Preservation of a unique African linguistic and cultural heritage—and the arts that embody it—is the impassioned mission of those engaged in Gullah storytelling, music, theater, folk art, crafts and cuisine.
The Gullah are descendants of enslaved Africans who today live in the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, principally in the coastal plain and on the various Sea Islands. The Gullah language, also called Geechee, originally was a melding of West African dialects and English, but today is viewed as a distinct Creole tongue.
The Gullah influence is rich and deep across many genres, and for visitors or newcomers to the Charleston area there never have been more ways of discovering its charms.
One introduction to Gullah folkways is the website of the National Park Service-administered Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor (gullahgeecheecorridor.org). The corridor extends from Wilmington, North Carolina, to St. Augustine, Florida. Author and actor Ronald Daise (Gullah Branches, West African Roots), a native of St. Helena Island and current chairman of the GGCHC, also serves as vice president for Creative Education at Brookgreen Gardens (brookgreen.org) in Murrells Inlet, where he presents a weekly Gullah/Geechee program series combining memoir, historical documents, traditional and nontraditional spirituals and photography to illuminate cultural connections.
For scholars, the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture of the College of Charleston harbors almost 4,000 primary- and secondary-source materials and recordings documenting the place of African Americans “in the American narrative.”
Gullah events—in every artistic genre—occur throughout the year. The City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs’ annual MOJA Arts Festival (mojafestival.com), one of the area’s noted arts presentations, presents Gullah arts as part of its celebration of African American and Caribbean contributions to world culture.
Music educator and author Alphonso Brown, owner of Gullah Tours of Charleston (gullahtours.com), explores the places, history and stories associated with Black Charlestonians. Brown is also director of the Mt. Zion Spiritual Singers, an exemplar of “pure, unarranged Negro spirituals.” They hold concerts and perform at camp meetings here and abroad.
In a similar vein are the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Gospel Choir (csogospel.com) and CSO Spiritual Ensemble (charlestonspiritual.com), led by Lee Pringle.
On Tuesday nights, Ann Caldwell and her group perform old-fashioned spirituals for “Prays House” at the Circular Church on Meeting Street.
Gullah-influenced theatrical performances include Carlie Towne Productions’ Da Beat Gwine On From Africa Ta Da Gullah/Geechee Nation and Gullah Roots, a dinner theater series at the Charleston Area Convention Center, featuring a collection of stories and songs by the Gullah Lady, storyteller Sharon Cooper-Murray. Another font of Gullah culture is historian Minerva King, a regular headliner at the Charleston County Public Library’s annual Charleston Tells Storytelling Festival, scheduled for March 14-15, 2014.
Among artists, Charlotte Hutson Wrenn (CharlotteHutsonWrenn.com) of Edisto Island is in the vanguard of painters portraying Gullah culture, chief of whom is the widely respected Jonathan Green (jonathangreenstudios.com), whose work currently is being showcased in the traveling show Ashe to Amen, 100 Years of Art by African American Painters. Locally, one of the chief exhibitors of Gullah art is the Chuma Gallery downtown.
Whether you’re a newcomer or a local, we suggest you take time to learn more about the Gullah culture and take in many of these events. You’ll find it fascinating—and rewarding.
Bill Thompson writes about the arts, travel, film and books.