The cicadas’ song is rising with the midday heat, and Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine flits from one canopy tent to the next. The fish fry is well under way. There are guests to greet, conversations to be had, and help to offer.
Tall, with a head crowned with cowry shells and robes that flow to the ground, Goodwine looks every bit like a head of state. And that is in part because she is one. The Gullah Geechee Nation in the southeast United States elected her as its head pun de bodee: its queen mother, chieftess and spokesperson.
A self-declared “nation within a nation,” the Gullah Geechee people are the descendants of African slaves, isolated on the coastal islands stretching from north Florida to North Carolina.
Their ancestors combined west and central African traditions to create a culture entirely of their own. The language they speak is the only African American creole created in the United States, a mash-up of English and African languages like Krio, Mende and Vai.
But as Goodwine settles beneath the shade of an oak tree, she recalls the scepticism the Gullah Geechee face. “We don’t really know if they have a real culture,” she remembers hearing.
The misconceptions worry Goodwine. She fears her culture is in danger of being lost and forgotten, especially as black identity is reduced to what she calls a “monolith”.
Some academics concluded that blacks in the US had no culture “independent of general American culture”. That view was championed by Swedish Nobel laureate Karl Gunnar Myrdal in a searing study of the institutional barriers facing African Americans.
Myrdal’s work was so powerful that it was cited in the decision to desegregate American schools – but his assertion that “American Negro culture” was merely a “distorted development, or an unhealthy condition, of American culture” continues to ignite debate. Was every speck of African culture lost in the trans-Atlantic slave trade? Is America’s history of discrimination the single defining aspect of African American culture?
Goodwine bristles at the idea. After all, the Gullah Geechee Nation continues traditions born in Africa, long before white colonisers arrived. The sweetgrass baskets they weave mirror the shukublay baskets of Sierra Leone; the food they eat follows recipes found in Africa’s ‘rice coast’ region.
One of the biggest battles Goodwine faces is “just letting people know we even exist,” she says, brushing gnats away from her face. Clouds of insects are rising from the nearby salt marshes, where vast stretches of water and grass separate Goodwine’s home, St. Helena Island, from the rest of South Carolina.
For years, those marshes helped shield Gullah Geechee culture from the pressures to assimilate, keeping its traditions intact. It is only in recent decades that many of these islands have become accessible from the mainland.
“We’re not shocked when African Americans, regular Americans, people from around the world say, ‘We thought all black people in America lost all their cultural traditions,'” Goodwine says. She believes that perception arises from a systematic devaluation of black people, starting with slavery. “That was the plan: to programme you to believe you never had a culture, that you never came from rich kingdoms, from people who created math systems and science systems.”
Goodwine is attending the fish fry to toast the five-year anniversary of the Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association. It is a blindingly bright day, and over her shoulder, volunteers ladle crisp, fresh fish onto beds of warm red rice. But as the cookout wears on, Goodwine’s thoughts turn to heavier matters.
In June, 21-year-old Dylann Roof casually walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, just 50 miles to the north in Charleston, South Carolina. There, in the midst of Bible study, he shot nine African American worshippers in a massacre believed to be racially motivated.
For Goodwine, this shooting was not just a hate crime. It was part of a continuing trend of ‘cultural genocide’ against her people.
The Emanuel A.M.E. Church is situated along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a region designated for protection by the US Congress. Its history is deeply entwined with the Gullah Geechee community that grew around it. And Clementa Pinckney, the pastor singled out by the gunman, had fought on behalf of Gullah Geechee cultural preservation during his time as a state senator.
“The word genocide is one that a lot of people can’t handle me using,” Goodwine says. “Because so many people in the world don’t realise that those were Gullah Geechee people that were massacred. Those were Gullah Geechee people whose rights were being violated.”
It is a complicated issue, as Goodwine explains, and one that plays into a long-term struggle for the Gullah Geechee Nation. Their homeland is being threatened by gentrification. Their lifestyle is eroding. And all the while, very few people are aware that they are anything other than ‘black’.
“That’s a colour. That’s not a culture,” Goodwine says. “That’s a way to make sure people think we’re legend, and that we’re something of the past, that you only find Gullah Geechee in a history book.”
Disappearing under dollars and cents
A state away, on Sapelo Island, Georgia, Cornelia Bailey shares the concern that Gullah Geechee life is fading away. She is a local tour guide, historian and author of God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man, a memoir of her life as a Saltwater Geechee woman.
Before the 1950s, Gullah Geechee communities like hers were thriving in the isolation of the Sea Islands. Now, Sapelo Island is one of the few with no bridges connecting it to the mainland. It claims the distinction of having the last intact sea island Gullah Geechee community in the United States, untouched by large-scale development.
“I always say, ‘Lord, when there came air conditioning, we were in trouble,'” Bailey says. She has witnessed nearby St. Simons Island grow into a tourist destination during her lifetime. Vacation homes and hotels have flourished, and property prices have risen. “There was a time when most people didn’t want these areas because they said it was infested with mosquitos. And now, everybody wants it.”
Even in Hog Hammock, the town in Sapelo Island where Bailey lives, she gets offers to sell her land. The pressures make Bailey grim about the Gullah Geechee’s future. “We will disappear in golf courses and condos. We will disappear under the dollars and cents,” she warns.
Now in her 70s, Bailey has seen many of the traditions she grew up with disappear. As she sits in the shadows of her dining room, she remembers the days when she had to drive horses as well as cars.
No one sews fishing nets like they used to. And why bother with subsistence hunting when there is a grocery store on the mainland? Instead of rowing through a maze of wetlands, Sapelo’s Gullah Geechee population can now wait for a ferry to come three times a day.
More and more, the Gullah Geechee are boarding the ferry to leave, while outsiders ride the ferry in, Bailey explains. She sees the population around her “aging and moving”. There are no schools on the island, and few jobs.
The Sapelo Island’s visitor centre, run by the state of Georgia, advertises a local Gullah Geechee community of 75, but Bailey says the number has actually tumbled down to around 50. “We just like that big number,” she adds playfully. “It makes us sound good.”
At that, she pauses. Her eyes linger around her single-storey house, its walls covered with memories. Newspaper clippings and family photos are framed on the wall behind her. A child’s craft project – a paper plate transformed into a spider with googly eyes and pipe cleaner legs – hangs from the ceiling above her fridge.
There has been some hope for Hog Hammock’s aging population, including the one-and-a-half-year-old great grandnephew that Bailey helps to take care of. As he blusters past the dining room table, Bailey quickly scoops him onto her lap, interrupting him mid-rampage. “The terrible twos came early,” she says with a laugh, rubbing the child’s tummy. He has already broken into a cupboard this morning and ravaged a box of Fruit Loops.
“If you don’t have children in your community, you don’t have a community,” Bailey says. “You can’t have a community of senior citizens. That’s a retirement community. You have to have children to make a community grow.”
In recent years, Sapelo Island has garnered national attention for its drastic rise in property taxes. Gullah Geechee feared they could lose their land, land passed down since emancipation, to tax auctions.
“It was like we went to bed one night and it was $300, and the next day it was $3,000. We were like, ‘What’s going on here?'” Bailey explains. Many of the tax hikes have been appealed and overturned, but the question of punitive taxation haunts many on the Gullah Geechee corridor.
Selling baskets, not pain
Gullah Geechee chef Benjamin Dennis IV decided early on to keep his family’s property by any means necessary. Distant relatives had sold off their shares, and his late grandfather had received offers for what little remains.
“My granddaddy always said, ‘My own grandfather worked hard for this, so keep it in the family,'” Dennis says. “There’s no amount of money in the world that could compensate for owning your own land.”
Dennis has carved a niche in Charleston’s culinary scene, sharing his Gullah Geechee background through food. “I call it culture through food. It’s a history lesson on the meaning of Gullah food, which is almost a lost art,” he explains.
It is a gastronomic tradition rich with the smells of his grandmother’s okra soup, her apple dumplings, her rice with shrimp caught straight from the local creeks, fried in rich bacon fat on a cast iron skillet.
But when Dennis works at student kitchens as a mentor chef, he meets high schoolers who live far from food markets with fresh produce, in what is known as ‘food deserts’. The only stores close by sell liquor and potato chips, he says.
It is just another way Dennis sees the descendants of Gullah Geechee people drifting away from their fresh, subsistence-based lifestyle. “Some can’t even afford to eat stuff that culturally their ancestors brought here. It baffles me,” he says.
Dennis agrees that the Gullah Geechee may be facing a ‘cultural genocide’. A big part of the problem, he says, is the lop-sided history. When he walks through the old-time grandeur of downtown Charleston, he sees monuments to white America and its complex relationship with race. But Dennis does not see the same complexity afforded to black history.
Instead, all he passes are stalls of souvenirs – prominent among them, the Gullah Geechee sweetgrass baskets sold for hundreds of dollars to the tourist hordes.
With black identity so simplified, so underrepresented, Dennis says it is “easy” to understand why a massacre would happen here.
He believes Charleston would not be Charleston without the Gullah Geechee presence, period. But as long as the “true story” of that culture goes unacknowledged, racism will continue to fester.
“What you see when you come to Charleston is sweetgrass baskets. It’s an easy sell. Anybody can sell that,” he concludes. “But can you sell the pain? Do you want to tell that story? I think it needs to be told, but they don’t want to tell it. They don’t want to ruffle feathers.”