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Monday, February 9, 2009

Gullah Speech and Spirit



Sunset over Hilton Head Island


My first introduction to Gullah culture came with Julie Dash's seminal 1992 film, Daughters of the Dust. The film showcases the languid beauty of the land and the language. Set at the turn of the 20th century on St. Helena Island, the movie tells the haunting story of three generations of Gullah women. Since the tale took place in the early 1900s, it never occurred to me that the culture was still alive until I stepped onto the dusty roads and marshy landscape of St. Helena myself. The lyrical dialect of the Gullah people floated around me and it drove me crazy. I have a pretty sharp ear for language and what I heard sounded like Jamaican patois, but not quite, like Nigerian Yoruba intonations but not completely, like the sing-song melody of St. Croix Cruzan speech but not totally. When I was told that it was Gullah language that I was hearing, a light went off. I had heard Gullah semi-recently but never realized it. My daughter loved to watch the Nick Jr. children's TV show, Gullah Gullah Island during the mid to late 90s. Somehow, I never connected the snappy songs and amusing folk tales that the show's creators, Ron and Natalie Daise, used to illustrate Gullah speech and customs with the ancient culture I had glimpsed in Daughters of the Dust.



Penn Center Ron Daise with Gullah Bible


But as I explored more Sea Islands, including Hilton Head and Beaufort, I discovered that Gullah culture is vibrantly alive on many levels. One of the highlight's of my trip was meeting Ron Daise
and witnessing Gullah culture firsthand. Ron is one of the leading experts on Gullah culture and dialect and he acted as the dialect coach for Daughter's of The Dust. Hearing Ron roll melodic Gullah words and sing Gullah songs brought everything to life for me. We visited the Spanish moss draped campus of Penn Center, the first school opened for freed slaves in the South.
Founded in 1862, Penn was also where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to strategize and meditate in the 60s and where Daise's parents and grandparents studied and became educators.
The school closed in 1948 and changed its focus to community service. The site now hosts dorms, homes and a museum, whose small gift shop is full of plaques with Gullah sayings, handmade quilts and calendars by prominent Gullah artist Jonathan Greene.

Whenever I asked how to sum up Gullah culture, spirituality was always the first response. So it makes sense that the most significant representation of Gullah culture is the Gullah Bible. Called "De Nyew Testament," the bible was translated by the Sea Island Translation Team, of which
Ron Daise was a member. The team translated the bible in 2005, entirely in Gullah with translations in the margins. Here's a verse:
"Dem Wa Bless Fa True. Wen Jedus see all de crowd dem, e gon pontop one high hill. E seddown dey, Jeddus staat fa baan um. E say, dey bless fa true, dem people wa ain hab no hope een deyself."
Don't recognize the passage? It's Luke 16:20-23. In the five Gullah Baptist churches on Hilton Head alone, the singularity of the language flows through the pews. (I visited one but didn't quite make it through the required 3 1/2 hour service.) That lyrical dialect also represents the spirit that sustained the Gullah culture for over 200 years in tact.

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