Uniquely African-American: Gullah and Geechee culture

Sweetgrass baskets in South Carolina (courtesy designatednaphour on Flickr CC)The movie Conrack (based on Pat Conroy’s teaching memoir The Water is Wide) was my first introduction to isolated South Carolina islands like Daufuskie and their strong Gullah/Geechee culture.

The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor stretching from Wilmington NC to Jacksonville FL is a National Park Service effort to bring attention and appreciation to this unique mix of African customs and traditions and even language that is left over from slave days.  It is a work in progress and there are ongoing discussions and documents about the best ways to preserve the relics and traditions within the corridor.

Who are these folks? From what I can gather, the term “Geechee” is more common in Florida and Georgia, and “Gullah” is used in the Carolinas. The NPS Corridor website says:

“The Gullah/Geechee people are descendents of enslaved Africans from various ethnic groups of west and central Africa. Brought to the New World and forced to work on the plantations of coastal South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida, Gullah/Geechee people have retained many aspects of their African heritage due to the geographic barriers of the coastal landscape and the strong sense of place and family of Gullah/Geechee community members.”

The children’s TV show Gullah Gullah Island on Nickelodeon brought renewed attention and appreciation to this heritage, especially the Lowcountry barrier islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia.

Where can you experience Gullah/Geechee culture?

One way is the annual (February) Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration, with storytellers, dance, music, traditional foods, and crafts such as making sweet grass baskets, weaving fish nets and dying indigo. Gullah Heritage Tours are also available on Hilton Head.

Brand new this year – and coming right up on October 30, 2010 – is a Gullah/Geechee Seafood Festival sponsored by the Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association, on St. Helena Island, South Carolina.  You can also visit the historic Penn Center on St. Helena; they have a Heritage Days celebration every November (it’s 11-13 Nov in 2010) that includes artwork, a Fish Fry and Blues Night and a prayer service.

The village of Hogg Hummock on Sapelo Island, Georgia is the last intact Geechee/Gullah community in the Sea Islands (residents are direct descendants of slaves that were brought there in 1802) and the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS) is working to preserve it. There is a Sapelo Island Cultural Day this month, on October 16. You can only visit the island by private boat or the state-run ferry from Meridian, GA near Darien, but there are places to eat and stay on the island and SICARS does have tours.

The preservation of Gullah/Geechee culture as a result of geographic isolation is somewhat similar to the rich pockets of Cajun culture in less-traveled parts of Louisiana.  Tourism, especially in the early stages, can bring resources and appreciation that helps to preserve such unique places and peoples.

The trick is to keep us camera-toting, WiFi-seeking hordes from ruining what we’ve found.

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  1. Dominique October 1, 2010
    • Sheila October 1, 2010

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