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Isolated culture has strong roots with U.S.

One black culture may have been isolated for many years, but it has an interesting history of interaction with American culture.

Sunday, July 29, 2001

One black culture may have been isolated for many years, but it has an interesting history of interaction with American culture.

A research project by Drs. Charles W. Jarrett and David M. Lucas of Ohio University Southern Campus analyzed the Gullah/Geechee culture on the Sea Islands near South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida. It has been affected in a variety of ways by U.S. mainstream culture and has influenced U.S. culture in return.

The Gullah/Geechee people’s first connection with America was through slavery.

They are descended from West Africans captured and sold as slaves. Plantation owners specifically requested these Africans because of their familiarity with the cultivation of rice, cotton and indigo and were able to better cope with the heat and malaria.

In the Sea Islands there was little opportunity for the slaves to escape, according to Jarrett and Lucas’ report, and the plantation owners generally left these slaves relatively unsupervised, causing the Gullah/Geechee to receive little influence from the Eurocentric culture around them.

After the Civil War some migrated to cities, but many remained in the Sea Islands and rural coastal areas and continued in their way of life.

But even living in isolation, the Gullah/Geechee had an effect on American culture.

Many of their words have become part of American English. Goober, gumbo and voodoo all have come from the Gullah/Geechee.

They also contributed to jazz, blues and rock and roll. It is important to recognize their gifts to our culture, Lucas said.

The Gullah/Geechee people were able live as they wanted without interference until bridges to the mainland were built. Then mainlanders brought the tourism industry to the islands.

Natural resources used in their arts and crafts are threatened. The influx of mainland culture interferes with their communal lifestyle and leads to the fencing off of traditional hunting and fishing grounds.

The Gullah/Geechee people have lost a significant amount of land, particularly on Daufuskie and Hilton Head islands. This is a major problem because of the culture’s identity relationship with the land.

Some of the people also became ashamed of their culture. Mainlanders called the Gullah/Geechee speech "broken English," and forbade them to speak it in public, Jarrett and Lucas wrote.

"Anybody living in town would say, ‘I’m not Gullah; I’m not from the island,’" one focus group member said.

These people also disagree with the values mainlanders try to impose on them, said Marquetta L. Goodwine, also known as Queen Quet, a representative of the Gullah/Geechee to other cultures.

"Gullah/Geechee people believe mainlanders live at a ‘fast pace’ not conducive to the more spiritual existence of the Gullahs," Jarrett and Lucas wrote.

They do recognize that some good, including employment, results from tourism, and they do not resist modern technology, according to the report. There is even a children’s television show called "Gullah Gullah Island" about this culture. What they do not want is for their beliefs and traditions to be replaced by mainstream American’s ideals or for researchers to misrepresent them, according to an e-mail from Goodwine.

"It is good that Jarrett and Lucas decided to use a method that requires speaking directly with the people," she wrote.

Academic studies like this one are important because they represent the Gullah/Geechee to the world, Goodwine stated.

Meanwhile, the Gullah/Geechee are not just hoping their way of life will survive.

Education of the public about the identity of the Gullah/Geechee is conducted through festivals, tours, drama and exhibits.

Also, a community on St. Helena Island decided on several steps to maintain Gullah/Geechee customs.

They decided to control fast food restaurants, highway expansion, high-rise buildings and strip malls because these things are damaging to their way of life.

They chose to encourage having porches, family-owned businesses, farm markets and vegetable stands, a walking path through the community and a bulletin board at the bus stop announcing community news.

The Gullah/Geechee voiced their wish for self-determination in a constitution announced July 1.

Jarrett and Lucas wrote: "The Gullah/Geechee people are claiming the right to genuine social dignity, the right to preserve and protect Gullah language and culture, the right to develop in spirit with Gullah principles and aspirations, and for the right to consolidate an official, institutional framework of the Gullah/Geechee Nation."