The Black Bucket List: Gullah Country

In Beaufort, S.C., tracing language, dance, customs and gumbo back to Mother Africa.

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A Gullah storyteller (Randy Simmons)

It looked, at first, like just another fun outdoor festival. An R&B band was rocking onstage; a few visitors were chowing down on burgers and fries. And when the Manhattans, the featured group, started jamming, half the crowd took to their feet.

But soon the mood of the program changed and I stepped in closer. A lone drummer, dressed in traditional Nigerian garb, banged out tunes on an African drum. In the back of the park, Aunt Pearlie Sue, a local storyteller, regaled the crowd in a tongue that sounded less like English than something out of Sierra Leone. And then there was the lanky man with chocolate-colored skin dancing on stilts to rhythms that seemed inspired by African movements. Suddenly, this was beginning to feel like Mother Africa.

And no wonder. The gathering, last Memorial Day in Beaufort, S.C.'s Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, was the Original Gullah Festival, a three-day annual celebration of the most authentic U.S. reflection of Africa and the culture she spawned in this country -- language, food, music, dance and all.

Beaufort, a small South Carolina seaside city, is home to one of the most active contingents of Gullah people, a group of descendants of African people concentrated in various close-knit enclaves in these parts. Rather than clustering in one place, the Gullah are scattered along Georgia and South Carolina and into Florida around the coastal plains, and in sea-island towns such as Bluffton, Daufuskie and Hilton Head.

What binds Gullah people together into a unique subpopulation of African Americans is their retention of the customs, traditions and mores of the mother countries in West Africa.

This remarkably authentic African heritage puts Gullah country near the head of The Root's Black Bucket List of top places of historical interest that every African American should visit before they die.

Even more than three centuries after many of their ancestors arrived as slaves from Sierra Leone, Senegal and other countries along Africa's Gold Coast, echoes of Africa ring loud and clear among the Gullah people. Drive along Route 17N south of Charleston, S.C., and Gullah weavers will be selling sweetgrass baskets, a rich tradition of artisanship that brings to mind the handiwork of the Wolof people in Senegal. Pop into Gullah Grub Restaurant or one of the other eateries along the South Carolina coast and dig into a gumbo of okra, fish and hot peppers, a dish remarkably similar to jollof rice, a beloved staple throughout much of West Africa. Ask around where Marlena Smalls and the Hallelujah Singers are performing and eventually you will find a performance of melodic tunes sung by these nationally known ambassadors of Gullah music.

Language: The Tie That Binds

But the strongest link that binds the Gullah peoples into one group is their common language. Gullah, a Creole tongue composed of words mixed with English and words from various African tongues, is still spoken, mostly as a second language, by thousands of residents of the sea-island towns. A 1979 report by the Summer Institute of Linguistics found 100,000 Gullah speakers in the region; a tenth of them, mostly of an older generation, spoke only Gullah.

Travelers curious about Africa but unable to venture so far should grab a Gullah-English glossary and head for the Gullah region. "I don't think there is any doubt that these sea-island communities constitute the one place outside of the African continent where the roots of Africa have been maintained most clearly," said Walter Mack, executive director of the Penn Center, an institute on St. Helena Island, S.C., dedicated to the preservation of sea-island cultures along the Southern U.S. Coast, including the Gullah, or Geechee, peoples. (Geechee is another name for Gullah.)