Gullah is a term that describes the language and the descendants of African slaves who live in the Carolina low country and on the coastal islands off South Carolina and Georgia. In 1680 African slaves were first brought from the West Indies to these areas for a number of reasons. Foremost was the need for labor on land that was ideally suited for the cultivation of rice, indigo, and cotton. Since there was a limited supply of American-born slaves, African-born slaves supplied the demand. They were not only available, but many had a knowledge of rice cultivation as well as a natural immunity to tropical diseases.
From their first arrival, African slaves had limited association with whites and, consequently, minimal contact with European culture. Plantations required a large number of slaves but only a small number of white overseers. After the Civil War, when former slaves were allowed to purchase land from the Freedmen’s Bureau at $1.25 per acre, many of the Gullah became landowners and were thus further isolated from white influences. Gullahs were also geographically isolated; until roads and bridges were built in the 1930s, many of the Sea Islands could be reached only by boat. Because of this isolation, however, the Gullah people have maintained much of their African heritage, and over time they have developed their own culture and language.
The Gullah language is a combination of English and West African words. Its unique characteristics come not only in the use of African words and expressions, but also in the employment of various aspects of African grammar. For example, the language makes use of pronouns that are not gender specific, verbs that do not indicate tense, and nouns that do not use standard plural forms.
Aside from language, other instances of African influences abound in Gullah culture. Family life reflects distinctive African concepts of the extended family. Gullah religious practices—which include spirituals, shouting, clapping, and foot stomping—are mostly a mixture of African ceremonies and Baptist beliefs. African traditions are reflected in burial customs by the manner in which graves are decorated with shells and broken household items, as well as in the way graves are positioned. African influences can also be found in the many trickster tales found in Gullah storytelling. Various techniques and forms brought from Africa are retained in crafts, such as coiled sweetgrass baskets. Another important feature of African influence is seen in the foods that are prepared, such as benne (sesame), okra, rice, yams, peanuts, and black-eyed peas.
Today, Gullah is considered an endangered culture. Rising taxes on Sea Island property are forcing many people to sell their land, often below its value, and to move away. Also, as many Gullah go to the mainland seeking work, they lose touch with their distinctive language and culture. Efforts, however, are being made to preserve Gullah history and culture for future generations—for example, by the Penn Center, originally one of the first schools for freed slaves on St. Helena Island.
Burial, African Practices in the Americas; Creole/Criollo; Diaspora, Demography of; Georgia’s Sea Islands
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