The Black Bucket List: Gullah Country
In Beaufort, S.C., tracing language, dance, customs and gumbo back to Mother Africa.
But to grasp the depth of Gullah influence in Beaufort, I had to walk the streets and cock my ear. In cafes, restaurants or just on the street, wherever local black people were gathered, I could hear them blending in and out of the Gullah tongue.
"Um binnuh he'p dem," said one woman to a friend. ("I have been helping them.")
"Hunnuh mus tek cyear ahde root fah to heal de tree!" said another. ("You must take care of the roots to heal the tree!")
"It's not something we really think about," explained Da'Renne Westbrook, a Gullah descendant and resident of Beaufort. "It's just how we express ourselves."
The Gullah tongue is sometimes heard at worship services at black churches throughout the region. Versions of the Bible, translated into Gullah and first published in 2005 with the help of the Penn Center, have made recitation of the gospel in Gullah a popular Sunday morning tradition in several churches.
A Congressional Designation
While some observers have viewed Gullah as a corrupted version of English, African-American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner studied the language in the 1930s and '40s and found strong similarities in the syntax, grammar and structure between it and various languages.
Although the Gullah tradition is most richly felt in enclaves like Beaufort, remnants of it can be found along much of the Southern Coast. In 2005, Congress established the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, stretching from Southern North Carolina to Northern Florida. It allocated $10 million over ten years to be designated for the preservation of the culture throughout the region.
"This has encouraged people to discover different Gullah communities that were little-known," said Mack, the Penn Center's executive director. "It's given the culture a dramatic boost."
Small museums have cropped up in the past couple of years here and there with the mission of introducing the public to Gullah-Geechee traditions. One is the Hanmedown Gullah Museum, located in the nearby town of Bluffton, next to the St. John Baptist Church.
While forging a self-styled journey through Gullah country is a great adventure for individual travelers, hopping on one of the organized tours of the area or joining one of the annual Gullah festivals staged in several towns are other engaging ways to learn about Gullah traditions in a short period.
Every fall, the Penn Center holds an event-packed, three-day Heritage Days (pdf) event featuring speakers on the Gullah history, language and traditions, dancing, singing and of course, Gullah cuisine. The festival, which draws thousands of visitors from across the U.S., is scheduled for Nov. 10-12 this year. Other Gullah festivals are staged in New Orleans, Sapelo Island, Ga., and elsewhere.
The Original Gullah Festival, organized every Memorial Day weekend, always aims to deliver participants deep into a Gullah state of mind.
"Our goal is to keep the memory of this rich tradition alive," explained Westbrook, the Beaufort resident whose family started the festival in 1979 and still organizes it.
Surveying the throngs of visitors gathered in Waterfront Park around basket weavers, storytellers, food vendors and other experts, I saw that the promoters of Gullah culture seemed to be meeting that goal very well.
Gary Lee is a freelance feature writer specializing in the culture of urban areas in the U.S. and other countries. He is based in Washington, D.C., and can be reached here.