Gullah-Geechee Culture, Past and Present

Whether you have heard of Gullah-Geechee culture or not, you are aware of it and have certainly been influenced by it. From food to music, fashion textiles to language, today its influence is experienced across the world. It was cultivated by enslaved people in the lower Atlantic coast of America, who were largely brought there from West Africa. What I find fascinating is that these vibrant artistic and craftwork expressions arose on massive plantations, like Manning Place in my novel Our Sealed Letters, because of the isolation of field slaves. 

When it wasn’t crop cultivation time—whether for rice, indigo, or sea-island cotton—on a given plantation hundreds of enslaved people were largely left to take care of themselves. For example, in my novel Auguste Manning leaves Hilton Head Island in the winter to tend business interests in the Caribbean. Also, plantation-owning families often sought to escape the humidity of the rainy season and the sweltering summers by heading North. This is what Annabelle Manning and her mother Evelyn do every year. As a result, in their villages, enslaved people could preserve their African traditions—and cultivate new ones suited to life in a new climate, society, and language sphere. The result came to be known as Gullah or Geechee or both, with all kinds of regional specialties and variations.

I confess that I learned about this culture late in the process of writing my novel, when it was mentioned by Savannah Frierson, a sensitivity reader from South Carolina. This is highly embarrassing to admit, but I think important to note. Because despite all my research, until I was looking for it, Gullah Geechee never came up in historical records. It’s part of America’s overlooked history of a marginalized community. 

There’s so much wonderful material on Gullah Geechee arts, cooking, music, language, and culture online—when you go looking for it. I highly recommend exploring it. I also recommend looking into the ways some are seeking to preserve its heritage, and others are seeking to develop over its landmarks and features geographically. Here, on my blog, I want to be more reflective on what discovering it meant for the characters in my novel—whether Black and enslaved, or white and free. 

When I was writing Our Sealed Letters, I focused on developing and portraying the enslaved characters’ personality traits. To offer just a few examples, Cecie is extraordinarily beautiful despite hiding it, loves reading authors that horrify and thrill her like Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley, and Peony the cat loves her more than Annabelle. Clarence is a big man with a lot of elegance to his movements, and he’s amazing with numbers. While Jenny is quiet by nature and necessity, when she speaks she delivers really sharp zingers. And Monty is such an energetic boy that whenever I write about him I can feel him bouncing off the walls. But this didn’t go far enough. 

It wasn’t until I asked the question, “What did enslaved people have that was uniquely theirs?” that things really opened up. I wanted to know more about the lives of people that went beyond their servitude and focus on white owners’ needs. There had to be more to them than white owners could imagine or know, because if they knew they would surely squash it. What about them existed independent of their unfortunate circumstances? Gullah-Geechee culture provided a glimpse. 

In the novel, I only offer glimpses of this culture for important reasons. Because it is told in the limited, first-person point of view of Annabelle Manning, we see everything through her eyes. Including things like: the household slaves speaking to each other in a way that she can’t understand (which was absolutely part of the point!); how she first tries to correct their musical emphasis on the back beat; the fact that Kate won’t let her help cook rice; and of course how she marvels at the craftwork in their baskets and quilts. Part of my purpose is for the fact that there is a very rich and vibrant culture operating behind the slaves’ actions and words, inaccessible and even mysterious to the white characters, to stand as an echo and enticement and honoring aspect of the story. 

Another reason my readers can only glimpse Gullah-Geechee culture is that I strongly feel it plays a role in stories that others can tell better than me. While I believe imaginative storytelling can cross cultures, identities, and life experiences, as a book publishing professional I advocate for what is known in the industry as “own-voices” writing. That is, giving marginalized, unheard, oppressed, and long-ignored voices the opportunity to write their own stories. Most of all, I want to see these published so readers can learn more about their experiences from them directly. Personally, I want to draw your attention to Gullah Geechee people in a way that stokes your curiosity, so you seek out own-voice resources. 

Fortunately, Gullah-Geechee culture is still alive and well, both in all the art forms it has influenced (like how the blues spurred rock n’ roll, Southern dishes like pilaf and fried chicken, and modern words like “my bad” and “jitters”) and in the people living in the lowland Atlantic region of South Carolina and Georgia. So gather your curiosities and look for ways to find out more, so I can consider my role complete.

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