I’ve had the privilege and/or intrigue to interview and write about some of life’s most compelling subjects and people. Professionally, sometimes the journalistic pitch is simply driven by the power of a dollar and for writers, that power has fallen off the cliff along with everyone else’s imagined wealth. Authors, poets, novelists - all writers offer the world a narrative aesthetic that feeds the soul, yet we remain on the bottom of the artistic food chain along with dancers, visual artists, photographers, and well…educators. Let’s throw them in there too. We all starve for our subjects!
As a definitive result, we each revert to our Plan B: PASSION. What do I want to write about? What do I care about? What moves my mood and is captivating enough to cause me to pause until the language sings story? In a million moons under one thousand stars, I never imagined it would be the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. I even want to believe that I was initially prodded but resisted both the urgency and urge.
I enjoy penning prose about all things worthy and must admit, “Gullah and Geechee” are both incredibly fun to double-syllable write and say. it sounds funny, but writes easy. It’s relevant in nature, tremendous in endeavor and quite frankly just interesting. The Gullah Culture is also one of the most misunderstood and overlooked cultural staples within American culture. More specifically: southern and African-American culture.
Just exactly who and what is a Gullah and what is all the uproar about their corridor?
Why are they represented by a quad of southern states along the Atlantic coast? Perhaps the more compelling question is what does this have to do with the audience of pennydickersonwrites.com?
Why should you be pricked to indulge and encouraged to delve into both their historic and current existence?
My aggressive goal is to answer all of the above in a manner that is as succinct to my understanding as the derived and preserved language of “Gullah” is to its descendants.
Before I begin, let us pray:
You ready? OK. Here we go ~
In February of 2010, I received an innocent phone call from my sister-friend JuCoby Pittman, Executive Director of Jacksonville’s Clara White Mission. Long story minimized, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor (GGCHC) was holding their quarterly meeting in a matter of weeks and needed someone to “take minutes.” Simple enough. How much were they paying…cause this is what I am charging!
I remember thinking: Minutes? I am a w-r-i-t-e-r…not a Kelly Girl.
Jucoby puts me in touch with the one and only: Michael Allen of the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service. I had no idea the National Park Service was under the jurisdiction of the Department of Interior and definitely didn’t know there were negroes acting in the role of “Yogi the Bear.” But hey…I’m learning something new and I love to learn. So with an open mind, I pursue it.
Michael Allen is South Carolina based and owned the most distinctively snobbish voice I had ever heard (this has since been dispelled!). We played phone tag, finally talked, and emailed back and forth about five to six times before it was determined that I was nuts for charging him my fee and I concluded they were crazy for expecting me to sit in a public meeting for eight hours and listen to some black folks chat Gullah GeechEZE.
I had absolutely no idea what they did or why they needed to meet ALL DAY. Furthermore, why was this a public meeting that required minutes to be taken? Ten thousand “Reallys” later, I now get it. What a difference three years, a breakfast meeting, friendships, emails, research, literature, and respect makes. I SO get it! (Sorry about the jacked-up fee Mike…I heard government agency and eight hours- sitting down...that’s all I heard.)
Michael Allen would never admit this, but I am also certain he thought I was a “white chick” from our phone negotiations, but nonetheless, I was invited to a lovely reception and earned a better glimpse of their “Gullah Do-So.” To preserve my dignity and skirt ignorance, allow me to claim my cultural base along the same foundation(s) as the rest of my generation. We ALL know or remember the hit Nickelodeon television show “Gullah Gullah Island.” For those of you who jumped generations faster than a Brooklyn subway car, let me help you out: Gullah Gullah Island was the most DOPE family show on-air since H.R. Puff “n Stuff and bridged the gap for children left by Captain Kangaroo before a 21st Century Elmo became KING and was then unceremoniously dethroned.
The monumental difference is that this show was for US. It was seemingly the FUBU of TV. A cultural show that acknowledged, uplifted, and resonated a southern culture and family structure foreign to daytime television targeted for children. Of course we had Cosby’s Huxtables’, but man. The joyous combine of an infectious theme song, good looking African-Americans, and a funky-fresh pollywog named “Binyah Binyah” and you had a fabulous show.
THAT was television and unfortunately, THAT was also my Gullah. Mind you, I did include a poem about Gullah culture in my graduate thesis, but admittedly, my Gullah command was weak in foundation and jovial in approach: sweat grass baskets, shrimp ‘n grits in Charleston, the Edisto Island slave trade, and my sister’s gumbo. Sad, but true.
In reference to my earlier comment regarding Gullah being a misunderstood culture, let’s also add “pimped.” Let me be the first to disappoint the masses that those perfect and round molds of grits called “cakes” complemented by giant prawns served by neighborhood diners are soooo not “shrimp and grits.” I know this to be fact. I Charleston, brown gravy to the left: KNOW this. Also, those baskets sold at TJ Maxx and Marshalls aren’t authentic either. (Just saying).
BUT, if you go anywhere on planet earth and someone tries to sell you a negro, then I must reluctantly defer that you have found yourself an authentic slave market. Again, let us pray because a real-life Django moment has been tragically born.
Anyway, I go to this evening reception held at the Clara White Mission and learn that former Senator Tony Hill is a huge supporter of GGCHC. I remember him being in an exceptional hurry that evening, and I barely got the photo below. Oddly, I ended up doing a full feature, political profile on him for the Florida Courier a year later. He is a great man.
Former Jacksonville Sheriff and current president of Edward Waters College (EWC) Nathaniel “Nat” Glover hosted the public meeting at his HBCU, and by now I’m starting to realize I am clearly one of the few people who are not in the “Gullah Geechee Know” so to speak.
The evening was rather fun. Seems the Gullah’s know how to get their Geechee on after all. The evening’s host was Mr. Derek Hankerson, pictured below left to right with Marc McCullough – Jacksonville City Council Candidate District 7 (2015) and Michael Allen (National Park Service). In another blog they would be “Three the hard way.”
I have vivid memory of three very distinct things from that evening:
- Michael Allen’s face when he met me and realized I was African-American.
- The program book that Marc is holding is by far one of the most INTENSE offerings I’ve witnessed at anybody’s reception.
- A peach cobbler served that was absolutely OFF THE HOOK!
I mention the program book because I recall reading it long after the event, taking it to the meeting with me the following day, and reading it long afterward. Derek was responsible for its collective inclusions and I must say, there were some absolute cultural jewels inside. Timelines, terminology, a GREAT program book. (Kudos Derek!).
Following a festive reception, tomorrow came and the serious business of the Gullah began. Allow me to digress to give you the defined scope of what that business is as authored and extracted from the organization’s official website at:
The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor (the Corridor or Corridor) was designated by an act of Congress on October 12, 2006 (Public Law 109-338).
It was authorized as part of the National Heritage Areas Act of 2006. As a national heritage area, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is not part of the national park system; however, the act authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to provide technical and financial assistance for the development and implementation of the management plan.
The Corridor was created to:
- Recognize the important contributions made to American culture and history by African Americans known as Gullah Geechee who settled in the coastal counties of South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida.
- Assist state and local governments and public and private entities in South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida in interpreting the story of the Gullah Geechee and preserving Gullah Geechee folklore, arts, crafts, and music.
- Assist in identifying and preserving sites, historical data, artifacts, and objects associated with the Gullah Geechee for the benefit and education of the public.
I would be remiss if I prompted you to Read More but didn’t include herein the most important element of the Corridor’s birth. Congressman James E. Clyburn offers the following message which has been extracted verbatim from the Corridor’s official website:
“One of my proudest achievements in the Congress was authoring the legislation that established the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and created a commission to help federal, state, and local authorities manage the Corridor and its assets. It took more than seven years of work to get the bill passed into law, but today the commission is working hard on efforts to preserve and promote the nearly 400-year history of Gullah Geechee culture that is the core purpose of my initiative. The sites, sounds and tastes of Gullah Geechee culture have been slowly vanishing along the coasts of North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Stories and traditions of this fusion of African and European cultures brought long ago to these shores have been slipping away along with the marsh and sand that are disappearing because of the encroachment of developments and the pressures to assimilate into the “modern” world.”
It often takes legislation to perpetuate cultural relevance and importance, but more than anything, it takes people like Congressman Clyburn to make it happen and a bevy of selected commissioners and alternates to sustain its existence. At the public meeting held at EWC, I was able to see this awesome group of Culture-Keepers in full effect.
OK. I’m a writer – not a mathematician – but even I can count that if this meeting was held in 2010 and today is January 3, 2013, I kept a rather solid record of both experience and photographic capture for gee…close to five years? There’s a lovely biblical scripture I like to cite: “…for such a time as this.”
Three years ago, I didn’t have a website to advance the plethora of experiences that have molded and shaped my literary portal. These posts – or if it makes you feel better: blogs – offer an intimate view of topics sometimes deemed overwhelming and/or complicated to grasp. I often write for educational purposes, but believe education is not advanced without threads of entertainment, humor, and social nuance. The latter includes my posts on political candidate’s campaigns, my professorial lessons, profiles and so much more. The power of the written word and its archival value is immeasurable and I’m so glad (so very glad) I preserved these photographs. I actually purposed to “pen” something else for the Corridor that is forthcoming; I felt this should come first simply because it’s a great “set-up.” After all, the core mission of the GGCHC is preservation. Right? Moving on…
So we’re at EWC and as I mentioned, these gatherings – these quarterly meetings – are open to the public and the GGCHC REALLY wants the public to attend, listen attentively, and take an active part during the open session reserved for Q&A.
Students from EWC were in attendance, but you can tell from their facial expressions and gestures of sigh that they have been culturally hypnotized by the BET 106th & Park era and don’t know nuthin’ bout da Gullah. Sad, but true.
My confidence rests that circa 2013, somewhere in the educational or professional pursuits of these collegiate attendees, they are confronted with some reference to the Gullah history or culture and aptly respond, “Oh yeah. I know about the GGCHC. I attended one of the their meetings during college!” Keep hope alive.
A brilliant sun shone upon the EWC chapel that day. It was almost as though the ancestors smiled upon the occasion. I was a bit perplexed during certain aspects of the meeting, simply because you really needed to have more than an “inkling” of knowledge about the organization’s mission prior to exercising your public right to attend. Of course you are welcome and encouraged, but it’s incumbent upon each individual to prepare him or herself to be edified and to define their own expectation(s) of what attending means. It’s not a “dog and pony show,” but rather a planned agenda and cumulative day of discourse, ,voting, debate, updates, and, well, yes…fellowship and lunch. I learned so much on this day.
Was it overwhelming? Yes, and I’m a college professor, but here’s the thing: those things that I care about, I pursue. Those things that are culturally relevant, I embrace. Those things that overwhelm me, I seek to conquer so that I may be enriched by their offering and included as an integral part of the cultural whole. Things we take for granted and/or don’t think about are: WHOSE responsibility is it to manage property taxes and land ownership of slave descendants so that the entire Atlantic corridor (on which we landed) does not turn into an extension of an expanded Hilton Head resort? Who had the uncomfortable task of calling a public meeting when builders broke ground to actually build upon land after over which 100 slave graves were found? The GGCHC and it’s state commissioners are the called and chosen, but that doesn’t always mean the effort is met with cooperative success.
The Gullah People, Justice, and the Land on Hilton Head Island. (Click link below)
An obvious question is how does one become a “Commissioner” of the GGCHC and what is their role? As mentioned, the organization has an excellent website that answers all of these inquiries and more, but a brief shortcut authored and extracted from the website is offered below:
About the Commission
The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is managed by a Federal Commission. Commissioners work in partnership with the National Park Service and the state historic preservation offices of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. The commission consists of fifteen members; five cultural resource experts and 10 state representatives. There are also 10 alternate positions.
Expert Commissioners and Alternates
There are five expert positions on the Commission nominated by the National Park Service – two from SC, and one each from Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.
State Nominated Commissioners and Alternates
There are ten positions on the Commission nominated by the State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) – four from South Carolina and two each from Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.
When they are not meeting during the four-quarters of each calendar year, Commissioners maintain a strong and effective presence throughout their various states to lecture, teach, and/or maintain entrepreneur endeavors:
Florida Commissioner Ralph Johnson’s lecture will be held next week, January 8, 2013
Although he’s not a commissioner, Derek Hankerson (pictured below) is a friend of the GGCHC and partner of the St. Augustine based “Freedom Railroad” who additionally hosts a local radio program.
South Carolina Commissioner and small business owner Veronica Gerald (second from left in group photo below) offers the best of Gullah culture from her cultural boutique “Ultimately Gullah.” http://ultimategullah.com/
This 2009 meeting pre-dated the conclusion of the beautifully-bound management plan completed in 2012 and was in development for six years. It holds the official “charge” and assessments of Corridor from information compiled by quarterly meetings, surveys, etc.
I embedded the image once again to emphasize the outstanding art work cover by
renowned artist: Jonathan Green
I also once again “first-person” encourage you to please visit the organization’s website (www.gullahgeecheecorridor.org) which houses a wealth of information that will feed a thirst you didn’t know existed for the origins of a preserved culture that is again, too often “high-jacked and commercialized” for its mystique and the ancestry intelligence required to sustain a culture hundreds of years strong.
Much thanks do I now offer to my dear friend Michael Allen who was clearly determined to unofficially anoint me the GGCHC ad hoc “Press Agent.”
Over the years, he has not missed an opportunity to hit “send” on a plethora of emails to keep me abreast of impressive strides the commission continues to make (I can’t even keep up!). My pace has been tickled and advanced by Michael’s recent invitation (November 2012) to attend and tour Cumberland Island Seashore.
Like so many southerners, I’ve passed the highway markers and park service signage for Cumberland Island Seashore hundreds of times on treks up I-95 going to college in Philadelphia, visiting relatives, taking my own daughter back and forth to college and simply just going to Savannah. I have no excuse for why I’ve never visited the island other than, I had no idea of the fine history and treasures that rested along miles below the Low Country. I took stunning photographs on that day and the tour has earned a forthcoming, picturesque narrative of its own.
With my camera in tow, I inconspicuously joined several of the Corridor members on an unheralded experience. With regards to “growth and awe” this day almost (ALMOST) trumped the birth of my granddaughter “Journey.” How symbolic her name is to the path I’ve taken to better discover and claim my own Gullah roots.
While touring Cumberland Island the same Veronica Gerald (SC) whom I actually adore,asked me, “Do you identify yourself as Gullah?” I remember thinking, “Am I supposed to have an I.D. card or something?” It felt very reminiscent of Dorothy being asked, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Clearly what she meant was, “Your roots fool…who ya people…don’t you know we ALL arrived by water on the same coast?” My limited humor precedes the mission I embarked upon as I returned to Jacksonville following an emotionally FULL day of gazing at aristocracy and stepping on the graves of dead slaves.
Yes Veronica, I am indeed full-blooded Gullah. As I was aware, but unable to intelligibly convey on that day, my grandmother, Lindy (Cummings) Cousar, was born and raised in Saint George, SC. She left at the age of 16 or 17 (with her father and sister) to live in Jacksonville, Florida where she birthed 14 children: seven girls and seven boys. All of my grandmother’s children survive her in death except my uncle Leon who drowned when I was a young girl. Additionally, all of my aunts and uncles live in Jacksonville and we are a HUGE cabal of “Us-folk.” Another fun Gullah fact is that my mother is first cousins with Senator Floyd Breeland of South Carolina.
The Senator’s mother (Aunt Lillian) and my grandmother are sisters and it is my understanding that some of my relatives continue to live in Saint George. I’ve also since learned that the entire town is about the same size as my current Historic Springfield neighborhood and home to a continuously active band of Klansmen. Sad, but true.
My oldest sister Linda Veronica Herron (pictured above) is the family “Culture-Keeper” and has been compiling photos, documents, and interviews for a “Heritage Book” throughout her 29 years of service in the United States Army. She will retire next month, but during many trips to Fort Jackson, SC, she stopped in St. George and has my grandmother’s marriage certificate to Peter Cousar which is how we know her age upon leaving the state along with many other wicked and essential ancestral facts. I am the youngest of three, and Linda is my “She-ro.” She is also an entrepreneur of “Sistah Soldier’s Shea Shop.” Something about those “Veronicas!” (Our middle sister Natalie lives in Columbia, Md. and her gumbo is THE GUMBO. I inherited the homemade biscuit and salmon croquette genes, but trust – ALL of my grandmother’s daughters and grands can sho ‘nuf COOK!)
In closing, I must offer genuine dismay that my granddaughter will have to grow up sans Gullah Gullah Island unless “Hulu” or some other thwarted video source unearths an antiquated copy. What she does have now is the historical resource of me and the organized efforts of the GGCHC. Perpetuity. All of our children and grandchildren and great-grand children are assured cultural perpetuity from “The water that brought us.”
Ironically, the new Chairman of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is none other than the former co-star/consultant of the show: Ronald Dais
Ronald Daise (SHPO), Chairman, South Carolina –Ronald Daise, a native of St. Helena Island, SC, is a writer, actor, educator, and TV performer. His productions about Gullah heritage began after the publication of his first book, Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage, in 1986. In its sequel, Gullah Branches, West African Roots, Daise utilizes memoir, historical documentation, photographs, traditional and nontraditional spirituals to showcase cultural connections he has witnessed first-hand. He has presented stories, music, history and lectures at museums, theaters, conferences and educational institutions across the country. From 1994-1998, Daise and his wife Natalie starred in Nick Jr. TV’s award-winning Gullah Gullah Island, for which they also served as cultural consultants. Daise is Vice President for Creative Education at Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, SC, where he presents a weekly Gullah/Geechee program series. He is a recipient of the S.C. African American Heritage Commission’s 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award, the 1996 South Carolina Order of the Palmetto and the 1997 State of South Carolina Folk Heritage Award, given for lifetime achievement and excellence in folk art that has enriched the lives of the people in their community and state. He and his wife have two adult children.
That’s a Gullah wrap. This proud gal of Gullah origin (who still defies the “Kelly Girl” title) has earned the most from a writing gig that never was. I am rich without pay and fortified and happy to pen this for free. What more homage can I online-give for all that my ancestors did for me? I can do much more, and so can you. If “The water brought us,” then you must surely be Gullah too!
Checkout the links below…explore…learn…hunt…dig. Become a self-appointed, culturally anointed archaeologist and dig up your own roots. You never know, we just might be country cuzin’s.
I look forward to sharing my Cumberland Island excursion with you and learning more during the Savannah public meeting which will be the first in 2013 and held February 8th at Savannah State University. Please visit the official Gullah Geechee website for the on-campus locale.
Penny Dickerson 2013
GREAT LINKS TO FOLLOW
Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor
Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor invited to participate in the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C.
Gullah Geechee Management Plan Available for Public View
National Park Service – Gullah Geechee Public Comment Report
Gullah and Geechee Culture (New Georgia encyclopedia)