Who remembers the 1990s PBS children’s show Gullah Gullah Island? For many of us, watching or hearing about the show was our first exposure to Gullah, the culture native to the Georgia and Carolina Sea Islands, which, because of their remote location, offered an unbroken chain to Africa and its cultures.
And now Harvard University has chosen to recognize the richness of Gullah and especially its language, a patois of English and Central and West African languages.
The Charleston City Paper reports that Charleston, S.C., native and performance artist Sunn m’Cheaux spent the fall semester at Harvard teaching an introductory version of a course on Gullah as part of the African Language Program at Harvard:
The class came to fruition after a graduate student requested a Gullah course. The student phoned him and asked if he would be willing to meet with the head of the program, Dr. John Mugane. M’Cheaux, who graduated from Goose Creek High School and didn’t go to college, found that Dr. Mugane was impressed with how quickly m’Cheaux was able to teach him some Gullah basics.
“He starts talking about getting my information and taking a picture for the website, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Wait a minute — did I just get hired?’” m’Cheaux said in a phone interview with CP.
Mugane argues that offering Gullah, along with the 44 other languages taught in the program, increases students’ chances of accurately portraying different communities.
“To engage in intellectual and professional work in the Gullah community, we deem it necessary even critical that scholars be literate in Gullah whose basic demonstration is an ability to hold non-trivial conversations with the people they write about, including (and especially) in Gullah, the language of the people they write about,” Dr. Mugane said in an e-mail to CP.
Because Gullah is mostly an orally transferred language, m’Cheaux uses the few Gullah reference books and literature available as course materials, but he has developed his own curriculum, including video chats between students and native speakers.
As part of a bigger effort to recognize African-American cultural identity and mores, the Charleston County School District earlier this year announced plans to train teachers to recognize Gullah and Geechee speech patterns.
Here’s to recognizing us!
Read more at the Charleston City Paper.