‘I Gullah Geechee, too’: the educators keeping a language of enslaved Africans alive

<span>Sunn m'Cheaux at Harvard University on 1 April 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Philip Keith/The Guardian</span>
Sunn m'Cheaux at Harvard University on 1 April 2024.Photograph: Philip Keith/The Guardian

In 2019, Akua Page was invited to a juvenile incarceration facility in Richland county, South Carolina, to give a presentation about the Gullah Geechee language, an English-based creole created by enslaved Africans. When the teens walked into the room, Page recalled, they seemed hardened, angry and annoyed. Undeterred, she began her lesson.

“I told them: ‘Hey, I understand y’all are Gullah Geechee,’” the 30-year-old educator said. “I validated them first, and said: ‘Y’all are bilingual. You’re not dumb, you don’t have a learning disability – you’re just bilingual, and here’s what you can do to navigate the system you’re in.’”

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The kids, direct descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the Sea Island cotton plantations in the US, had a total change of demeanor. Instead of eye-rolling or irritation, Page said she saw smiles and giggles, and they began eagerly participating in the conversation.

Getting people – even Gullah Geechee folks themselves – to appreciate and understand the importance of perpetuating Gullah Geechee culture is not always this easy for educators like Page. Preserving the Gullah Geechee language, in particular, has had its own set of challenges, especially since decades of stigma have rendered the centuries-old dialect “endangered”, as categorized by linguists.

A type of American creole, the language was formed by enslaved Africans who lived on islands along the country’s south-east coast. Because they were isolated from the rest of the region, they were able to create a unique dialect and culture. According to the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, Gullah began as a “form of communication among people who spoke many different languages, including European slave traders, slave owners and diverse, African ethnic groups”.

Since emancipation, though, there has been an effort to forcibly assimilate Gullah Geechee people into the American mainstream, in part through the attempted eradication of the Gullah Geechee language. Many people, including teachers, considered the language to be “broken English” or “improper English”. Gullah Geechee children were encouraged to speak standard English in school, and were penalized for talking in their native tongue.

“For a long time, it was considered negative to be Gullah, though we didn’t grow up feeling negative about ourselves,” Delo Washington of St Helena Island, South Carolina, a retired professor, said in a 2005 report on Gullah Geechee culture. “But we were considered strange people with a strange language. You couldn’t get a job speaking that way.”

Gullah is still spoken today by some people in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, the states that make up the Gullah Geechee region, but it’s much rarer than it once was. Page and a growing contingent of Gullah Geechee people are working to revive the language. Through their promotion of the dialect, they are shepherding it into the future, ensuring that the first documented language created by people who would go on to become Black Americans is maintained.

‘Wait a minute, we still say that’

Though “Gullah”, “Geechee” and “Gullah Geechee” are often used interchangeably to refer to a single language, Page said that there are differences among the three, both in etymology and meaning. Gullah is the “mother tongue”, she said, because it developed while Gullah Geechee ancestors lived on the Sea Islands, largely shielded from outside influences. It was created because enslaved Africans from different cultures and backgrounds had to learn how to communicate with each other. The isolation allowed the language to flourish, and it is distinct for its African influences.

Geechee evolved from Gullah, Page said, once mainlanders and Gullah Geechee people started to interact more. They began learning English, and via syncretism, or the amalgamation of two distinct languages, created a new linguistic path. Gullah Geechee, then, was born of two hybrid languages that were created by linguistic influences from a variety of African cultures and countries.

The Gullah Geechee language has influenced the development of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), larger Black culture and, more broadly, American culture, Page said – but with little recognition or acknowledgement.

Highlighting that connective tissue is what the educator Sunn m’Cheaux said helps his students see the similarities between their current-day speech and the Gullah Geechee language. M’Cheaux, a Gullah Geechee expert from Mt Holly, South Carolina, has taught Gullah Geechee in the African language program at Harvard University since 2016. He said that for his students, some of whom are Gullah Geechee or have Gullah Geechee ancestry, learning the language helps them develop pride and a new sense of self.

As children, some of the students who grew up in the Gullah Geechee region or had family from that area wondered why they “talked a little bit funny” or why their parents or grandparents sounded different. M’Cheaux’s class helps them feel closer to their family. “In presenting Gullah, it’s allowing a lot of people to say: ‘Wait a minute, we still say that,’” m’Cheaux said. “Once you break it down for them, they’re like: ‘I am still maintaining certain parts of my language.’”

Even though there are courses across American colleges that teach about the Gullah Geechee language, m’Cheaux’s classes are different because they teach students how to actually speak the language. “[Students] aren’t really sure what to expect,” m’Cheaux said. “They may be somewhat familiar with AAVE, but when you break it down, some of these elements have existed for generations, hundreds of years.”

M’Cheaux, who spoke Gullah exclusively until he learned English in middle school, said the notion of teaching Gullah to outsiders would have been laughable when he was younger. According to Page, some Gullah Geechee elders were physically beaten for speaking the language by educators who traveled south to teach them standard English, as recently as her grandparents’ generation.

Students were put into speech or remedial classes – contributing to a stigma that has lasted for decades. Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, which has a high concentration of people of Gullah Geechee descent, Page said she remembers a time when saying someone “sounded Geechee” would be considered a provocation, or “fighting words”. As a result, some Gullah people only used the language privately, opting to code-switch in public, or stopped speaking it entirely, preventing their children from learning it as a means of protection.

The suppression led to a knowledge gap, and though the language is still spoken in places, educators like m’Cheaux and Page are a crucial part of ensuring that younger generations learn about the culture. “The influence of Gullah being taught at Harvard … helps increase the visibility,” m’Cheaux said. “With the old guard in the community, many of them were satisfied to keep the language insulated, with the logic being, it’s for us, by us, nobody else needs to have access to it. But in time, people die. People get old. Generations don’t speak to one another as much as they used to, so kids aren’t exactly learning the language.”

A Gullah Geechee renaissance

Last autumn, Ebony Toussaint invited Ron and Natalie Daise of the groundbreaking 90s era children’s television show Gullah Gullah Island to the University of South Carolina to give a talk. Toussaint, a 34-year-old southern studies postdoctoral researcher and author of the children’s book G Is for Gullah, teaches Gullah Geechee history and culture at the university.

During her speech, Natalie Daise spoke about the concept of cultural preservation. “She talked about keeping something stagnant, versus how … our culture is still growing and expanding and dynamic,” Toussaint recalled. “Social media has connected many of us in so many beautiful and brilliant ways. I always tell people, I think we’re in the midst of a Gullah Geechee renaissance.”

Gullah Geechee culture has garnered some level of mainstream popularity in recent decades. Cities across the corridor offer tours of Gullah Geechee sites, shops and restaurants (Page runs one such tour in Charleston). Popular food shows such as Netflix’s High on the Hog and Max’s Chasing Flavor with Carla Hall explore the Gullah Geechee influence on southern and Black culinary traditions. In 2019, Ranky Tanky, a Gullah Geechee band, became the first Gullah Geechee musical group to be awarded by the Grammys. And museums such as the International African American Museum in Charleston offer exhaustive views into Gullah Geechee history and contemporary life.

In addition to his courses at Harvard, m’Cheaux has a robust social media presence – some 180,000 followers on Instagram and nearly 16,000 on X – and teaches online Gullah workshops to his followers. He creates lesson plans for some videos, in which he discusses the social linguistics, history and evolution of language. His online audiences, he said, are often as enthusiastic as his Harvard students.

Similarly, Page created a YouTube video in 2019, Geechee 101, in which she and a friend share the meanings and usages of Gullah Geechee words. The video has garnered almost 200,000 views and served as an introduction to the language for many people. It also led some Gullah Geechee people to begin openly and proudly speaking the language.

“After that video, it felt different,” Page said. “People I did not know were Gullah Geechee would come up to me and start greeting me with the Gullah Geechee language saying: ‘Oh, yeah, I Gullah Geechee, too.’ I feel like it was a weight lifted off so many people’s shoulders. They were like: ‘I’m reclaiming this, this is nothing to be ashamed of.’”

Despite pushback from some people who think that Gullah Geechee language and culture should remain behind closed doors for Gullah Geechee people only, Page, Toussaint and m’Cheaux all pointed to broad community support.

“We moved away, but all of us are back home now doing this cultural-preservation work,” Toussaint said, referencing other Gullah Geechee educators, such as Sara Daise, one of Ron and Natalie Daise’s children, and Jessica Berry, who also work to promote the language and culture. “It’s still a community effort. I couldn’t do this work alone.”

The ongoing resurgence aims to remedy what centuries of Gullah Geechee cultural repression have wrought. Preserving the language, for these educators, is paramount. “Some people are under the impression that they’ve lost more than they actually have,” m’Cheaux said. “There’s a lot more that’s still there.”