Rethinking the Gullah Geechee

AHA Session 115
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Riverside Ballroom (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Orville Vernon Burton, Clemson University
“Lowcountry Creoles”: Rethinking the History of the Gullah Geechee
Edda L. Fields-Black, Carnegie Mellon University
Rethinking Gullah-Geechee Religious Cultures
Ras Michael Brown, Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Orville Vernon Burton, Clemson University

Session Abstract

The Gullah Geechee have proved an enigma for scholars. Early folklorists, such as Ambrose Gonzales, recorded fables in a fictionalized version of the language while labeling it “backwards baby talk”. Melville Herskovits considered the Gullah exceptional among African-Americans in the US South for their African “survivals” and “retentions”. Lorenzo Dow Turner traced over 3,000 words and hundreds of “basket names” from the Gullah Geechee language to West and West Central African languages and recorded texts in the Mende language, spoken in Sierra Leone, which were passed down by Gullah-speakers. Yet, the Gullah Geechee have received surprisingly little treatment by historians. Margaret Washington Creel’s A Peculiar People examines how aspects of religion and community from Sierra Leone and Kongo/Angola regions of West and West Central Africa have survived in and been reinterpreted by the Gullah Geechee in South Carolina. Philip Morgan’s collection examines selected topics on the Gullah Geechee history of coastal Georgia and is a rarity within the South Carolina dominated literature.

This panel, “Rethinking the History of the Gullah Geechee,” offers fresh historical interpretations of the Gullah Geechee to scholars of African-American, Southern, African Diaspora, and Atlantic World history.  Advancing the 2014 Conference theme, “History and the Other Disciplines,” Fields-Black’s, “‘Lowcountry Creoles’: Rethinking the Gullah Geechee” will draw on theories of Creole linguistics to rethink historians’ approach to the Gullah Geechee and to create a model that historians can use to understand the development of Creole societies, cultures, and languages throughout the New World.  Brown’s “Re-Thinking Gullah-Geechee Religious Cultures” draws on religious studies and historical archaeology to re-frame the plural religious traditions among the Gullah-Geechee.  Both papers seek to better understand the social history of Blacks in the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry before the twentieth century.  Cooper’s “Gendering Gullah Makers” examines folklore and literature to examine the construction of Gullah Geechee identity in the twentieth century.  Cooper’s paper rounds out the panel with its intellectual and cultural history approach.  It also brings much needed attention to the history of Blacks in coastal Georgia.

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