Protecting Gullah Culture

Sep 27, 2019

The view from Lady's Island looking out at the Beaufort River
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Nearly two hours south of Charleston, over Beaufort's Woods Memorial Bridge, South Carolina's Sea Islands stretch out adorned with palms trees and pines, and grassy marshes that glitter at twilight.

The area has long been home to the direct descendants of slaves known as Gullah Geechee.  Once freed, they remained isolated on the islands, living off the land and holding on to their African traditions and language. 

They kept quiet, closely guarding their way of life, until developers began moving in; threatening ancestral land deeply connected to their culture.  Now Gullah communities across the Lowcountry fear potential new threats, like commercialization and climate change. 

The Chieftess

Marquetta Goodwine, better known as Queen Quet, is the Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation.  She says her job is to work on behalf of Gullah Geechee people ensuring they are not displaced or misrepresented.  Roughly one million still live along the Southeast coast.

Queen Quet, Chieftess of Gullah/Geechee Nation
Credit Marquetta Goodwine

Goodwine grew up on Saint Helena Island.  A colorful sign welcomes visitors to the "Seat of the Gullah Culture", settled in 1670.  Queen Quet says thanks to preservation efforts the island is still 90 percent Gullah Geechee owned.

She says she's fought hard to help people keep their land, and keep big box stores and strip malls out, like the ones on nearby Lady's Island.   But she doesn't know what to do about rising sea levels.

"At one time we dealt with bridges from the mainland coming toward us," she says.  "Now we have to deal with the water coming from the ocean and the creeks."

Welcome sign to Saint Helena Island
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Queen Quet says locals who work the land noticed changes 15 to 20 years ago.  But when they mentioned it to government officials they were dismissed as, "emotional natives."

She also worries about the commercialization of her culture; people who are not Gullah Geechee trying to cash in.

"We've had a lot of people who are African American move to the area and then start doing plays, choirs and getting buses and doing tours," she says.  "The tourists don't know any better."

The Gullah Girl

Victoria Smalls also grew up on Saint Helena Island, one of 14 children who helped farm 20 acres of land. The area had once been home to dozens of plantations.

It wasn't until she was older that she realized she was different.  Smalls spoke Gullah, a mix of English and Creole created by slaves to secretly communicate.

"Around age 9 or 10 years-old I realized people were laughing at the way I spoke and I would cry," she says.  "I can feel myself welling up right now." 

Smalls says she's proud now as an adult to have grown up Gullah, although she regrets she's no longer fluent in her native language.

Victoria Smalls painting in her Beaufort studio
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

"Gullah Geechee means that you have most of your Africanisms intact, more than any other African Americans."

She works at the Penn Center, the first school in the south for freed slaves.  She also paints, inspired by Gullah artists who depict the beauty of their people.

Smalls likes the attention the Gullah group, "Ranky Tanky" has brought to the community.  She's even made her own Gullah t-shirt as a sign of pride.

"How else are you going to educate the world about Gullah culture if you don't have some aspects that appear to be commercial?"

She is concerned about climate change.

"How do you sustain a culture that is so tied to ancestral land?  We have to start preparing for that now."

The Basket Weavers

Nakia Wigfall coils long strands of fragrant, honey colored sweetgrass, binding them with pine needles and palmetto fronds using the end of a metal spoon.  She is a seventh generation sweetgrass basket maker in Mount Pleasant's Gullah community.

Nakia Wigfall builds the base of a sweetgrass basket.
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

"I started making baskets when I was 4 years-old," she says.  "I'm almost 60 so imagine how many baskets that is."

"Commercialism that's what I'm worried about. Where the story will get lost why we even do this in the first place." - Nakia Wigfall, sweetgrass basket maker

Wigfall says overdevelopment has already made sweetgrass harder to come by.  Now more frequent and intense storms are taking out supplies on barrier islands. 

What's more, the roadside where she's long had a basket stand has grown into a six lane highway.  She's says it's just too dangerous.  So she has a website and a second job.

But what she really worries about is commercialism. 

"Where the story will get lost why we even do this in the first place," she says.

Nakia Wigfall coils a sweetgrass basket at her Mount Pleasant home.
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Slaves brought from Africa were exploited for their ability to grow rice.  They coiled baskets called fanners to toss the hulls and separate the chaff.  They used their skills, but not by choice.

"You know people shared a lot of blood and tears behind the baskets," she says.  "That's what I want people to know."

Wigfall says cheaper, Chinese knockoffs are turning up and some basket makers are teaching the skill once considered sacred.

Henrietta Snype also grew up in Mount Pleasant's Gullah community and has been making baskets since she was a child.  She does teach workshops.  She sees it not as commercialism, but as a way to advertise.

"A lot of basket makers get a little bit perturbed when I teach this," she says.  "But it helps the community.  It helps people learn what's here."

Henrietta Snype teaches a basket making class at Mount Pleasant's annual Sweetgrass Basket Festival.
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Snype says she began demonstrating basket making in local schools as a way to preserve it.  She fears there may not be a next generation of sweetgrass basket weavers.  It's hard to make a living.  Besides, she says, the value of the baskets is in the history of the hands that make them.

"They can't take this from us," she says.  "This is sharing."

The Language

Sunn M'Cheaux's long locs sway as he shares his story at the Penn Center on Saint Helena Island.  He too was raised in a Gullah community, in Mount Holly, and remembers being shamed in school for speaking the native language he learned at home.  Now he teaches a first of its kind Gullah language class at, wait for it, Harvard University.

"People who have gone through a life time, decades and decades of oppression and degradation and discrimination for speaking this way, they deserve a win," he says.  "They deserve an I told you so."

Growing up, M'Cheaux says, Gullah was not considered a legitimate language, but broken English.  Those who spoke it were called uneducated, not intelligent.  Yet the Gullah language is clever.

"Think about the conditions under which Gullah was created," he says.  "It's everything."

Sunn M'Cheaux at the Chapel of Ease ruins on Saint Helena Island
Credit Sunn M'Cheaux

Enslaved people from all parts of Africa needed a way to communicate quickly, with few words and over the heads of overseers. They combined Creole and English with words flowing together in a kind of rhythm that made it difficult for anyone else to understand. Secrecy was essential.

"With Gullah Geechee people we created it and preserved our language under the threat of death for being literate."

So why teach it now?  M'Cheaux says to save it.  The loss of elders and ancestral land, whether to development or climate change, could be detrimental.

"There will be so much missing from our unique Gullah identity as a result of not living in the corridor or not living on that property," he says.  "You don't want to say it disappears.  You want to be hopeful, but let's be practical."

There's also a matter of pride, encouraging young people to embrace their culture.

"They deserve to have a thing they can point to and say, that's me."

Akua Page and Christopher Cato have been inspired.  They live in the city of North Charleston and grew up Gullah Geechee.

"That's something so beautiful that our ancestors created a language," says Page.

Akua Page (left) and Christopher Cato (right) promote Gullah Geechee culture through the "Geechee Experience" on social media
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Together they've created the "Geechee Experience" on social media.  One of their first videos defining words like "flam" (a person, place, or thing that doesn't fulfill its obligation) quickly went viral.  The Geechee language, they explain, is a variation of Gullah spoken on the Sea Islands.

Cato and Page say they hear from people from as far away as Alaska who have the left the Gullah Geechee corridor, which stretches from Florida to North Carolina, and are eager to reconnect with their culture.

"It's hard out there for a Geech when you move out of town," says Cato.  "When you find another one you get so excited."

They sell t-shirts with Geechee sayings but aren't too concerned about commercialism.

"If you're really doing it for the trend you'll fall off," says Cato.  "But if you're doing it to understand, then you'll respect it instinctively."

"It's important for us to pick up where our ancestors left off and keep passing it down to the next generation," says Page.  "That's the way to keep it going and keep it preserved."