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.)
In an interview, Mack explained how this region evolved into Gullah country. In the 17th and 18th centuries, landowners brought people from the rice-growing regions in Sierra Leone and surrounding parts of Africa to the slave-trading port at Charleston, he said, and eventually to these parts to toil in the rice plantations.
As rice farming grew, more enslaved people were brought in, eventually making this region one of the most populous communities of slaves in the U.S. Left largely alone to labor in the plantations, the Gullah clung strongly to whatever they could remember of home, including cooking traditions, customs and language patterns. When this part of the country was liberated by Union troops early in the Civil War, many of the freed slaves remained in the area, carrying on with the traditions from back home.
My own excursion through Gullah country started at the Penn Center. Founded in 1862 by Quakers as a school for the children of freed slaves, it is spread over 50 acres amid moss-covered oak trees on St. Helena Island. The early history of blacks in the U.S. hangs in the air, and a visitor is instantly drawn in.
From Sweetgrass Baskets to Crab Soup
During a visit to the Penn Center's small York Bailey Museum, exhibits offered a close-up on some of the Gullah traditions. One exhibition explained the tradition of sweetgrass basket weaving. Another displayed photos of students at work on the Penn campus. The gift shop offers baskets and other Gullah artifacts for sale.
After a couple of hours touring the museum and the bucolic Penn Center grounds, a Gullah lunch began calling my name — loudly. So I dropped into the Gullah Grub Restaurant, a highly recommended place about eight miles away. There, in his quaint dining room, chef Bill Green guided me to a couple of the many highlights of his menu: a bowl of "LoCountry Crab Soup," a dish of shrimp gumbo and, of course, a side of white rice — a staple of every Gullah meal. Green, known throughout the area — and nationally — as one of the standard-bearers of good Gullah cooking, lived up to his reputation.
Beaufort is charming, easy to walk and rich in visual arts and Southern history. The gallery scene is a major draw; African and Gullah works are featured in several venues across town. Among the venues: the House of Ahhs, the Red Piano Too and Lybenson's Gallery & Studio. I dropped into the latter. The collection included some impressive works from the African Diaspora, ranging from Zimbabwe Shona sculptures to sweetgrass baskets and wood sculptures by local Gullah artists.
Next door stands the Tabernacle Baptist Church, an impressive white wooden structure dating back to the early 1800s. Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who became a Union Naval captain during the Civil War and later a U.S. congressman, is buried in the courtyard.
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.