The place was St. Helena Island, a couple of hours south from Charleston, South Carolina. My graduate journalism class and I were on a field trip to learn more about the Gullah people and their traditions. The Gullah inhabit a stretch of land that runs from North Carolina to Florida, and are descendants of former West African slaves, who due to their relative isolation were able to preserve a great deal of their heritage to the present day.
The Gullah live on land that was once the plantations of their ancestors’ slave masters. As such, the Gullah have more in common with their African cousins than most other African-Americans. While the Gullah are not known by many Americans, many more know a song that comes out of their rich heritage, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” On the island, dramatic trees loomed everywhere, many with long strands of Spanish Moss, giving the place a sense of deep roots and heritage: one could easily imagine life here 50, 100, 150 years ago. The ruins of a plantation chapel still remain in eerie remembrance of a hypocritical culture that could be both Christian and slaver.
At a meeting at the local church, we were given an introduction by Queen Quet (Marquetta L. Goodwine) the chieftess the Gullah/Geechee (another name for Gullah) Nation. A vibrant woman, passionate about her heritage and preserving Gullah traditions, she introduced us to their dialect, also known as Gullah, an English creole language with a lot of African influences. This is apparent in a version of the Gospel of Matthew in Gullah that I purchased, which is often very difficult to figure out until you sound out the words, and their pronunciation become more familiar. Other traditions that have persisted are heavily African-influenced dishes such as Okra Soup and distinct quilting and basket weaving traditions. On the more spiritual side, traditional herbal medicines had been passed down through generations, and until recently worship was primarily done in small buildings called “praise houses,” where locals maintained their Christian beliefs in a manner in keeping with many West African religious traditions with ecstatic stomping, shouts, and songs.
Young folks when they came of age would go on a “seeking” ritual and live out by themselves in nature, a tradition that has obvious parallels in African and Native American culture. In addition, to Queen Quet, we listened to a group of elders tell us of their own experiences growing up with these traditions, as they demonstrated basket weaving and a Gullah praise song. It was heartening to hear of such strong determination to preserve this culture in a country that increasingly is dominated by pop. I was also pleased to read recently of the many successes the community has had in maintaining its heritage. Still, it is no easy task. Many young folk leave their traditional lands for the city, there is pressure from real estate groups, and the modern dominant culture is pervasive. Indeed, most of the people who spoke to us of the strength of their traditions were older, and they admitted that few people wanted to do the “seeking” ritual anymore. The praise house had mostly been abandoned for a more conventional church building (see above), although many of the unique customs that occurred in them, such as seeing grievances within a religious setting, continued. Indeed, one aspect of Gullah religious belief I found most fascinating was the notion that while the soul goes to heaven upon death, the spirit remains on Earth to help or hinder their descendants and community. It is something you can certainly feel on St. Helena.