The term Gullah itself hides a clue to its origins: it is derived from the word Angola, a country on the west coast of Africa. The Gullah are African Americans descended from enslaved people taken from the west coast of Africa. They live along the Lowcountry coast stretching from Wilmington, North Carolina, through South Carolina, into Georgia (where residents are called Geechee), and southward to Jacksonville, Florida. Gullah originated on isolated majority African and African American Southern coastal plantations where there was limited cultural interaction with white settlers. Today, Gullah is a recognized language, and Gullah are lauded for retaining the most African culture of any black community in the United States. Despite threats from development and cultural intrusion in an increasingly global world, the Gullah still reside in the South Carolina Lowcountry on Edisto, Johns, James, and Wadmalaw Islands and practice their language, traditions, beliefs, and foodways. Handcraft traditions of net making, iron working, quilting, and weaving of the sweetgrass baskets have been passed down through the generations. It’s a culture deeply linked to African ancestors, whose lineage still echoes through the communities of today.
Bin Yah: Origins of the Gullah People
Gullah is a creolized but unique culture and language born of Caribbean, Anglo-European, and various African traditions, languages, and ethnicities. Linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner (1890–1972) is recognized as the father of Gullah research, conducting studies in a time when many Gullah were protective of their unique and syncretic language. Many Gullah words are derived from English, but Turner noted that the intonation and syntax borrowed heavily from African dialects. Gullah use E for he and she for hers/she. As an example, E bukra meant “he is a white man.” Juke, biddy, and tote are Gullah words now also used in the English language.
The term Gullah itself hides a clue to its origins: it is derived from the word Angola, a country on the west coast of Africa from which countless early slaves of South Carolina were forcibly immigrated. Carolina planters actively sought slaves from certain parts of Africa, preferring peoples from the “Rice Coast” and “Windward Coast” (Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Angola, and Liberia) for their knowledge of rice cultivation. Creating rice plantations out of the cypress swamps and tidelands of South Carolina was not only backbreaking work that required moving literal tons of earth by hand to create embankments, but it also took intricate knowledge of cultivation, tides, and hydraulics that the enslaved brought from African rice regions. Rice was a dominant cash crop for the Lowcountry and made untold fortunes for white planters who exploited the enslaved. Rice also proved a point of continuity between the homeland of Africa and the American South. Rice remains a staple part of the Gullah diet, and the famous sweetgrass baskets for sale in Mount Pleasant and Charleston are an African tradition passed down through generations within the Gullah community. The intricate baskets were originally woven to carry goods on one’s head and used as rice fanners to separate the rice from the chaff in plantation production.
In the decades before the international slave trade closed in 1808, South Carolinians imported 90,000 slaves, and African-born peoples made up 20 percent of the population. Rice plantations were usually large holdings wherein slaves greatly outnumbered whites, and, excluding an occasional interaction with an overseer, they communicated only to each other. They spoke many different dialects, but one can see how African language and tradition would survive in this environment. Rice plantations often used a unique form of labor control called the task system. Instead of working monotonously from sunup to sundown, slaves were assigned a set of tasks to complete for the day. Once those were complete, they had autonomy to cultivate their own small gardens or spend their time as they saw fit. This too kept African song, dance, and food ways alive, even in the brutal plantation system.
Ligun and Bittle: Religion and Food
The Gullah rarely left their communities and plantations, nor did they travel further than the neighboring islands. They walked or used small rowboats in the absence of carriages, cars, and bridges. To get from Kiawah to Charleston, residents would have to sail or row from Haulover Creek to the Kiawah River, then on to the Stono River, Ellis Creek, and into Charleston Harbor—a long and arduous trip. Because of isolation and lack of access to professional physicians on the islands, Gullah turned to herbal remedies and root doctors. As a Sea Islander explained in the 1960s, “The function of the root doctor is diverse. As a counselor, he advises on matters spiritual; as a healer, he provides medicine (herbal) for various illnesses natural or unnatural. [One can consult a doctor] to see if they are ‘fixed.’ By ‘fixed’ I mean the state or condition resulting from the fact or belief that some evil forces have been used to cause excruciating pain, sickness, sudden catastrophe, insanity, or even death to an individual. Since there is always the danger of one’s getting ‘fixed,’ then some countermeasure must be devised. Here is where ‘protection’ comes into play. ‘Protection’ is a small bag with substances in it which are supposed to be potent to neutralize the effect of destructive forces.” Sea lavender was prescribed for cough, fiddler crab juice for ear aches, oak bark for teething, urine for conjunctivitis, and white potato slices worn in the shoe to cure a fever.
The Gullah retain religious practices that are a blend of Christian, Muslim, African, and Caribbean beliefs and often attend Christian services in churches and praise houses. The color blue holds the power to ward off the evil eye and harmful spirits. Believers might wear blue beads, erect a blue bottle tree, or paint their porch roofs haint blue to keep away evil spirits. Janie Gaillard Moore grew up Gullah and explains a traditional African belief of becoming invisible and doing mischief: “Our Sea Island counterpart is the hag. Now a hag is usually an old woman who comes out of her skin at night to suck the blood of a sleeping victim. My father seems to have been one of the hag’s favorite victims, as I recall. Many times he would cry out in his sleep. Shaking my father, my mother would say, ‘Leave my husband alone.’” Gullah people might cover the walls of their houses with newspaper to stop evil spirits from possessing the occupant, as the hag slows to read. The custom may be derived from the West African practice of wearing a protective amulet with small written passages from the Koran.
Like religion, Gullah cooking is a fusion of African, European, and even Native American traditions. The National Park Service reminds us that “much of the food today referred to as ‘southern’ comes from the creativity and labor of enslaved African cooks from the plantations.” Gumbo, okra, and goober (peanuts) to name a few, are Gullah words for foods used widely in English today. Slow cooking without written recipes and seasoning to taste make each Gullah chef’s food unique. Cooks use fresh local ingredients. She-crab soup, fish and grits, shrimp and grits, and rice (even at breakfast) are staple dishes.. The menu for a Gullah Sunday dinner from 1922 was stewed chicken on rice, cabbage, and pecan candy. A 1928 New Year’s feast included Hoppin’ John (brown field peas and rice), collards, macaroni and cheese, and bread pudding. According to superstition, serving hoppin’ John ensures good luck for the year to come.
E gwine tell um: Stories and Memories
Gullah stories and musical tradition reached beyond South Carolina in the 1920s when white Lowcountry authors began to include African American culture in their works. Most famous is Dubose Heyward, whose bestselling novel-turned-opera Porgy and Bess was performed throughout the North. Many other Charleston artists of the interwar years painted and sketched basket ladies, recorded and performed Negro spirituals, and featured Gullah dialect and traditions in their writing (albeit often as caricatures and without context). It was common for white performers to represent black culture in that era.
Oral tradition was fundamental in Gullah communities, as captured by Works Progress Administration workers who conducted interviews in the 1930s. Their recordings included admonitions of boo hags, plantation history, and stories passed down from before emancipation. Stories featuring humanized animals in cautionary tales were popular in the Lowcountry, and the most famous is Brer Rabbit, a clever trickster. Brer Rabbit competes with friends Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Snake in tales that pass on lessons for young listeners. Richard Knox, a Gullah man born in Murrells Inlet in 1897, recounted “a Lil short tale ‘bout Budder Rabbit and the Bear,” in which the rabbit tries to steal his friend’s fresh catch. A few lines in original dialect from the WPA interview follow:
Hey Budder Bear!
Budder Bear ax [asked]: Aint you got my fish? You look like the same Budder Rabbit I lay my fish down by!
Budder Rabbit call out: No! No!
Budder Bear say: I smell fish cookin!
Budder Rabbit tell him: No! No! Collards and turnips! See dere! See dere! (and Budder Rabbit stir collards on top) Plenty meat in here!
Budder Rabbit, Budder Bear say: My nose aint fool me! Lemme stir that pot!
Gullah influence reached the North when thousands of black South Carolinians embarked on the Great Migration to northern industrial cities in search of better pay and new lives. The Harlem Renaissance was infused with Gullah culture because of this exodus. Post-World War II transportation improvements brought an end to the long isolation of Gullah communities, and traditions began to die out with more outside influence and mobility. Gullah tour guide Alphonso Brown explained, “Bridges and new roads meant blacks could move around more. Much of their culture and many of their traditions have changed over time and many of the local blacks will tell you it was for the good. What outsiders call ‘culture and tradition’ was considered hard and oppressive work.”
Bill Saunders grew up Gullah on Johns Islands in the 1930s and 1940s and described his childhood: “When I was a kid we grew our own rice, we had our own grits grinder, and we made our own mortar and pestle with which to clean our rice. We had our own smokehouse, killed our own meat, and we ate everything that was in the river in season. Most of our clothes were made of material from feed bags or things that something had been bought in. Most illnesses that came up, someone had a remedy for it; we called it root medicine. We worked from ‘can see’ to ‘can’t see,’ from sunup to sundown. We were independent and we didn’t recognize it.”
Puhtekshun: The Gullah today
In 2006 Congress authorized the creation of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The Corridor includes seventy-nine barrier islands and coastline from North Carolina to Florida, spanning thirty miles inland. It is managed through a partnership between the National Park Service, local governments, and tourism authorities with the goal of preserving Gullah culture and promoting heritage tourism. Gullah communities have banded together to form the Gullah Geechee Nation, led by head of state Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine, to promote and protect Gullah economy, culture, and interests. Meanwhile, the Center for Heirs Property Preservation in the Lowcountry is working to help African American families retain their rural tracts as development continues along the coast. Through the hard work of these groups, Gullah traditions and communities will continue for years to come. — C.B.
Gullah words courtesy of Alphonso Brown’s Gullah Guide to Charleston and Virginia Geraty’s Gullah Fah Onnuh.