Gullah is a way of life originating from the introduction of the vibrant West African culture into the nuances of southern plantation life. This intermingling produced a rich diversity of language, food, art, music and religion with its epicenter being Charleston, Beaufort and the surrounding Sea Islands of South Carolina. Gullah thrives to this day and has extended beyond South Carolina into Georgia, Florida and even Mexico.
Approximately 75% of enslaved Africans came to America through the shores of South Carolina; making Gullah historically significant for most African Americans in the United States.
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Gullah cuisine is considered one of the oldest traditions practiced in America today. If you consider the history of Gullah and its ties to slavery, it would be no surprise that Gullah recipes have their roots in “need, availability and environment” as many of the ingredients had to come from the land or surrounding waters.
It is not uncommon to find much of Gullah food centered around one-pot dishes, especially using rice, boiled and steamed seafood and a prolific use of standard and natural seasonings. Deep frying is also quite popular and you will often hear reference to a “distinctive taste” when describing Gullah cooking. There is typically a passion and creative expression that can only come from strong ancestral ties, thus making Gullah cuisine a cultural phenomenon.
Sallie Ann Robinson
Gullah art is distinctly African. Enslaved Africans and those Gullah who lived in the period of isolation that followed Emancipation, made a wide assortment of artifacts bearing great similarity to West African art; wooden mortars and pestles, rice “farmers,” clay pots, calabash containers, baskets, palm leaf brooms, drums, and hand-woven cotton blankets dyed with indigo. Gullah men continue the tradition of wood carving, making elaborate grave monuments, human figures, and walking sticks. Gullah women sew quilts organized in strips like African country cloth, and keep the tradition of the sweetgrass basket making alive today, especially in the Mount Pleasant community just outside of Charleston, South Carolina.
Gullah painting is traditionally very vibrant and colorful with subjects typically centered around community life, as is very evident in the works of Jonathan Green and Diane Britton Dunham.
Diane Britton Dunham
Perhaps nothing is as representative of a Gullah craft as the iconic sweetgrass basket. This exquisite art form was brought to the lowcountry of South Carolina in the 17th century by enslaved Africans from West Africa; primarily from the regions today referred to as the Mano River Region, Senegambia and Agola-Congolesse.
Early basket making in the United States went hand in glove with rice cultivation on the Southeastern coast and the intricate network of plantations. It is noteworthy that typically enslaved African men made the baskets and basket making was often relegated to the men who were no longer able to work the fields due to age or infirmity.
After Emancipation sweetgrass baskets transformed from the larger baskets used in rice cultivation to small baskets made by women. These smaller baskets were used in various environments for storing and serving food and this is believed to have been the turning point from an agricultural craft to a collectable art form.
The roots of the Gullah culture began in Sierra Leone, Gambia, Senegal, and Angola. Of the many influences that came from this region, music played a major role. African songs and the foundation from which they came are deeply rooted in what evolved into Negro spirituals, slave songs, and now celebrated as Gullah music. You will also find Gullah influence in Jazz and Blues.
Perhaps most famously, the Gullah culture produced two iconic songs; “Michael Row the Boat Ashore (or Michael Row Your Boat Ashore) believed to have been written about a slave who would row his mistress across Beaufort Bay, and “Kum Bah Yah,” a phrase which is in the Gullah dialect.
Traditional Gullah music makes use of hand-clapping, foot-stomping, gourds with seeds (not unlike maracas) and African drums, but typically no other instruments.
The Gullah Kinfolk have perfected this musical style and revel in keeping tradition alive.
In early times, Christianity was used to justify both slavery and abolition. In pre-Civil War times, African Americans could not get together for fear of insurrection. Many would gather late at night and out of site, to pray in the heavy brush. These places of worship were originally known as “Hush Harbors” and later became “the invisible church.”
Hand clapping, foot stopping and ring shouts of adoration and praise were common forms of religious expression, but in extreme cases where secrecy was critical for worship, enslaved Africans put their lips on the ground to muffle their words and ensure the master and overseer would not hear them.
Praising God was a day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, communion with the creator; not relegated to only one day per week.