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(November 2013) On the eastern shores of the US, a unique cultural heritage is being recognized and celebrated. While the Gullah Geechee* community’s roots are linked to a time of injustice in America’s history, the descendants of enslaved Africans find much to celebrate in the skills, values and cultural traditions passed down by their ancestors. Rapid coastal development has threatened this long-preserved way of life, but members of the community, government leaders and others have come together to support the community’s continued vitality. One effort that has had notable impact is the translation of the New Testament.
The language, a creole with elements of several West African languages and English, has been spoken by members of the community for hundreds of years, but until recently it had no standard written form. The Gullah New Testament, published in 2005, was its first major piece of literature. In a recent presentation at the annual convention of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Dr. David Frank, a Senior Translation Consultant for SIL who also serves as a member of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission for North Carolina, reports, “Today speakers are much more confident to say, in contact with outsiders, ‘This is my language, and it is a good language, and it ought to be heard!’…The effort to put the Bible into Gullah has been called the most significant factor in the change of attitudes toward the Gullah language.”
Responses by community members have included:
“The Gullah Bible has brought authenticity to a language that was labeled for so long as ‘broken English,’ something to be embarrassed about. It has certainly increased self-confidence and pride in a culture that was almost forgotten.”
-Mary Ravenell, quoted in the Orangeburg, South Carolina Times and Democrat
“I’m so proud of my heritage now.”
- Ardell Greene, quoted in the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier
“When you read the Bible in Gullah ... it's like you're talking to God one-on-one."
- Vernetta Canteen, quoted in the Los Angeles Times
2013 was the first year in which October was designated as Gullah Geechee Awareness Month. A number of activities were arranged to mark the occasion and the governors of several states issued an official proclamation.
“It is important to preserve the endangered traditions of this noble subsection of Georgia’s population by passing down its vibrant and festive customs to each new generation as well as promoting awareness of the Gullah Geechee heritage.”
- Nathan Deal, Governor of Georgia
"Increasing awareness and understanding of Gullah Geechee Culture leads to a deeper appreciation for the significant contributions of Gullah Geechee people to our state and nation."
- Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina
Another important revitalization effort can be seen in the establishment of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. In 2006 the Corridor was officially established through an Act of Congress. It is the only National Heritage Area that promotes the living history of an African-American population. The Corridor covers the Gullah Geechee community’s traditional home area, an area of the Atlantic coast and small islands extending from North Carolina to Florida.
Recently, the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor Commission launched a new campaign to expand awareness of the Corridor and the cultural traditions it represents. Banners celebrating the culture were created for National Park Service and US Fish and Wildlife sites in the region. Permanent signs have also been posted along area highways to promote the area and alert travelers to cultural heritage sites and local tourism opportunities.
Additional recent activites included the Penn Center's 31st Annual Heritage Celebration, held 7-9 November. Attendees enjoyed traditional foods and entertainment, as well as an opportunity for thoughtful discussion through a symposium that was held during the event.
*The group is known as Gullah in the Carolinas and Geechee in Georgia and Florida. The language is also known as Sea Island Creole.