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An endangered culture

Kamaria Porter | Tuesday, November 4, 2003

I have always felt like a person without a past. Unlike people who can trace their families back to some far away time and place, I am unjustly ignorant of my cultural identity. Due to two of history’s greatest crimes – Middle Passage and the enslavement of Africans – black Americans such as myself are lacking the most basic personal right – knowledge of their ancestors and history.

Because of this void, I decided to venture on a CSC Seminar to the South Carolina Sea Islands and learn about the Gullah people – a rare group of African-Americans. The Gullah people are ancestors of West Africans, stolen in the slave trade and brought to the United States. In an early headhunting exercise, slave traders noticed these people from countries along the coastline including Sierra Leone, Senegal, Gambia and Liberia practiced efficient methods of cultivating rice.

Thus, traders tore countless Africans from their homes, languages, cultures and families to both harness these effective growing techniques and exploit the people for slave labor. The Africans who survived the high concentration of disease and cargo (people) dumps of the Middle Passage had a greater evil waiting for them – slavery.

The story of the Gullah people in the Sea Islands is quite uncharacteristic compared to other plantation experiences in the south. Due to the tropical climate conditions and malaria, whites could not settle on the islands and impose the typical violence-based plantation dynamic. Therefore, Africans lived and worked in rice fields with little influence from whites. In these conditions, cultural attributes of West Africa such as the craft of sweet-grass basket-making survived, while other aspects were blended among the community with the new environment. The Gullah language consists of a mixture of words from various African tongues, European languages of slave captors and English, with its own unique syntax and structure.

After the Civil War, the newly freed peoples of the Sea Islands bought and maintained the land of their captivity since the property was isolated and of no value to whites – yet.

Unfortunately, within the last 50 years, the Sea Islands have transformed from an intolerable living area to prime real estate for vacation and luxury development. Now the culture-crushing tactic already dished out to African-Americans during slavery times is being served up big time to the Gullah People. Every aspect of their culture stands at risk of annihilation.

Building companies working to construct unnatural paradises like Hilton Head, Kaiwah and Seabrook Islands Resorts tracked down Gullah people who had moved away or directly approached land holders and basically bamboozled them out of their land. Either by flashing a suitcase full of dollar bills or presenting perplexing contracts of sale, developers snatched up land to erect golf courses, vacation homes and gated communities.

Now sweet-grass basket makers have to buy the needed grass from Florida because chemicals used in the upkeep of resorts and golf courses kill the crop, or “No Trespassing” signs prohibit people from collecting the grass within gated areas. Gullah people need special passes to pay homage to their ancestors buried on former plantations – now resorts for the rich.

America’s suppression of every speaking pattern outside the King’s English forces the Gullah language into hiding. People only use it in their own homes or with other Gullah people. Viewed as uneducated and low, the Gullah language has become a source of undue shame for blacks.

Resorts and gated communities not only disrupt the equilibrium the Gullah people established with the land, but also raise the property taxes of natives. When they are unable to keep up with the modern, unforgiving economy, the property their ancestors cultivated for centuries is stolen from them in tax auctions. Lacking the isolation that facilitated cultural survival, the Gullah people are going through the same assimilate-or-perish, cultural imperialist tactics suffered by all non-white peoples of this country.

The white-capitalist-patriarchal social structure in all its forms and applications spells the end of contemporary articulations of Gullah culture on a mass scale. Certain aspects may survive in individual families or insulated communities, but the “white man” is showing the Gullah people, as other blacks have already experienced, difference is not welcome and resistance is futile.

I, for one, am not ready to give up on the Gullah culture. The people of the Sea Islands stand as ambassadors to a home blacks today will never know; their language, music, crafts, and traditions are more valuable than anything I can imagine.

I urge everyone to learn about this nuanced community, as the participants of the Gullah Seminar did this semester. And if you find yourself on the seventh tee on some golf course at Hilton Head or any of the other Sea Islands, remember that that land once belonged to a people stolen for slavery and oppressed in freedom.

Kamaria Porter, a sophomore history major, would like send some love out to the 2003 participants of the Gullah Seminar; you are all awesome.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.