionately know as “Kuta.” The work “Kuta”means “turtle” in Gullah, and it is as an expert in that unique Sea Island culture that Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor has made an outstanding contribution to our awareness of a little understood part of South Carolina’s heritage. Smart-Grosvenor was born a premature twin in the Hampton County area and has always felt that she was very special. “The midwife said I weighed like a five-pound bag of sugar when it’s a little more than half full. That would be three pounds. My brother weighed like a five pound bag of sugar and a little more. That would be six pound. He died and I was very, very weak,” Smart-Grosvenor explained. “My maternal Grandmama Sula put me in a shoe box and placed the box on the oven door of the wood burning stove. My mother was also very weak and couldn’t nurse me. I was fed goat’s milk from a medicine dropper. Folks came to look at the shoe box baby, with the little body and long limbs. ‘Oh God,’ they’d say. ‘It looks like a kuta!’ So the name stuck.'” At the age of 10, she moved to Philadelphia with her parents. Moving north was difficult. She was teased and taunted by the other children because of her “geechee” talk and ways. Escape came through a keen imagination and reading books that took her to distant places and times. She was encouraged to learn about other people and cultures by her paternal grandmother. “Mother Dear said ‘It’s a big world.’ By her example I learned that what’s inside you can’t be taken away, and your potential can be reached, no matter what the odds,” Smart-Grosvenor said. At, 18, Smart-Grosvenor sailed to Paris, France, and the experience significantly transformed her life. After meeting people from all over the globe, she looked at her South lowcountry heritage from a distance and began to appreciate the richness of Gullah traditions from her grandfather’s basket weaving to the fishing customs, the rituals and even the foods. Gullah people are descendants of West African slaves. Despite the presence of other cultures and development of the area, many Gullah traditions endure in the lowcountry and the Sea Islands that lace the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. Smart-Grosvenor describes herself as a “poet, culinary anthropologist and writer.” She has written books, numerous essays and poems and articles for national magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Redbook and Ebony. Her autobiographical cookbook, Vibration Cooking or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl was first published in 1970, reissued in 1986 and again in 1992. Most recently, she was a featured player in Julie Dash’s acclaimed American Playhouse movie, Daughters of the Dust. She has won several honors for her notable public broadcasts, features and documentaries, including an EMMY for a television commentary titled “Growing Up Gullah.” Currently, Smart-Grosvenor is the host of National Public Radio’s award-winning documentary series, “Horizons,” and is writing a new book on Afro-Atlantic cookery. The title of the book is Nyam, a Gullah work meaning “to eat.” She continues to carry the legacy of Gullah traditions through her writings, her voice and her life.