“The breaking waves dash’d high
On a stern and rock-bound coast,
And the woods against a stormy sky
their giant branches toss’d.
And the heavy night hung dark
the hills and waters o’er,
When a band of exiles moor’d their bark
On the wild New England shore.
~ Felicia Hemans, 1808
Younge House is jumping back in time to 1620 to learn about the experience of some of America’s earliest immigrants – the infamous Pilgrims. Best known for contributing the Thanksgiving holiday to the federal calendar, there is a lot more to the story of this brave band of travelers than just turkey and buckled hats (which they actually didn’t wear). We will be using lots of great primary and secondary sources to research the lives of the Pilgrims: their voyage to an unknown land, interactions with its current inhabitants, and determination to make a new life in a new world. On April 28th we will be heading off to Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts where we will be able to conduct even more research as we experience the Mayflower II, Plimoth Colony, and Hobbamock’s village first hand. In less than a month, we will be experts! Stay posted to see how our study is going and check out these great sites in the meantime:
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.
After reading dozens of Brer Rabbit Tales, we are ready to retell them in our own way – as graphic stories created using a super cool Mac program called Comic Life. In addition to illustrations, graphic novelists have to think carefully about panels, speech and thought bubbles, sound effects, narration, and what might be happening in the “gutter”. We learned how to scan images and manipulate every element of a comic page from the font to the panel shape. We are drawing all of our images and find that we can change how they look in the digital world with the press of a button. We will crop, zoom in, and layer to get the look we want. It is really important to stay true to the stories so we are also experimenting with tone, accent, and language to really capture the voice of these timeless Southern stories. Watch out for our final versions!
We also use historical fiction sources including a picture book called Amistad Rising and the poetry of Elizabeth Alexander. Both of these take details from primary sources and imagine the emotions and feelings involved.
In 1789, Olaudah Equiano published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Younge House is currently reading an adaptation of this book (written by Ann Cameron) as we begin our study of Forced Immigration and Slavery in America. His story is at once both tragic and amazing. Born a prince in the Kingdom of Benin, Olaudah was kidnapped and taken the Americas where he was eventually bought by a sea captain, with whom he traveled extensively. Olaudah had many adventures: he learned to read, fought for the Navy, became a hairdresser and struggled to buy his freedom. Upon gaining it, he became part of the English movement to abolish the slave trade.
From the text, we will be creating found poetry that uses Olaudah’s words in new ways to reflect his old country, journey, arrival, and new country.
On February 3rd Younge House journeyed back to lower Manhattan – this time to Chinatown. The most exciting part was being there on Chinese New Year! We saw decorations, closed businesses, and long lines at the Buddhist temples, not to mention dancing lions, firecrackers, and drum parades! We visited The Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA), which reopened last year in a beautiful new spaced designed by Maya Lin, and had a great time learning even more about the history of Chinese immigration to America. Working in groups we looked at specific topics such as the Gold Rush, laundry businesses, general stores, and World War II, using artifacts in the museum. Then we prepared presentations to teach the other groups what we learned.
Afterwards we dined in style at the Grand Harmony Palace on Mott St. @ Canal, sampling General Tso’s chicken, vegetable lo mein, dumplings, and spring rolls. Everyone agreed it was DEEE-LICIOUS. The dancing lions even came into the restaurant! There is so much to see and do, it would be worth a family trip!
In social studies we are currently doing a mini-unit on the immigration of Chinese to the Americas. We now are learning about Angel Island, the much stricter West Coast version of Ellis Island. It opened in 1910 and processed many immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe; however it also served as a detention center for many Chinese immigrants being questioned as a result of Chinese Exclusion laws passed in the late 1800s. There are a number of oral histories that have been collected from people who survived this ordeal.
Additionally, we will be exploring the poetry of Angel Island. While Chinese immigrants were detained at Angel Island for days, months, and even years, they carved poetry into the walls. These poems might have been lost were it not for a few park rangers who thought they were too important to destroy. There are more than one hundred of them recorded, conveying emotions ranging from hopeful to sad to angry.
What we are taking away is that even though many people had dreams of landing on Gum Saan or “Gold Mountain” which is what some Chinese immigrants called America, our country was not always so welcoming. This was the first time immigrants were restricted by their nationality, race, and class, but the gatekeeping policies developed to exclude the Chinese would soon spread to other immigrant groups as well.