Get Your Geechee On: Commercialism and Hope in the Sea Islands

Highway 21 slides into Beaufort, South Carolina like a turtle (known locally as a “cooter”) into mud and marshwater. Crossing over old, long-abandoned rice fields that spread out over the horizon to the right and left, the road to Beaufort, South Carolina also takes you beyond the coastal resort town filled with colonnaded antebellum homes to places with names like “Ladies Island”, “St. Helena Island”, and “Phillips Island”. These are part of a chain of almost a thousand islands reaching from North Carolina to the tip of Florida, the vast majority so tiny as to be uninhabitable.

The heat here, the thick soupy heat that always uncomfortably bathes you in the South Carolina, lowcountry summer, becomes an alien thing in the islands. Warm sea breezes born somewhere in the Caribbean seemingly make the atmosphere hotter and yet more bearable all at once. These are trade winds that for centuries out of memory ballooned the sails of ships loaded with rum, rice, and human beings, all for sell in Europe’s first, bloody, experience with “globalization”.

Africans came to these islands in the thousands during the 18th century. Enormous rice and long-staple cotton plantations (a special genus of cotton grown needing different climatic conditions, and an even larger body of slave labor than the more common, “short-staple” cotton grown throughout the rest of the South) covered these islands in the days of the Old South. In this place, isolated from much of the rest of the American South by geography and labor conditions, the enslaved retained many of their West African folkways. Absentee owners who lived up the coast in Charleston, and on plantations on islands only reachable by boat, made possible the creation of a new social world, the world of the Gullah.

“Gullah” refers to a people, a linguistic system and culture that has thrived now for close to three centuries on the sea islands of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, and along the tidal swamps and inland rivers that finger their way into the low country regions of these states. The word perhaps derives from the word “Angola”, the region of West Central Africa from which slave traders forcibly tore so many of the ancestors of the modern Gullah. “Geechee”, sometimes used as a synonym, refers to the same people and culture. Taking the English of the master class, indeed having it forced on them during the course of the transatlantic journey and on the plantations themselves, these unwilling immigrants infused the language of their bondage with African grammatical structures and thousands of African vocabulary words. Words that have made their way into English (at least southern English) had their origin in West Africa, preserved for the Gullah. “Tote” for “carry” serves as one example, as does the word “juke”, which means chaos or disorder, and came into general use first in the American South as “juke joint” or “juke box” or even to “juke someone” (to play an especially clever trick on the unwary).

Following the end of slavery, many of the Gullah remained on lands made ancestral by blood and sweat. Working small acreages on the islands and along the black water rivers and tidal swamps that finger their way into the low country, these people preserved the idiom of their culture. Largely because of this cultural success story, the Gullah became, in the early 20th century, the darling of every anthropologist, folklorist, and linguistic scholar that could get his/her hands on a tape recorder. Numerous studies detailing the life of the Gullah appeared with regularity in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, many of them managing to find a tone both patronizing and romantic. Whites came to the islands as outsiders, unaware of that combination of racism and hunger for the exotic that distorts some of our most sympathetic efforts to understand and analyze.

Beginning in the 1950s, a revolution would come to the life of the Gullah greater than any since the coming of emancipation in the 1860s. A Georgia lumber magnate purchased property on Hilton Head and began to transform it into one of America’s first “resort islands”. Whites poured into Hilton Head in the thousands to become permanent residents, while tens of thousands more came to enjoy the resort hotels and golf courses. Beginning in this same era, some parents began warning their children “not to talk that Geechee talk”, believing that their children had to give up, or at least hide their heritage, in order to secure the minimum wage employment available to them in the island’s lavish hotels. Hilton Head, with an essentially all black population in 1950, had a population of whites that outnumbered the native sea islander five-to-one by 1980.

Tourism has subsequently become, without real rival, the major industry in the South Carolina low country. Although tourists come to the low country seeking the traditional amenities of coastal vacationing from sports fishing to sun bathing, South Carolina has also cashed in on its exotic, peculiar and sometimes checkered past to provide the tourists with a mixed historical bag in which pirates, Revolutionary war patriots, and Confederate soldiers jostle for attention on a multitude of walking tours and museums, giving the interested a rather muddled narrative and chronology that primarily communicates the idea of the state’s peculiarity and general cussedness. Erased in this narrative has been the experience of black South Carolina. For decades, a tour of an antebellum Charleston mansion or even of a low country plantation emphasized the home’s elegant architecture, the entangled genealogy of the white families who owned the plantation, and sometimes even the agricultural methods used for the growing of rice and cotton. Silence surrounded the bitter experiences of enslaved Africans on these estates; men, women, and children on whose scarred backs rested the wealth, power, and aristocratic mien of the planters.

In the last decade, the erasure of black history in the low country has begun to change, albeit slowly. A few plantation tours now emphasize the “African American experience” (or, more correctly, there is a special tour that emphasizes it). National parks in the area certainly have attempted to properly represent the Gullah experience whenever possible. These trends represent a positive change in the memory of the region, although some aspects of this change have rightly become a source of anxiety for many of the black people of the sea islands. Entrepreneurs, especially in tourism but also in real estate, have chosen to emphasize the exoticism of Gullah culture as an attraction, another reason to visit and perhaps relocate to the low country. In the Waccamaw region of South Carolina, near tourist haven Myrtle Beach, gated communities with streets that bear names like “Gullah way” have become fortresses for wealthy, white, mostly northern immigrants. Visitors to the sea islands can take Gullah tours in which they are introduced to a packaged and pre-prepared “Gullah” experiences that include sampling sea island cuisines and listening to Gullah storytellers.

Cultural tourists in South Carolina even have the chance to purchase the experience of the sacred. Some tours offer the opportunity to watch choirs perform the “ring shout” typical of the Afro-Christian style of worship in sea island churches. Circled in the communal ring that gives the experience its name, the sea islanders sing out the hymns and biblical symbolism first learned from whites in the 18th century with a rhythm inflected by their own experience; the only musical accompaniment the clapping of hands and the pounding of their feet. In these haunting shouts, songs like “I’ve got the Keys to the Kingdom” and “Roll Jordan Roll”, hymns of joy barely expressible, manage to contain an undertone of sadness and loss. Perhaps people who “perform” their ancestral worship style for white crowds that have “gone slumming” in the sea islands especially feel this undertone.

What becomes of a folk culture transformed into a stop on a tour? Plenty of people in the United States have had this experience; their communities ravaged by cowboy entrepreneurialism and demographic pressures from wealthier, less marginal, social groups, forced to endure systemic and institutionalized oppression and occasionally outright conquest by the American government. In the economic and psychological doldrums that follow, these groups find themselves adopting strategies that will keep them out of the ghetto or off the reservation. Although they risk the possibility of becoming living museum pieces, they also insure their children’s survival.

The Gullah have been no exception to this and have found ways both to secure part of the economic base of the tourism industry while also communicating to the larger world important elements of their cultural life. Gullah women in the Charleston market, for example, sell their hand-made baskets to eager tourists: baskets based on centuries old designs first woven along the Gambia river and throughout West Africa. On several of the islands, Gullah people have opened restaurants that serve standard sea island fare like okra and yams, or shrimp with rich gravies, all served over rice or grits and meant to cater to out-of-towners and tour groups. On St. Helena island, “Gullah Grub” offers one of the more authentic of these experiences with a chef for whom the Gullah cuisine lives in his blood; it is an art passed down from ancestors stretching back to the oldest memories of black life in South Carolina. In Beaufort, right off of the main street, Lybenson gallery, owned and operated by one of the leaders of the local black community, offers a beautiful collection of low country and African folk art. Meanwhile, parents of the present generation are more likely to teach their children to “talk that Geechee talk” (at least in the home and around peers) than to they are to disparage it.

Recently, even a line of urban wear has adopted the themes of sea island life. Known as “Geechee Gear“, hats carry the Geechee name while T-shirts feature “Highway 21” as a reminder of one of the central arteries that leads into what’s left of the world of the Gullah. Owned by black entrepreneurs, Geechee Gear offers product to the hip-hop generation, white and black, that serves much the same cultural function as FUBU and other urban gear: an assertion of black identity, a carving out of public space from what whites tend to treat as their own private spaces. Generally available only in the South Carolina low country (for now at least), “Geechee gear” serves a special function: reminding wearers of the enslaved people who held on to their identity in the midst of their enslavement, a people who kept alive the world of Africa while white entrepreneurs paved, built, and developed their region with the reckless abandon that is common of conquerors.

Have the sellers of Geechee Gear simply sold out? Critics of the kinds of entrepreneurial activities I’ve described above, often speaking from a position of power and economic comfort, will claim that this is the case. Certainly these black entrepreneurs have adopted the mentality of expectant capitalists and are, some would say, cashing in on their heritage. I would suggest, however, that only those who romanticize poverty feel they can fault the Gullah for these decisions. These are not people abandoning their culture or making decisions that will benefit them economically to the detriment of that culture. Rather, they are constantly reminding the white world of their culture through their arts and crafts, as consumed by the tourism industry. In fact, I would argue that they are not cashing in on their own culture at all, but rather, they are making a buck off the vacuous and empty lives of so many white suburbanites who come to the sea islands hoping for a taste of “reality” that golf links and digital cable has yet to provide them. Like the African trickster tales that have a special place in the lore of the sea islands (Br’er rabbit of the Uncle Remus stories is a sea island original), the Gullah have cleverly used the strength of their opponents against them, shaking down the capitalist system that in some ways has worked hard, but has failed, to use and ultimately destroy them.

A friend of mine with from the Waccamaw region of South Carolina, a woman of proudly Gullah heritage, tells me that her people use the phrase “blood memory” to describe the past that aches in your bones; these are memories that live despite you in an ancestral DNA communicated through generations. It’s the powerful fund bequeathed by history, personal and collective understanding that resonates even in the midst of active forgetfulness. This is an idea with roots in the African sacred worldview in which the ancestors remain a powerful and brooding force, the past reminds the present of its responsibilities and its heritage. Blood memory remains strong in the South Carolina low country. It is a forthright — even a rebellious — gesture against time and economic consequence. There is something even more powerful than hope in this for the Gullah culture, something that promises to sustain generations that will come to a world with even more housing development and tourists than surround the Gullah world today. It is more than hope because it cannot be bought or sold; it won’t yield to market forces, and cannot be commodified. Blood memories are as eternal as the tides.