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The Glory of the Gullah


If you were to ask me how I felt right now, I would simply reply 10:4. The expression 10:4 is today's date, and is also the reply given by many truckers over their CB radios to mean affirmative. I am in an affirmative mood sitting atop an uprooted two-trunk tree with single roots at Hunter Island off the South Carolina Sea Islands. Here is a place where your cares seem to wash away with the tide and the rapidly eroding coastline. Similar to the double-trunk tree with the single root, is the past and future of the Gullah people. Their 'tree' of perseverance and spirituality was grown from the same root, Africa, and has helped preserve their heritage and their culture. With the same strength and courage of this sandy beach that fights for existence, the people of the Gullah of the Sea Islands struggle to preserve their existence. Behold!

It is this culture that I am honestly afraid of misrepresenting, and yet my mission is to inform you of this group of tightly knit people, and tell you of the dangers they face and how you can potentially help. The beautiful island of St. Helena was once inhabited by the Yamassee Indians. After several trips to the area by Europeans lust to gain more land and wealth, caused the Europeans to push the Yamassee off the island, and soon after, the quest for slaves began. Africans (mostly from the west coast of Africa) were brought in the hulls of ships. Those who endured and did not jump overboard and make themselves food for sharks, made it to America with chains around their necks, and nets cast over their souls. The inhabitants of these islands are their descendents. The Sea Islands were the home of tomato, rice, and sugarcane plantations. Yet unlike plantations on the mainland, slavemasters here would often leave captured Africans unsupervised because they had to take care of business in mainland South Carolina, and North Carolina. As a result the Gullah were fortunate to keep many of their old traditions, including their own language and religious customs.

Blue Bertha (our Odyssey car) passes underneath a corridor of looming trees that are decorated by Spanish Moss. There are soo many spirits on this island. I have finally reached my dispatch from the beyond, kids! The presence of the spirits is strong, but there is no fear present in my heart. I am on my way to meet Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. Queen Quet is well versed in the fields of computer science and mathematics. She has traveled all over the world, but her roots and her heart are with the Gullah/Geechee Nation. Outsiders who contribute nothing but only seek to destroy, are her main opponents. Her weapons are education and a strong sense of self. The war is being fought not only on her own soil, but in the hearts and minds of her people. This island is seriously threatened by groups of people who comes in all forms, all seking to milk from the island what they can. As a result there is a great need for organizations such as the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition of which Queen Quet is the founder and Executive Director. She is assisted by Gyasi Williams, the Assistant Director. Williams happens to be from my neck of the woods: its a small world after all! I know you all have heard of that song.

One of these traditions within the Gullah culture and that is often enjoyed, but seriously misunderstood, is music. Many people enjoy the sounds and rhythm of African music. Yet many don't understand the importance of this in the enslaved communities. Please notice I am not referring to Africans as being slaves. Although they were enslaved, their identity was African. Africans who were enslaved used song and music as a way to communicate with each other, as well as to release the negative feelings that came from back-breaking work in the fields of the plantations. Much of this was done in the church shelters they built. At times they went far from home or out into the woods in order to worship in peace and not disturb others. Imagine having to work hard everyday for absolutely no money! Everything that you do, including wanting to marry that cute girl or guy that you may have had your eye on had to be approved through another human being that you called your master. You would be forced to try to speak English without any schooling, and all of the other enslaved Africans spoke different African languages. Songs and the native Gullah language were used to communicate with the other troubled but strong souls that worked in the fields with you everyday.

It is with these same feelings that Anita Prather wants the members of the Gullah Kinfolk (a choir) to sing the songs of the Gullah in Beaufort County, SC. Ms. Prather also known as Aunt Pearlie Sue sits across the lunch table from Daphne and me with all the presence and glory of those that came before her. She is clearly amped about being Gullah and about carrying on the traditions that she has been blessed enough to learn and pass on to her family. It is this knowledge of her traditions that gives her pride and stability. This is something that she was not able to receive in the "outside world", but finds it in abundance in the home of the Gullah.

However, she too knows that the pride of tradition carefully shielded by the hanging and cooling trees of this island is under attack once again. The first attack came with the transportation from Africa to America. One of the later attacks came with the building of bridges that brought big business from mainland South Carolina and forced the Gullah to adjust to a new and unnecessary way of life. This helped to bring about the lack of interest that many young Gullah children and adolescents seem to exhibit. I had never learned of this place in my high school history class, and certainly not in my university education. Hopefully these young children realize how fortunate they are to have first-hand access to the past. Their neglect to immerse themselves in their rich culture is due to the distractions that the outer world has caused. High land taxes have caused many Gullah to lose property, keeping them from passing it on to their children. In many ways a new and different type of slavery is being inflicted upon the Gullah. This is slavery that many of us on the mainlaind suffer from. This is the slavery to the almighty buck. It is important to see that this is one of the last places in America that has not been totally corrupted by this, and it should remain so. With the constant arrival of tourists and people who do not bring positive forces to the economy and preservation of the culture of the Sea Islands, the tasks become harder to accomplish. They are Gullah, it is a daily struggle to perserve the heritage that is not only a cultural treasure, but it is a national treasure - to be respected.


Please email me at: kevin1@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Long, lazy summer days? Not for these teens!
Daphne - Sing out strong and loud! I speak Gullah, and I'm proud!
Rebecca - Sacred African burial grounds in Manhattan
Irene - "Great Blacks in Wax": a museum that packs a punch
Stephanie - The Natchez Indians give the old heave-ho to the French
Rebecca - Mose, Florida: Paradise among mosquitoes and tropical heat
Neda - Dive! Dive! Discover the secrets of the Henrietta Marie
MAD - Reparations: Payback for slavery
Nick - The rebellion is on!