The Gullah: A Disappearing Culture
Everyone’s heard of Brer Rabbit. Everyone knows the song “Kumbaya.” And everyone has cooked a “one-pot meal” at some point in their life.
So why do so few of us know about the Gullah – the people who gave us things like these?
That’s the question many people with Gullah heritage — descendants of slaves brought from West Africa to the “Rice Coast” in the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry — are asking. Bill Green, the owner of Gullah Grub in Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, is one of them.
As we sat down to indulge in a traditional Gullah meal of red rice, okra soup, and white fish at his restaurant, Green started to open up. “We’re Creole people, just like those in Louisiana,” he said. “The only difference is that they were dropped there by the French.”
Because the African farmers had a natural resistance to malaria and yellow fever (which were brought over from Africa in slave ships) they were often left to oversee large coastal plantations. This geographical isolation allowed them to preserve much of their language and cultural traditions and set them apart from slave communities in North Carolina and Virginia, where Africans lived in smaller clusters and had more interplay with whites.
The Gullah have left their mark everywhere, though few realize it — even those who are technically Gullah themselves. And while Green exemplifies the genteel patience of the Southern gentleman, there’s frustration on his face.
“When you think about how many Africans were brought into the U.S. [as slaves],” he said, “a good portion of [their descendants] are Gullah, and they have no idea.”
But Green worries that Gullah culture and traditions are vanishing as time goes on. He’d like to see Gullah people return to their artisanal roots. “There are no more true traditional brick makers, no more cobblestone layers,” Green said. “We didn’t used to build big fancy houses because of the storms, we didn’t worry about a big fancy car, but now it’s just disappearing.”
That trend — of younger generations abandoning their rural roots in favor of the big city — is evident around the country, but has special consequences in Sea Island country where traditions have been passed down over centuries. “People run away and don’t come back until they’re 50 or so,” he said, “but by then, there’s nothing really left.”
I preface my next question with two or three apologies… but it had to be asked.
How hard is it trying to keep a black culture alive in a state with such a — let’s say complicated — racial past?
He laughs again which makes me — a white kid from Oklahoma — feel better.
“I think people get the wrong idea about South Carolina,” he said. “You see, you’re talking about two very prideful types of people. Some of it’s based out of wrong, sure – but you get that on both sides. I think in this day, when a lot of cultures – black, white, Native American Indian – are dying out, it’s good to be passionate about who you are. But what we need to do as well is stop being crabs in a bucket – you know about crabs in a bucket?”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
I told him I did not.
“If you take one crab out, another one will grab his leg, then another one will grab that ones leg. Basically, you’re not getting out unless we’re all getting out,” he explained. “If you’re a good person, I’m going to help you out of the pot, and then trust that when you’re in a position to help me, you’re going to do the same thing.”
Learning about where you come from. Getting back to traditional values. Crabs in a pot.
I think he’s onto something there.
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