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world wide wednesdays :: the other african americans

during the 1960s and 70s, there was a wave of interest among young black americans in reconnecting with the african cultures from which they were descended. the civil rights era not only meant increasing freedoms to live as white americans always had and increasing participation in america's cultural life, but also a freedom to discover who they were before they were shuttled over to the united states as slaves [knowledge whites have always been able to take for granted]. interestingly, though, not all american blacks had lost touch with their culture. one group had kept close to their roots while at the same time incorporating elements of the new world and they still exist, guarding their unique culture today.

the people, called the gullah or gullah geechee, have been in the united states for hundreds of years. they were brought over as slaves from west africa, primarily sierra leone, ghana, senegal, the gambia and especially from angola. slaves from these areas were in particular demand in the coastal areas of the carolinas and georgia, because the tribes of that area had for thousands of years cultivated african rice. so the slaves who were settled in those regions were not brought in merely as cheap labour, but as experts in the cultivation and management of rice fields.

expertise wasn't all that the africans brought with them either. within a few years of their arrival, yellow fever and malaria began to run rampant. the black slaves had been exposed to these diseases before and had a certain level of immunity to them. the white landowners had never been exposed and had just barely become used to living in a subtropical climate like the low country along the atlantic coast. many grew sick and died, meaning that more and more slaves were required to manage the lucrative rice business. by 1708, south carolina had a majority black population and within the century, the coastal areas of georgia would as well.

with killer diseases on the loose, white landowners began to leave the coastal district and while they didn't abandon their land and the profits made from it, they did end up leaving the daily management of the land to the most experienced of their slaves. they were still owned, but the slaves who remained suddenly found themselves living on productive land in relative isolation from their "masters". it can't have been easy, since there were members of possibly a dozen different tribes living in the region, with the only common denominator being that they knew how to farm rice and they had been torn from their homeland and dropped in a completely different part of the world.

early photo of the gullah community
the default language was english, since all of them had had to learn at least some to communicate with the whites and with each other. but a distinct language developed, a creole or patois [called geechee] that blended english with common terms from west africa, because the people of the region had only to communicate with each other- very rarely with those from outside. likewise, the people who formed the gullah lived on fertile land for rice and had been brought there because of their knowledge about the crop, so their cuisine remained heavily influenced by their african roots rather than anything they picked up in the new world.

when the civil war broke out, the gullah lands were the first to be liberated, because when the union army arrived, there was no one there resisting their advance. instead, many of the gullah joined the army and left to fight in the war. after the war, they returned home to find that the whites that had remained had more or less gone and that other freed slaves had no interest in moving onto the gullah lands because they were no longer immune to yellow fever or malaria than the whites. so life for the gullah continued much as it had, in even greater isolation. they continued using their language and cooking their african-influenced foods, weaving baskets and cloth as their families had done in the old country, living along the coast and in the sea islands from jacksonville north carolina to jacksonville florida.

of course, people eventually did move back and in the twentieth century, many moved north as well. [although it was still relatively common for children to spend summers with their grandparents, allowing for the passing down of culture across geography and generations.] but after so long being on their own, the gullah have proven resistant to assimilation. their lands, however, are increasingly threatened.

map of gullah territories
with the malaria and the yellow fever long gone, the sea islands off the coast of georgia and the carolinas has become a hotspot for hotel developers, driving up the cost of living and pushing out people who have been there for generations. it's a common enough story in any area that has been commercialized or gentrified, but in this case, there is also a unique culture and language being threatened, one that has managed to hold on against all odds. to save their culture, the gullah geechee sea island coalition was founded in 1996 by the woman who now serves as the people's "queen quet" or head of state for the gullah geechee nation, marquetta l. goodwine. much of their battle has been to promote knowledge of the gullah not just as a historical curiosity [which is how they are usually mentioned, when they're mentioned at all], but as a living cultural group, still proudly distinct from the rest of the country.

in 2006, the gullah geechee heritage corridor [their traditional lands], a territory crossing four states and composed of 8.2 million acres, 9 complete counties and parts of 18 others, was designated  a heritage site. that helps to ensure that work is done to identify and protect areas of cultural and historical significance, but it falls short of the protections offered to areas included in the national park system. it's a limited victory, but an important one for the nation. in 2013, the won a different sort of victory when gullah candice glover won american idol and called attention to her heritage.

in 2015, however, there was a shock to the community when white supremacist dylann roof killed nine african americans at the emanuel african methodist church. while not specifically a gullah institution, the two hundred year old church is located in the heart of the gullah land and clementa pinckney, the state senator who was among the dead, had been a public proponent of the importance of gullah culture. people who survived slavery, disease, hurricanes and crop failures have found that their existence is under constant and sometimes violent threat from the people who descended on the lands where the gullah had lived since the seventeenth century.

the continued survival of the unique gullah culture is certainly at risk from the hegemony of the nation that surrounds them. like other linguistic, racial and religious minorities, remaining different is far more work than simply moving along with "progress". but having resisted thus far, you have to think that the gullah will never go quietly into that good night.

the queen quet surveys her land

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