Gullah

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The Gullah are the descendants of enslaved Africans who live in the Lowcountry region of the U.S. states of South Carolina and Georgia, which includes both the coastal plain and the Sea Islands.

Historically, the Gullah region extended from the Cape Fear area on the coast of North Carolina south to the vicinity of Jacksonville on the coast of Florida; but today the Gullah area is confined to the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry. The Gullah people and their language are also called Geechee, which some scholars speculate is related to the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia. "Gullah" is a term that was originally used to designate the variety of English spoken by Gullah and Geechee people, but over time it has been used by its speakers to formally refer to their creole language and distinctive ethnic identity as a people. The Georgia communities are distinguished by identifying as either "Saltwater Geechee" or "Freshwater Geechee," depending on their proximity to the coast.

Because of a period of relative isolation in rural areas, the Gullah developed a culture that has preserved much of their African linguistic and cultural heritage from various peoples, as well as absorbing new influences from the region. They speak an English-based creole language containing many African loanwords and influenced by African languages in grammar and sentence structure. Properly referred to as "Sea Island Creole," the Gullah language is related to Jamaican Patois, Barbadian Dialect, Bahamian Dialect, Trinidadian Creole, Belizean Creole and the Krio language of Sierra Leone in West Africa. Gullah story-telling, rice-based cuisine, music, folk beliefs, crafts, farming, and fishing traditions all exhibit strong influences from West and Central African cultures.

History[edit]

The name "Gullah" may derive from Angola,[1] where ancestors of some Gullah people likely originated. They created a new culture from the numerous African peoples brought into Charleston and South Carolina. Some scholars have suggested it may come from Gola, an ethnicity living in the border area between present-day Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa, where many of the Gullah ancestors originated.[2] This area was known as the "Grain Coast" or "Rice Coast" to British colonists in the Caribbean and the Southern colonies of North America. The name "Geechee", another common (emic) name for the Gullah people, may come from Kissi, an ethnicity living in the border area between Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.[3]

Some scholars have also suggested indigenous American origins for these words. The Spanish called the South Carolina and Georgia coastal region Guale after a Native American tribe. The name of the Ogeechee River, a prominent geographical feature in coastal Georgia, was derived from a Creek Indian word.

African roots[edit]

According to Port of Charleston records, African slaves brought to the port came from the following areas: Angola (39%), Senegambia (20%), the Windward Coast (17%), the Gold Coast (13%), Sierra Leone (6%), and Madagascar, Mozambique, and the two Bights (5% combined) (Pollitzer, 1999:43).[4]

Particularly along the western coast, the people had cultivated African rice for possibly up to 3,000 years. Once British colonial planters in the American South discovered that rice would grow in that region, they often sought enslaved Africans from rice-growing regions because of their skills and knowledge needed to develop and build irrigation, dams and earthworks.[5]

Two British trading companies based in England operated the slave castle at Bunce Island (formerly called Bance Island), located in the Sierra Leone River. Henry Laurens was their agent in Charleston and was a planter and slave trader. His counterpart in England was Richard Oswald.

Many of the slaves taken captive in West Africa were processed through Bunce Island. It was a prime export site for slaves to South Carolina and Georgia. Slave castles in Ghana, for instance, shipped their people to sites in the Caribbean islands.

After Sierra Leone was founded in the late 18th century by the British as a colony for poor blacks from London and black Loyalists from Nova Scotia, resettled after the American Revolutionary War, they did not allow slaves to be taken from Sierra Leone and tried to protect the people from kidnappers. In 1808 both Great Britain and the United States prohibited the African slave trade. The British, which patrolled to intercept slave ships off Africa, sometimes resettled Africans freed from slave trader ships after that date in Sierra Leone. Similarly, Americans sometimes settled freed slaves at Liberia, a similar colony established in the early 19th century by the American Colonization Society as a place for freed slaves and free blacks from the United States.

Origin of Gullah culture[edit]

The Gullah region once extended from SE North Carolina to NE Florida.

The Gullah people have been able to preserve much of their African cultural heritage because of geography, climate, and patterns of importation of enslaved Africans. Taken from the Western region of Africa in primarily the Krio and Mende populations of what is today Sierra Leone as slaves and transported to some areas of Brazil (including Bahia), the Gullah-Gheechee slaves were sold to slave owners in what was then Charlestowne, South Carolina. According to British historian P.E.H. Hair, Gullah culture was formed as a creole culture in the colonies and United States from elements of many different African cultures who came together there. These included the Wolof, Mandinka, Fula, Baga, Susu, Limba, Temne, Mende, Vai, Kissi, Kpelle, etc. of the Rice Coast, and many from the Gold Coast, Calabar, Congo Republic, and Angola.

By the middle of the 18th century, thousands of acres in the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry and the Sea Islands were developed as rice fields. African farmers from the "Rice Coast" brought the skills for cultivation and tidal irrigation that made rice one of the most successful industries in early America.

The subtropical climate encouraged the spread of malaria and yellow fever, carried by mosquitos. These tropical diseases were endemic in Africa and had been carried by slaves to the colonies.[6] Mosquitoes in the swamps and inundated rice fields of the Lowcountry picked up and spread the diseases to English and European settlers, as well. Malaria and yellow fever soon became endemic in the region.

Because of having acquired some immunity in their homeland, Africans were more resistant to these tropical fevers than the Europeans. As the rice industry was developed, planters continued to import African slaves. By about 1708, South Carolina had a black majority.[7] Coastal Georgia later developed a black majority after rice cultivation expanded there in the mid-18th century. Malaria and yellow fever became endemic. Fearing disease, many white planters left the Lowcountry during the rainy spring and summer months when fevers ran rampant.[5] Others lived mostly in cities such as Charleston.

The planters left their European or African "rice drivers," or overseers, in charge of the plantations.[5] These had hundreds of laborers, with African traditions reinforced by new imports from the same regions. Over time, the Gullah people developed a creole culture in which elements of African languages, cultures, and community life were preserved to a high degree. Their culture developed in a distinct way, different from that of African-American slaves in states such as Virginia and North Carolina, where slaves lived in smaller groups, and had more sustained and frequent interactions with whites and British American culture.

Customs and traditions[edit]

African influences are found in every aspect of the Gullahs' traditional way of life:

  • The Gullah word guber for peanut derives from the Kikongo and Kimbundu word N'guba.
  • Gullah rice dishes called "red rice" and "okra soup" are similar to West African "jollof rice" and "okra soup". Jollof rice is a style of cooking brought by the Wolof people of West Africa.[8]
    A gullah woman makes a sweetgrass basket in Charleston's City Market
  • The Gullah version of "gumbo" has its roots in African cooking. "Gumbo" is derived from a word in the Umbundu language of Angola, meaning okra, one of the dish's main ingredients.
  • Gullah rice farmers once made and used mortar and pestles and winnowing fanners similar in style to tools used by West African rice farmers.
    Wooden mortar and pestle from the rice loft of a South Carolina lowcountry plantation
  • Gullah beliefs about "hags" and "haunts" are similar to African beliefs about malevolent ancestors, witches, and "devils" (forest spirits).
  • Gullah "root doctors" protect their clients against dangerous spiritual forces by using ritual objects similar to those employed by African traditional healers.
  • Gullah herbal medicines are similar to traditional African remedies.
  • The Gullah "seekin" ritual is similar to coming of age ceremonies in West African secret societies, such as the Poro and Sande.
  • The Gullah ring shout is similar to ecstatic religious rituals performed in West and Central Africa.
  • Gullah stories about "Bruh Rabbit" are similar to West and Central African trickster tales about the clever and conniving rabbit, spider, and tortoise.
  • Gullah spirituals, shouts, and other musical forms employ the "call and response" method commonly used in African music.
  • Gullah "sweetgrass baskets" are coil straw baskets made by the descendants of slaves in the South Carolina Lowcountry, and are almost identical to coil baskets made by the Wolof people in Senegal.
  • Gullah "strip quilts" mimic the design of cloth woven with the traditional strip loom used throughout West Africa. The famous kente cloth from Ghana and Akwete cloth from Nigeria are woven on the strip loom.
  • The folk song Michael Row the Boat Ashore (or Michael Row Your Boat Ashore) comes from the Gullah culture.

Civil War period[edit]

When the U.S. Civil War began, the Union rushed to blockade Confederate shipping. White planters on the Sea Islands, fearing an invasion by the US naval forces, abandoned their plantations and fled to the mainland. When Union forces arrived on the Sea Islands in 1861, they found the Gullah people eager for their freedom, and eager as well to defend it. Many Gullahs served with distinction in the Union Army's First South Carolina Volunteers. The Sea Islands were the first place in the South where slaves were freed. Long before the War ended, Unitarian missionaries from Pennsylvania came down to start schools for the newly freed slaves. Penn Center, now a Gullah community organization on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, began as the very first school for freed slaves.

After the Civil War ended, the Gullahs' isolation from the outside world actually increased in some respects. The rice planters on the mainland gradually abandoned their farms and moved away from the area because of labor issues and hurricane damage to crops. Free blacks were unwilling to work in the dangerous and disease-ridden rice fields. A series of hurricanes devastated the crops in the 1890s. Left alone in remote rural areas in the Lowcountry, the Gullahs continued to practice their traditional culture with little influence from the outside world well into the 20th Century.

Recent history[edit]

Gullah basket

In recent years the Gullah people—led by Penn Center and other determined community groups—have been fighting to keep control of their traditional lands. Since the 1960s, resort development on the Sea Islands has greatly increased property values threatening to push Gullahs off family lands they have owned since emancipation. They have fought back against uncontrolled development on the islands through community action, the courts and the political process.[9]

The Gullahs have struggled to preserve their traditional culture. In 1979, a translation of the New Testament in the Gullah language began.[citation needed] The American Bible Society published De Nyew Testament in 2005. In November 2011, Healin fa de Soul, a five-CD collection of readings from the Gullah Bible was released.[citation needed] This collection includes Scipcha Wa De Bring Healing ("Scripture That Heals") and the Gospel of John (De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa John Write). This was also the most extensive collection of Gullah recordings, surpassing those of Lorenzo Dow Turner. The recordings help people develop an interest in the culture because people might not have known how to pronounce some words.[10]

The Gullahs achieved another victory in 2006 when the U.S. Congress passed the "Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act" that provides $10 million over 10 years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites relating to Gullah culture.[11] The Heritage Corridor will extend from southern North Carolina to northern Florida. The project will be administered by the US National Park Service with extensive consultation with the Gullah community.

Gullahs have also reached out to West Africa. Gullah groups made three celebrated "homecomings" to Sierra Leone in 1989, 1997, and 2005. Sierra Leone is at the heart of the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa where many of the Gullahs' ancestors originated. Bunce Island, the British slave castle in Sierra Leone, sent many African captives to Charleston and Savannah during the mid- and late 18th century. These dramatic homecomings were the subject of three documentary films—Family Across the Sea (1990), The Language You Cry In (1998), and Priscilla's Homecoming (in production).

Celebrating Gullah culture[edit]

VOA report about an exhibit about Gullah culture

Over the years, the Gullahs have attracted many historians, linguists, folklorists, and anthropologists interested in their rich cultural heritage. Many academic books on that subject have been published. The Gullah have also become a symbol of cultural pride for blacks throughout the United States and a subject of general interest in the media. This has given rise to countless newspaper and magazine articles, documentary films, and children's books on Gullah culture, and to a number of popular novels set in the Gullah region.

Gullah people now organize cultural festivals every year in towns up and down the Lowcountry. Hilton Head Island, for instance, hosts a "Gullah Celebration" in February. It includes "De Aarts ob We People" show; the "Ol’ Fashioned Gullah Breakfast"; "National Freedom Day," the "Gullah Film Fest", "A Taste of Gullah" food and entertainment, a "Celebration of Lowcountry Authors and Books," an "Arts, Crafts & Food Expo," and "De Gullah Playhouse". Beaufort hosts the oldest and the largest celebration, "The Original Gullah Festival" in May. The nearby Penn Center on St. Helena Island holds "Heritage Days" in November. Other Gullah festivals are celebrated on James Island, South Carolina and Sapelo Island, Georgia.

But Gullah culture is also being celebrated elsewhere in the United States. The Black Cultural Center at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana conducted a research tour, cultural arts festival, and other related events to showcase the Gullah culture. The Black Cultural Center Library maintains a bibliography of Gullah books and materials, as well. Metro State College in Denver, Colorado recently hosted a conference on Gullah culture, called The Water Brought Us: Gullah History and Culture, which featured a panel of Gullah scholars and cultural activists. These events in Indiana and Colorado are typical of the attention Gullah culture regularly receives throughout the United States.

Cultural survival[edit]

Gullah culture has proven to be particularly resilient. Gullah traditions are strong not only in the rural areas of the Lowcountry mainland and on the Sea Islands, and among their people in urban areas such as Charleston and Savannah. Gullah people who have left the Lowcountry and moved far away have also preserved traditions, for instance, many Gullahs in New York, who went North in the Great Migration have established their own neighborhood churches in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens. Typically they send their children back to rural communities in South Carolina and Georgia during the summer months to live with grandparents, uncles and aunts. Gullah people living in New York also frequently return to the Lowcountry to retire. Second- and third-generation Gullah in New York often maintain many of their traditional customs and sometimes still speak the Gullah language.

Representation in popular culture[edit]

  • Julie Dash's film, Daughters of the Dust, portrays a Gullah family at the turn of the 20th century, as the younger generation moves off island
  • The 1989 Civil War film Glory features a short conversation between Union Gullah troops, and members of the 54th Massachusetts, including several Gullah words and phrases.

Cultural topics[edit]

Historical topics[edit]

Notable Americans with Gullah roots[edit]

Further reading[edit]

Gullah history
  • Ball, Edward (1998) "Slaves in the Family,” New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
  • Carney, Judith (2001) "Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas," Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Fields-Black, Edda (2008) "Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora," Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Littlefield, Daniel (1981) Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina," Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
  • Miller, Edward (1995) "Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915," Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  • Pollitzer, William (1999) "The Gullah People and their African Heritage," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Smith, Julia Floyd (1985) "Slavery and Rice Culture in Low Country Georgia: 1750-1860," Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
  • Smith, Mark M. (2005) "Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt," Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  • Wood, Peter (1974) "Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion," New York: Knopf.
Gullah language and storytelling
  • Bailey, Cornelia & Christena Bledsoe (2000) "God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks about Life on Sapelo Island," New York: Doubleday.
  • Geraty, Virginia Mixon (1997) "Gulluh fuh Oonuh: A Guide to the Gullah Language," Orangeburg, SC: Sandlapper Publishing Company.
  • Jones, Charles Colcock (2000) "Gullah Folktales from the Georgia Coast," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Jones-Jackson, Patricia (1987) "When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Mills, Peterkin and McCollough (2008) "Coming Through: Voices of a South Carolina Gullah Community from WPA Oral Histories collected by Genevieve W. Chandler," The University of South Carolina Press.
  • Montgomery, Michael (ed.) (1994) "The Crucible of Carolina: Essays in the Development of Gullah Language and Culture," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Sea Island Translation Team (2005) "De Nyew Testament (The New Testament in Gullah)," New York: American Bible Society.
  • Stoddard, Albert Henry (1995) "Gullah Animal Tales from Daufuskie Island, South Carolina," Hilton Head Island, SC: Push Button Publishing Company.
  • Turner, Lorenzo Dow (2002) "Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect," Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
Gullah culture
  • Campbell, Emory (2008) "Gullah Cultural Legacies," Hilton Head South Carolina: Gullah Heritage Counsulting Services.
  • Carawan, Guy and Candie (1989) "Ain't You Got a Right to the Tree of Life: The People of Johns Island, South Carolina, their Faces, their Words, and their Songs," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Conroy, Pat (1972) "The Water Is Wide," Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Creel, Margaret Washington (1988) "A Peculiar People: Slave Religion and Community Culture among the Gullahs," New York: New York University Press.
  • Cross, Wilbur (2008) "Gullah Culture in America," Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
  • Joyner, Charles (1984) "Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community," Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Kiser, Clyde Vernon (1969) "Sea Island to City: A Study of St. Helena Islanders in Harlem and Other Urban Centers," New York: Atheneum.
  • McFeely, William (1994) "Sapelo's People: A Long Walk into Freedom," New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Parrish, Lydia (1992) "Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Robinson, Sallie Ann (2003) "Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way" and (2006) "Cooking the Gullah Way Morning,Noon, and Night." Charlotte: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Rosenbaum, Art (1998) "Shout Because You're Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Rosengarten, Dale (1986) "Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry," Columbia, South Carolina: McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina.
  • Twining, Mary & Keigh Baird (1991) "Sea Island Roots: The African Presence in the Carolinas and Georgia," Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press.
  • Young, Jason (2007) "Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery," Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.
Historical photos of the Gullah
  • Georgia Writer's Project (1986) "Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Johnson, Thomas L. & Nina J. Root (2002) "Camera Man's Journey: Julian Dimock's South," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Minor, Leigh Richmond & Edith Dabbs (2003) "Face of an Island: Leigh Richmond Miner's Photographs of Saint Helena Island," Charleston, South Carolina: Wyrick & Company.
  • Ulmann, Doris & Suzanna Krout Millerton, New York: Aperture, Inc.
Children's books on the Gullah
  • Branch, Muriel (1995) "The Water Brought Us: The Story of the Gullah-Speaking People," New York: Cobblehill Books.
  • Clary, Margie Willis (1995) "A Sweet, Sweet Basket," Orangeburg, South Carolina: Sandlapper Publishing Company.
  • Geraty, Virginia (1998) "Gullah Night Before Christmas," Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company.
  • Graham, Lorenz (2000) "How God Fix Jonah," Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mill Press.
  • Jaquith, Priscilla (1995) "Bo Rabbit Smart for True: Tall Tales from the Gullah," New York: Philomel Books.
  • Krull, Kathleen (1995) "Bridges to Change: How Kids Live on a South Carolina Sea Island," New York: Lodestar Books.
  • Seabrooke, Brenda (1994) "The Bridges of Summer," New York: Puffin Books.
  • Raven, Margot Theis (2004) "Circle Unbroken," New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Siegelson, Kim L. (1999) "In The Time of The Drums," New York: Jump At The Sun/ Hyperion Books for Children.
  • Siegelson, Kim L. (2003) "Dancing The Ring Shout," New York: Jump At The Sun/ Hyperion Books for Children.
Works of fiction set in the Gullah region
  • Dash, Julie (1999) "Daughters of the Dust," New York: Plume Books.
  • Gershwin, George (1935) "Porgy and Bess," New York:Alfred Publishing.[14]
  • Heyward, Dubose (1925)"Porgy," Charleston, S.C.: Wyrick & Company.[15]
  • Hurston, Zora Neale (1937) "Their Eyes Were Watching God," New York: Harper Perennial.[16]
  • Kidd, Sue Monk (2005) "The Mermaid Chair," Viking Press
  • Naylor, Gloria (1988) "Mama Day," New York: Ticknor & Fields.
  • Satterthwait, Elisabeth Carpenter (1898). A Son of the Carolinas, A story of the Hurricane upon The Sea Islands. Philadelphia, Pa.: Henry Altemus. 273 pp. ISBN 0-8369-9062-5 (ISBN 0-8369-9062-5).
  • Siddons, Anne Rivers (1998) "Low Country," New York: HarperCollinsPublishers.
  • Siegelson, Kim (1996) "The Terrible, Wonderful Tellin' at Hog Hammock," New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
  • Straight, Susan (1993) "I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots," New York: Hyperion.

Other media[edit]

Television

Gullah Gullah Island; Children's show on Nickelodeon.

Films
  • Bin Yah: There's No Place Like Home (2008)
  • There is a River (2003) (Episode 1 of PBS Series "This Far by Faith")
  • The Language You Cry In (1998)
  • God's Gonna Trouble the Water (1997)
  • Home Across the Water (1992) (Streaming video)
  • Daughters of the Dust (1991)
  • Family Across the Sea (1990)
  • When Rice Was King (1990)]
  • Gullah Tales (1988)
  • Tales of the Unknown South (1984)] (One of these short films is a Gullah ghost story.)
  • Conrack (1974)
Radio programs
  • NPR programs on the Gullah
  • "Finding Priscilla's Children"
  • Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Act
Music

References[edit]