In the Gullah culture, there is an expression that goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you should know where you came from.” Proud Gullah communities along the coast of the southeastern United States are determined to make sure that future generations never forget where they came from.
For the past decade, many people of Gullah heritage have been attempting to preserve a way of life that was in danger of extinction. Today, the language, spirituality and traditions of Gullah culture are being celebrated more than ever before.
Descendants of West Africans brought as slaves to America some 300 years ago, the Gullah have preserved more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African-American community in the United States. The Lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia, including the coastal plain and Sea Islands, is home to most of the approximately 300,000 Gullah people, with smaller groups in North Carolina and Florida.
Forced to work as slaves in rice plantations on harsh barrier islands that were isolated from the mainland, they developed a strong sense of family and community and maintained a separate, English-based creole language. Their West African heritage has been blended with American customs not only in language, but in their arts and crafts, religious beliefs, folklore, rituals, dress, cuisine and music.
“As recently as 2001, there was a real possibility that Gullah culture would fade away,” said James Mitchell, president and chief executive officer of the Native Island Business and Community Affairs Association. “But there have been a number of initiatives, including festivals and our celebration, as well as legislation in 2006 to create a Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. These things have gone a long way to bring attention to Gullah culture on a national level.” (Geechee, another name for the Gullah people, is a term more commonly used in Georgia.)
Mitchell, a descendant of slaves who formed the first freedmen township in the United States in 1862 on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, oversees the annual Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration, which is hosted by the Native Island association every February. It is one of several Gullah cultural festivals held every year throughout the Lowcountry.
Increasingly, Gullah traditions are being celebrated — and researched — across the United States. For instance, the Black Cultural Center at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, maintains a bibliography of Gullah publications, and Metro State College in Denver, Colorado, recently hosted a conference on Gullah culture.
Preserving Gullah legacy
As coastal development has increased, many Gullahs have been forced off their ancestral lands, and their traditions of fishing and hunting for survival have been replaced in large part by a resort-driven economy. Since 1956, when the bridge to Hilton Head was built, the Gullah world has become less isolated, and preserving the culture is more difficult.
Starting in 2000, the U.S. National Park Service conducted a four-year study to determine how Gullah communities could be galvanized to preserve their special legacy. Michael Allen of the Park Service, himself a Gullah, says that thanks to the study and to the passage of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Act by Congress in 2006, the possibility of this culture disappearing is “far less of a danger.” The act provides $1 million a year, for 10 years, to set up the Gullah/Geechee Heritage Corridor, which will help preserve Gullah culture and encourage heritage tourism.
According to Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, who introduced the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Act, legislation was needed because “the Gullah/Geechee culture is the last vestige of the fusion of African and European languages and traditions brought to these coastal areas.”
“There was a time when people were ashamed of their Gullah culture because it was perceived as backward and uneducated,” Allen said, “but Gullahs have amazing skills embedded in their DNA. [U.S. first lady] Michelle Obama has Gullah roots, and people are seeing that they have great reason to celebrate the culture, not to be ashamed of it.” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and boxer Joe Frazier are two other prominent citizens with Gullah ancestry.
The month-long Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration coincides with Black History Month in the United States. In 2009, about 6,000 people attended the celebration, and this year organizers expect more than 10,000. Among the featured arts and crafts are net knitting, indigo dye making and sweetgrass basket making. There are plenty of opportunities to try Gullah cuisine — such as stewed oysters, conch stew, and shrimp and grits — and traditional gospel “praise and shout” music rings through the historic churches.
The celebration will conclude with the Marsh Tacky Run, a race featuring Marsh Tacky workhorses, which played a huge role in the survival of Gullahs on Hilton Head. These horses, descended from horses left behind by Spanish explorers, were traditionally raced at Christmas time. “They would have horse races to see who had bragging rights,” Mitchell said.
An ambassador for the Gullah
Storytelling is an important way that Gullah history is communicated to young people. Marquetta Goodwine, who claims the title “Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation,” is a renowned storyteller and founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition. She has testified before the United Nations about the need to preserve her culture and is an enthusiastic ambassador for Gullahs.
Goodwine is a strong voice encouraging Gullahs to hold on to their native land. “If I were to take and sell the land,” she said in a television interview, “it was as if I was taking my entire family and putting them again on the auction block. Whenever I’m out in the field, when I’m planting things, when I’m harvesting things, I feel all of them in that field still with me.”