Part of our country’s growing trend toward ethnic self-awareness has been a renewed interest in Gullah, the colorful language and accompanying lifestyle that once flourished on the South Carolina sea islands from Georgetown to Daufuskie.
Researchers reported that as late as 1979, 100,000 South Carolinians spoke Gullah. Current estimates count 7,000 to 10,000 people speaking Gullah at home. Without intervention, the Gullah language will soon live only in scholarly textbooks and on fragile academic recordings.
The origins of Gullah date back to a sad chapter in America’s past. When slave traders sailed to West Africa and stuffed their ships full of men, women and children to be sold as slaves to Southern planters, Gullah was conceived. As that black culture meshed with the white, Gullah was born. A thick, lilting mix of African and English dialects, it started as a makeshift second language used among the sea island slaves, and it slowly evolved into the unwritten native tongue of their descendants.
Oddly, slavery and the antebellum South fed energy to the language. Gullah served a very practical transitional purpose, and its use and culture actually developed during those years. After the Civil War, however, the separation between the black and white cultures became highly exaggerated for nearly a century and a half. Cut off from the cultural homogenization that occurred everywhere else in America, life along the sea islands changed very little. Sea islanders still fished the coastline, shrimped the marsh, hunted for game in the woods, and spoke their native tongue unashamedly.
Gullah stubbornly survived in this splendid isolation, until the world rediscovered the islands and invested millions of dollars to develop them as resorts. Suddenly, bridges were built that introduced paved roads, indoor plumbing, better education, and access to higher paying mainland jobs. Gullah became thought of as “bad English”. Soon it was something to be ashamed of or denied. Then television, the greatest homogenizing influence of all, came along and nearly snuffed the language out altogether.
Finding true Gullah today is like finding gold. Its rare, and its kept hidden from “outsiders”. Still, there are a few islanders determined to keep it alive. There still are those who knit their own fishing nets, who still cook the Gullah recipes and serve their families whole meals fresh from the sea. Thankfully, there are those who take what’s left of the sweetgrass from the riverbanks and fashion baskets of great skill and beauty – just like their ancestors did back in Sierra Leone.