African-Americans have won American Idol plenty of times, so Candice Glover’s win is not unique in that regard. Yet as a native of Beaufort, South Carolina, an area scholars generally deem to be among the most culturally significant to African-Americans who are descendants of slaves, she stands alone. For many Americans, Candice Glover did not just become the current American Idol; she became an ambassador for Gullah Geechee culture.
What is Gullah Geechee culture, you ask?
Gullah, as the culture is most typically called, largely refers to descendants of enslaved Africans from the coastal areas of South Carolina, particularly its Sea Islands, and Georgia, where the Geechee term is more often used. In the 1700s, white colonists realized that rice could grow well along this coast and purposely sought out Africans from what some called the “Rice Coast” or “Windward Coast,” the rice-growing region of West Africa where modern-day Senegal, Sierra Leone and Liberia are located, to cultivate the crop in this region.
Preserving Gullah culture
Although historians do not know exactly from whence the word originates, many believe the word comes from Angola, Congo, or “Congo and Angola,” which immigration records indicate was a port of origin for many of those enslaved Africans. Others point to a tribe named “Gola” near the border of Liberia and Sierra Leone.
What is known is that because the coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia were swampy and whites were highly susceptible to disease, Africans tended to outnumber whites greatly in this region, which many refer to as the Lowcountry. As a result of their large numbers, they were able to retain high levels of their cultural roots. Language is one of the biggest. African American scholar Lorenzo Dow Turner, working in the 1930s, concluded that Gullah, which also refers to the spoken language as well as the culture, contained over 4,000 words from many different African languages as well as English. Some languages include Krio, Mandinka, Wolof, Bambara, Fula, Mende, Kongo and more. In addition creole languages spoken in Jamaica and Barbados also come into play.
In addition to language, lots of other vestiges of African culture have been found, including stories that mirror those in many African countries as well as traditions such as making sweetgrass baskets, knitting fishnets and quilting. Music shows a high level of retention as well plus there are food traditions such as gumbo and red rice that have also been passed on.
When the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, large enough numbers of Gullah people remained to pass on the traditions. As a result, certain elements of the culture persist to this day. In addition, the Penn Center was established early on to teach the recently freed slaves and many who passed through it recognized the unique culture that remained and worked diligently to document and preserve it. Today, the Penn Center remains central to this mission and there have been several other initiatives to recognize and preserve the rich cultural heritage of the region. It must be noted, however, that, like many areas, lack of employment or the ability to sustain a family off the land resulted in many Gullah descendants, especially in the 20th century, leaving the area and so fewer numbers of people were able to actively carry on the traditions.
Other famous Gullah descendants
But even though Candice Glover may be the latest prominent representative of Gullah culture, many of us have long been exposed to the area’s significance through films like Julie Dash’s groundbreaking Daughters of the Dust, Gloria Naylor’s impactful novel, Mama Day and Jonathan Green’s affecting art, among others. Others of Gullah/Geechee descent include football great Jim Brown who hails from St. Simon’s Island, Georgia; Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who is from Pin Point, Georgia and spoke Gullah as a child; and U.S. Congressman James Clyburn, who has made great strides to preserve the Gullah Geechee culture, who hails from Sumter, South Carolina. In addition, institutions like the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island, initiatives like the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and the Mitchelville Preservation Project work also to recognize and preserve the culture.
Today, because a lot of this coastal land is of great value, many Gullah Geechee people feel under siege and are battling to preserve their way of life and traditions, not to mention their land, which is in constant threat of being turned into fancy resorts and high-priced real estate. Perhaps Candice Glover’s win will aid in their fight in the long run, but, right now, there’s no denying that Glover has once again helped shine a bright light on an area of high cultural importance not just to African Americans but to the nation as a whole.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha.