HomeTop Storiesthe educators who keep alive a language of enslaved Africans

the educators who keep alive a language of enslaved Africans

In 2019, Akua Page was invited to a juvenile detention center in Richland County, South Carolina, to give a presentation on the Gullah Geechee language, an English-based creole created by enslaved Africans. When the teens entered the room, Page recalled, they seemed calloused, angry and irritated. Undeterred, she began her lesson.

“I told them, ‘Hey, I understand you’re all Gullah Geechee,’” the 30-year-old teacher said. “I validated them first and said, ‘You are all bilingual. You’re not stupid, you don’t have a learning disability – you’re just bilingual, and this is what you can do to navigate the system you’re in.’”

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The children, direct descendants of Africans enslaved on the Sea Island cotton plantations in the US, underwent a complete change in behavior. Instead of rolling her eyes or getting annoyed, Page said she saw smiles and giggles, and they eagerly began to join the conversation.

Getting people – even Gullah Geechee people themselves – to appreciate and understand the importance of preserving Gullah Geechee culture isn’t always so easy for educators like Page. Preserving the Gullah Geechee language in particular has faced its own challenges, especially as decades of stigma have rendered the centuries-old dialect “endangered,” as categorized by linguists.

The language is a type of American Creole and was formed by enslaved Africans living on islands along the country’s southeastern coast. Being isolated from the rest of the region allowed them to create a unique dialect and culture. According to the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, Gullah began as a “form of communication among people who spoke many different languages, including European slave traders, slave owners, and diverse African ethnic groups.”

Since emancipation, however, there have been attempts to forcibly assimilate the Gullah Geechee people into the American mainstream, in part through the attempted eradication of the Gullah Geechee language. Many people, including teachers, regarded the language as ‘broken English’ or ‘inappropriate English’. Gullah Geechee children were encouraged to speak standard English at school and were punished for speaking in their native language.

“For a long time, being Gullah was considered negative, even though we didn’t think negatively of ourselves as children,” said Delo Washington of St. Helena Island, South Carolina, a retired professor, in a 2005 report on the Gullah Geechee culture. . “But we were considered strange people with a strange language. You couldn’t get a job that way.”

Gullah is still spoken by some people in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, the states that make up the Gullah Geechee region, but it is much rarer than it once was. Page and a growing contingent of Gullah Geechee people are working to revive the language. By promoting the dialect, they are leading it into the future and ensuring that the first documented language, created by people who would later become Black Americans, is preserved.

‘Wait a minute, we still say that’

Although “Gullah,” “Geechee” and “Gullah Geechee” are often used interchangeably to refer to a single language, Page said there are differences between the three, both in etymology and meaning. Gullah is the “mother tongue,” she said, because it developed when Gullah Geechee ancestors lived in the Sea Islands, largely protected from outside influences. It came about because enslaved Africans from different cultures and backgrounds had to learn how to communicate with each other. The isolation allowed the language to flourish, and it is distinguished by its African influences.

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Geechee evolved from Gullah, Page said, when people from the mainland and Gullah Geechee began to communicate more with each other. They began learning English and created a new linguistic path through syncretism, or the fusion of two different languages. Gullah Geechee thus emerged from two hybrid languages ​​created by linguistic influences from different African cultures and countries.

The Gullah Geechee language has influenced the development of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), the larger Black culture and, more broadly, American culture, Page said — but with little acknowledgment or recognition.

By emphasizing that connective tissue is what teacher Sunn m’Cheaux said, his students can see the similarities between their contemporary speech and the Gullah Geechee language. M’Cheaux, a Gullah Geechee expert from Mt Holly, South Carolina, has been teaching Gullah Geechee in the African Language Program at Harvard University since 2016. He said his students, some of whom are Gullah Geechee or have Gullah Geechee ancestry, learning the language helps them develop pride and a new sense of self.

As children, some students who grew up in the Gullah Geechee region or had family from that area wondered why they “talked kind of funny” or why their parents or grandparents sounded different. Thanks to M’Cheaux’s lessons, they feel closer to their family. “With Gullah’s presentation, a lot of people might say, ‘Wait a minute, we’re still saying that,’” m’Cheaux said. “Once you write it down for them, they say, ‘I still maintain certain parts of my language.'”

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Even though there are courses at American colleges that teach the Gullah Geechee language, m’Cheaux’s classes are different because they teach students how to actually speak the language. “[Students] I don’t know exactly what to expect,” m’Cheaux said. “They may be somewhat familiar with AAVE, but when you analyze it, some of these elements have been around for generations, hundreds of years.”

M’Cheaux, who spoke exclusively Gullah until he learned English in high school, said the idea of ​​teaching Gullah to outsiders would have been laughable when he was younger. According to Page, some Gullah Geechee elders were physically beaten for speaking the language by teachers who traveled south to teach them standard English, as recently as her grandparents’ generation.

Students were given speech or remediation lessons, contributing to a stigma that has lasted for decades. Page said she grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, which has a high concentration of people of Gullah Geechee descent, and remembers a time when saying someone “sounded geechee” would be considered a provocation or “fighting words.” As a result, some Gullah people only used the language in private, chose to code-switch in public, or stopped speaking it altogether, leaving their children unable to learn the language as a means of protection.

The oppression led to a knowledge gap, and while the language is still spoken in some places, educators like m’Cheaux and Page play a crucial part in ensuring younger generations learn about the culture. “The influence of Gullah being taught at Harvard … helps increase visibility,” m’Cheaux said. “Many of the old guard in the community were content to keep the language isolated, the logic being: it’s for us, for us, no one else needs to have access to it. But over time, people die. People grow old. Generations don’t talk to each other as much as they used to, so children don’t really learn the language anymore.”

A Gullah Geechee Renaissance

Last fall, Ebony Toussaint invited Ron and Natalie Daise from the groundbreaking ’90s children’s television program Gullah Gullah Island to the University of South Carolina to give a lecture. Toussaint, a 34-year-old Southern Studies postdoctoral fellow and author of the children’s book G Is for Gullah, teaches Gullah Geechee history and culture at the university.

During her speech, Natalie Daise spoke about the concept of cultural preservation. “She was talking about something being stagnant, versus how… our culture is still growing and expanding and dynamic,” Toussaint recalls. “Social media has connected many of us in so many beautiful and brilliant ways. I always tell people, I think we’re in the middle of a Gullah Geechee renaissance.

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Gullah Geechee culture has achieved a degree of mainstream popularity in recent decades. Cities across the corridor offer tours of Gullah Geechee sites, shops and restaurants (Page runs such a tour in Charleston). Popular food shows like Netflix’s High on the Hog and Max’s Chasing Flavor with Carla Hall explore Gullah Geechee’s influence on Southern and Black culinary traditions. In 2019, Ranky Tanky, a Gullah Geechee band, became the first Gullah Geechee music group to be awarded by the Grammys. And museums like the International African American Museum in Charleston provide a comprehensive overview of Gullah Geechee history and contemporary life.

In addition to his courses at Harvard, m’Cheaux has a strong social media presence—some 180,000 followers on Instagram and nearly 16,000 on X—and teaches online Gullah workshops to his followers. He is creating lesson plans for some videos discussing the social linguistics, history and evolution of language. His online audience, he said, is often as enthusiastic as his Harvard students.

Similarly, in 2019, Page created a YouTube video, Geechee 101, in which she and a friend share the meaning and usage of Gullah Geechee words. The video has been viewed almost 200,000 times and has served as an introduction to the language for many people. It also led to some Gullah Geechee people beginning to speak the language openly and proudly.

“After that video, it felt different,” Page says. “People who I didn’t know were Gullah Geechee came up to me and started greeting me in the Gullah Geechee language and said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m Gullah Geechee too.’ I feel like a weight has been lifted off so many people’s shoulders. They said, ‘I demand this back, this is nothing to be ashamed of.’”

Despite resistance from some people who believe Gullah Geechee language and culture should remain behind closed doors only for Gullah Geechee people, Page, Toussaint and m’Cheaux all pointed to broad community support.

“We moved, but we’re all back home now doing this cultural preservation work,” Toussaint said, referring to other Gullah Geechee educators such as Sara Daise, one of Ron and Natalie Daise’s children, and Jessica Berry, who also works to promote language and culture. “It’s still a community effort. I couldn’t do this work alone.”

The ongoing revival is intended to address what centuries of Gullah Geechee cultural oppression have wrought. Preserving the language is of the utmost importance to these teachers. “Some people have the impression that they have lost more than they actually have,” m’Cheaux said. “There is much more.”

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