The importance of preserving the Gullah language

The Penn Center is hoping to help preserve Gullah culture by working to get it taught in schools. Watch "United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell" on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

Posted: May 26, 2018 1:06 PM
Updated: May 26, 2018 1:08 PM

One of the themes of this season of "United Shades of America" is "Black is not a monolith." And by that I mean that in the United States we often act as if every black person thinks the same way and has the same well of experiences. And while there certainly are issues that we all mostly get behind as a people -- we would like it if fewer innocent black people were killed by police and we agree Denzel Washington is pretty good at acting -- black people born and raised in Portland, Oregon, are not going to be exactly the same as black people born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. And while we easily accept that white people in Alabama are different than white people in Connecticut, we, as a society, often don't give black people that benefit of the doubt to differ on things.

And if there is any episode this season that gets at the idea that black people are not all the same all over the United States of America, then the one airing this Sunday about the Gullah Geechee people in South Carolina, descendants of Central and West Africans from a range of ethnic and social groups who were enslaved in isolated coastal areas of the US, is it.

And as often happens with "United Shades of America," this week the same themes that we are talking about on our show are the ones America is talking about -- even though we film our episodes months before they air.

Just as we were getting ready with this episode to introduce our "Black is not a monolith" theme, Kanye West went way out of his way on TMZ to show that black people aren't even on the same page about slavery. Luckily, rapper and singer Childish Gambino (otherwise known as actor and comedian Donald Glover), whose whole career proves that black is not a monolith, came riding in with his grab-you-by-the-American-flag video, "This is America." And don't forget the new music and "emotion picture" from Janelle Monae -- and every black celebrity, from Migos to Rihanna, who showed up (and showed out) at the Met Gala last Monday.

As black people throughout media and culture seem focused on changing the narrative and pushing the discussion and definition of blackness forward, this seems like a perfect time to look at a group of people who have always refused to fit America's limited idea of what it means to be a black American.

The Gullah Geechee people of South Carolina are in many ways the seat of African-American culture in America. According to consulting historians for the International African American Museum scheduled to open in 2020, 90% of black Americans can trace their DNA back to the waterfront of Charleston, South Carolina. Why is that? I can give you a one-word answer: slavery. Between 1783 and 1808, slave ships transported some 100,000 slaves through Charleston and other South Carolina ports.

And many of the Gullah Geechee people were brought to live on the Sea Islands along the coast of South Carolina. That area is such a large seat of black identity that the International African American Museum is being built in Charleston to commemorate the history, even the painful parts. After slavery was abolished, the white people on the Islands went back to the mainland, because the islands were too isolated (and I'm guessing some of those white people thought it might not be awesome to be on an island with a bunch of newly freed black folk). That isolation meant that the black people who stayed there could both retain more of their West African culture and develop their own. Ever heard the song "Kumbaya?" Of course you have. In fact, you probably can't get it out of your head now that you have thought about it. Well, that was a cultural hit written by the Gullah Geechee.

And as I say in the episode, if black people in America are all members of the same club, then the Gullah Geechee are in the VIP room of the club, because so many of us can trace our roots to this part of the country. But like all the hippest clubs, the Sea Islands have been discovered by the masses. And in recent years, people are flocking to the Sea Islands to buy up the land -- land that has been in black families since the time of slavery -- and build resorts.

For example, if you think "vacation spot!" when you think about Hilton Head, South Carolina, then you should know that your vacation spot used to be somebody's home. But even though the Gullah Geechee are constantly under pressure to sell their land and abandon their ways, they are not afraid to stand their ground. As I learned from the folks I spoke with, they are used to defending themselves and their way of life. After they were isolated, they developed their own dialect which to the untrained ear (like mine) can sound like a completely different language.

But when they went to school they were often told that their way of speaking was "uneducated" and they were encouraged to abandon it. It was Ebonics before Ebonics was Ebonics. These days Victoria A. Smalls, the former director of history and culture at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, goes into the local schools to encourage the teaching of the Gullah language and culture. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with learning a new way to speak, but you shouldn't have to forget how to talk to your grandma in the process.

The Gullah Geechee culture is something we don't have enough of in America. It is a uniquely American culture. It can't be seen elsewhere in our country except in the people who are from there or have family there and then export it to the world. This includes people like filmmaker Julie Dash, whose groundbreaking 1991 film "Daughters of The Dust" -- which was inspired by her visits to her family on the Sea Islands -- was added to the National Film Registry in 2004. After that, her film partially inspired Beyonce's visual album, "Lemonade" (Heard of it?).

The Gullah Geechee culture was so special to black Americans throughout the country (and, because of its geographic isolation) so impervious to the pressures that most of those black Americans faced (pressure is my nice was of saying "racism") that back in the day, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King used to take their family to St. Helena Island (one of the Sea Islands) for vacations. Apparently, St. Helena Island was one the few places that the family could go and feel safe enough to relax. Legend has it that King wrote parts of his "I Have a Dream" speech there. (Good to know that me and Dr. King both had trouble not working when we're on vacation.)

In fact, the King family was there so often that local residents built a retreat cottage for them at the Penn Center. Dr. King was never able to use it, though, because those pressures I referenced earlier killed him before he had the chance. One of the extra scenes from this season that didn't make the show is an interview with Robert Middleton, a man in his 80s who describes how much Dr. King enjoyed the freedom that the (overwhelmingly black) island provided him.

Well, if it was good enough for the King family, it should be good enough for America to value enough to save as a living legacy to the idea that black is not a monolith.

Kumbaya indeed.

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