Going Down South to the Gullah

In, November 2007), a colleague and I took a little trip down to the Sea Islands of South Carolina where we attended a Gullah Heritage Festival at the Penn Center. It was amazing! We cracked crabs, drove through miles of gorgeous marshes, listened to blues musicians, learned about the history of rice farming in the area, and took in the warmth of a people devoted to their land and their culture.

Who are the Gullah? Well today, they are descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought to the marshy islands off of South Carolina and Georgia specifically for their knowledge of rice farming, a crop that was cultivated in West Africa (Cinque of the Amistad had been a rice farmer in Sierra Leone!). These descendants are the keepers of a very important gift that has been passed down to them.

Enslaved people on these islands were isolated and often left alone during the mosquito heavy summers, so they were able to maintain aspects of their various African tribal cultures. As the cultures mixed together with that of their enslavers, a new culture developed – Gullah. Historians have linked the words and grammar of the Gullah language as well as traditional Gullah crafts such as basket and fish net weaving directly back to West African cultures, particularly those in Sierra Leone.

It is incredible to think about this group of people who had to survive being taken from their homes, being brought all the way across the ocean under horrible circumstance, being sold away from their families – and still managed to keep their “home” alive in a foreign place. Even when you can’t take anything with you, we carry a great deal in our hearts and memories. Enduring and maintaining culture is a form of resistance.

Today it is becoming more difficult for the Gullah people to keep their culture alive as the islands are not as isolated as they once were. You might have heard of Hilton Head Island – the popular resort town? Well that kind of development is happening all over the area. Families are fighting to preserve their land. The Penn Center Annual Heritage Days Festival is one way that the culture is being celebrated and passed on. Our study will be another!

Here are some great resources for a Gullah study:

I begin by reading Circle Unbroken by Margot Theis Raven. This picture book is a lovely introduction the long history of the Gullah and suitable for older elementary students.

GULLAH NET is produced by South Carolina’s public television network. It’s very kid friendly and has maps, stories, and videos. Students can navigate it independently to simply explore, take notes, or even reproduce the stories and songs. Aunt Pearlie Sue is a real life Gullah Celebrity whom I met and saw perform on a subsequent trip.

The work of Gullah artist Jonathan Green is so beautiful! I have used his paintings as inspiration for ekphrastic poetry projects. I usually have students first try to recreate the painting in words, replacing what they see with words that describe the colors, objects, actions, and feelings. This becomes a mind map and word bank they can draw from when they write their poetry.

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