By Sharon E. Bingaman RN
Discovering new things about African Americans and their culture is like opening a gift that continues to enrich my life. The history of African Americans in this country is one of enduring through terrible hardships, brutal conditions and continued attempts to completely wipe them out when they were perceived as a threat or obstacle to white folks. And, so goes the history of the Gullah people as one of uplifting adherence to the culture and traditions of their Enslaved Ancestors and Ancient African ancestors in spite of lies and double dealings (deceit). It is a most unique culture in America shaped by those Africans stolen from their homeland and brought here, in chains, to work as free labor and to be treated as less than the animals.
So, who are the Gullah people? Present day Gullah are descendants of West Africans brought to this country to work in the rice, cotton and indigo fields of plantations along the coast from North Carolina to Florida including the coastal islands. And how did the word “Gullah” come about? The word Gullah comes from either the West African Gola tribe or from Ngola(Angola). According to records for the port city of Charleston, South Carolina, the Enslaved came from the African countries of Angola, Senegambia, Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Mozambique and many others. The Gullah culture grew from these many cultures that came together in the USA which included the Baga, Fula, Kissi, Kpelle, Limba, Mandinka, Susu, Vai, andWolof. These areas of Africa were of particular importance to slave traders because African people had been growing rice for tens of thousands of years and their skill and expertise were needed by plantation owners in order to develop and build the irrigation systems, dams and earthworks needed by the plantations in order to be successful. But can you imagine the English speaking slavers trying to communicate with all those speaking different languages from the various parts of Africa? So, in order to be able to connect with each other, they developed another language. Pidgen English developed when the Enslaved first were brought here which was a mix of English from the plantation owners and the less educated white overseers and was good for a start. But as the next generation of Slaves came to be, a language with a larger scope was needed in order to fulfill the many functions of language which were to express thoughts, feelings, emotions- how they perceived reality and stored information about food, mealtime, intimacy and sexual activities, bodily functions, storytelling and gossip. According to Joseph A. Bailey II, MD, in his book Word Stories Surrounding African American Slavery, the Gullah developed a language “called GeeChee-an example of a kind of Plantation Creole that has survived until today. The originators of Gullah were born speakers of Bantu, Wolof, Fante, Mandingo, Ewe, Twi, Ibo, Yoruba and others who forged their diverse 28 or so languages into a unique language that was not about corruption of English but did somewhat accommodate to it.” Through English, the Enslaved shared not just the names of things but also the values, meanings and rules outlined by the captors so as to shape how the Enslaved related to those things. From then on how they measured things was determined by the nature of how their minds had been reshaped, by Europeans, to determine values.
Before the start of the Civil War, White plantation owners left their plantations on the Sea Islands returning to the mainland fearing they would be caught in a blockade and finding life on the islands too inhospitable for them. On the Sea Islands the Enslaved were deserted and left to fend for themselves. The weather was continuously harsh including violent hurricanes as well as a hostile environment with many swampy areas full of snakes and insects such as mosquito that carried Malaria. The Gullah stayed on the islands and struggled, in this hostile climate, to eke out a living by farming, fishing and oyster harvesting despite trials and tribulations. Since communication with the mainland could only be done by boat, the Gullah remained isolated for more or less a century.
Perhaps starting in the 1950s ,according to Joseph A. Bailey II, MD in his book, Word Stories Surrounding African American Slavery, “, greedy, rich, brute White people, moved in and overwhelmed the Black folks bringing unwanted development, modernization, and suppressive changes. Bridges were built connecting the islands to the mainland. Industrialization, with its raw sewage and polluted drinking water has effectively killed the Gullahs’ seafood business. White politicians continue to busily pass laws designed to run natives out of their homes and off their land. For example, they raised property taxes from $5,000 an acre in the 1980s to $30,000 an acre in the 1990s. The excuse was to help pay for the many bridges between the islands and the mainland. Other laws placed social restrictions on the natives. Meanwhile, speculators have bought up large tracts of land for (White) “members only” resorts. Builders have bulldozed the historic Slave graveyards, thousands of years of old sacred Indian grounds and their priceless artifacts in order to make way for golf courses. The bones of Slaves and their tombstones have been discarded in the watery marshes. One Gullah mother of six, upon protesting the destruction of her home and homeland, was fired from her job—and with no other jobs available! Instead of providing jobs for the locals, the high-class resorts for rich white people brought in Jamaican servants (the “divide and conquer” practice). The peaceful Gullah have been no match for the developers’ self-interest contracts or the government’s hypocritical promises”.
Today, the Gullah represent one of the oldest, distinct culture groups actually living and surviving among us. They are a living testimony to the endurance of the African people to be able to survive in the most hostile of climates under the most inhumane conditions imaginable. The people have formed a group called the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition with Queen Quet a community member, as the head and speaker for them. In 1999 Queen Quet went before the United Nations Coalition on Human Rights to state the case for the Gullah people .The U.N. named the Gullah a “linguistic minority” that deserved protection and that was just the beginning. In 2001, state Representative, James Clyburn, whose wife is of Gullah origin, commissioned a study of the Gullah and what was happening to them and the culture. That study was then crafted into a Congressional Act naming the coastal region from Jacksonville, Florida to Jacksonville, North Carolina, as the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Representative Clyburn said, ”We want to make sure we keep this culture part of who we are.” Queen Quet agrees but relates that they have no reason to believe that will change much and they only have past performances to go on which hasn’t shown them anything but broken promises and devastation. The same has happened to the Amerindians.
A Gullah proverb says, ”Mus tak cyear da root fa heal da tree” and translated it is “You need to take care of the root in order to heal the tree”.