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The Gullah/Geechee people: Our little-known neighbors

So, who are the Gullah/ Geechee people anyway?<!—->.

Saturday, July 28, 2001

So, who are the Gullah/ Geechee people anyway?

Drs. Charles W. Jarrett and David M. Lucas of Ohio University Southern Campus have studied and written a paper on this group found in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida. The area is 250 miles long and 40 miles wide.

The distinctive black culture of about 750,000 people developed due to its separation from mainland American culture. The terms Gullah and Geechee are derived from the names of African ethnic groups from which these people are descended.

Jarrett and Lucas describe the Gullah/Geechee as unique, even having created their own language, and having strong ties to their environment and religion.

Fascinating is a word both researchers used to describe these people.

"They have a bigger-than- life attitude," Lucas said.

"They get up in the morning and celebrate life."

Certain social concepts are essential to this culture, according to Jarrett and Lucas’ study. Respect, acceptance, sharing and love are strong themes in both Jarrett’s and Lucas’ descriptions and the Gullahs’ comments in interviews.

Family and community are important to the Gullah/Geechee. Extended family often live close together.

The land and tasks related to it, such as fishing and hunting, are an important part of the culture, according to Jarrett and Lucas’ paper resulting from the study.

The Gullah/Geechee also value making things by hand. Baskets, quilts, casting nets, fishing boats and other items the people have needed for survival all traditionally have been homemade.

Another part of life important to the culture is eating. Gullahs in Jarrett and Lucas’ focus groups mentioned that they "celebrate" food, that food provides healing for the soul and that they are always ready to feed a guest.

The Gullah/Geechee are also deeply religious. In the comments reported from the focus groups, they stress that God is an integral and irremovable part of their lives.

"They know God, and God knows them," is how Lucas described the Gullah/Geechee people’s view of their religion.

Most of their churches are Baptist or Methodist, but their philosophies differ from those of the mainland churches of these denominations. One of the key differences is a belief in the duality of "soul" and "spirit." They believe the soul returns to God after death, but the spirit stays on earth and involves itself in the lives of descendants. The Gullah also have "pray’s houses" for socializing and religious activities.

One of the African characteristics the Gullah/Geehee retain is a matriarchical tradition. They even have a queen – Marquetta L. Goodwine, also known as Queen Quet – whose role of representation is similar to that of the queen of England, Lucas said.

Perhaps the defining aspect of the Gullah/Geechee is their language.

The Gullah/Geechee oral communication is a blend of Elizabethan English and African languages. Languages like that of the Gullah/Geechee are called pidgin or creole languages, meaning they are a dialect that serves as a bridge between two languages.

Members of the Gullah/Geechee population were quoted in Jarrett and Lucas’ paper as saying the language is a vital part of their culture.

One focus group member said, "Our language is a connection to our past, our ancestral heritage."

According to Goodwine: "Gullah people have been able to retain what may be the purest continuation of the African culture of their enslaved ancestors. Indeed, the Gullah community may well be viewed as a living link between Africa and America."

Their grammar and rhythm of speech is African and much of the culture, including their stories, arts and crafts, songs and proverbs are African. Over 20 percent of their language retains an African root.

The emphasis in the language is on oral tradition, not written text. "The language is first (and foremost) African by definition, for it operates as a ‘code of spirit,’ a method by which cultural traditions are passed from one generation to another," Jarrett and Lucas wrote.

The language was recognized by the U.S. government in 1939.

Today the Gullah/Geechee population is working to maintain their culture. They try to provide an example for the youth to follow, so that their culture may continue, according to Jarrett and Lucas’ report.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series about a study of the Gullah/Geechee people conducted by Dr. Charles W. Jarrett and Dr. David M. Lucas.