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Gullah-Geechee Community Embraces African Roots

Roger Hsu

On a number of islands off the coasts of the southern states of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, live the Gullahs, a group many believe is the most authentic African-American community in the U.S.

The Gullahs, also referred to as the Geechee in some parts of the south, are descendants of African slaves and speak a unique language that is a mix of English and African languages. To this day many of them still practice their centuries-old way of living. But their way of life is endangered. For producer Roger Hsu, Elaine Lu has the story.

Georgia's Sapelo Island is home to a small Gullah community. Each year that heritage is celebrated, drawing thousands to the island.

Charles Hall is an advocate for the island's Gullah community. He explains, "This festival got started about 13 years ago in order to establish some kind of independence for the residents of Sapelo. As you know, Sapelo is one of the last intact Gullah-Geechee communities in America."

A fisherman, Robert, points to his net. He says, "This art of net making came from Africa with the slaves."

Mary, a basket weaver, says basket weaving is a tradition that is passed down. "It's been passed on from generation to generation for a long time."

Net making and sweet grass basket weaving are African traditions brought to the coastal islands by the Gullah's enslaved ancestors who were brought to the area by early European settlers. Their language and culture have been passed down for generations.

Cornelia Bailey recalls a sport that she played as a child. She told us, "Let's play ball... There is a pitcher there, you got your thing here and you play ball with this here. This is your ball... Charles! Remember these? Ha ha ha... When we were little we don't have balls on campus so we selected pinecones very carefully and play ball with it."

The Gullah's speak an English-based Creole language with grammar and sentence structure from African languages. Cornelia Bailey and others are quick to defend their unusual dialect. Bailey says, "It's a combination of English and Africans and over here is French... It's not broken English, it's ours."

Just off the coast of South Carolina, St. Helena Island is another Gullah community. Marquetta Goodwine, also known as Queen Quet, is the founder of the Gullah-Geechee Sea Island Coalition. She says, "This is one of our last islands of the Sea Island that has a contiguous Gullah - Geechee community on it, which is about 10,000 people strong."

But tourism and resort developments threaten the very land they live on. Goodwine says her people are fighting to keep their culture alive. Their efforts paid off. The U.S. Congress passed the "Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act" in 2006 to fund the preservation of the rich Sea Island culture and history.

"If you don't know where you are from, you won't know where you are going. So the land for us is our family, because our blood, sweat and tears are in this soil, and the waterways around us for us are our bloodline, so we don't want to be removed from any of that," Goodwine said.

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