Dem Fo Gals (written in Gullah)

Gawd Stick by e chillum, e got muccha good ting flng bout

he meke dem gals Lub, Hope, Joy and Peace fuh ta help e chillum out

Oonuh mus lub ebrybody, ‘cause she ject de pain and de hut

Hope ent neba nutt’n long as oonuh mean fa good and den wuk

and when oonah holding e hope en e hand da Joy ga meke em shout and dance

and if oonuh steady keep Peace en e head the debble ent got no chance

Oonuh ent got time fa tarry dey plenty wuk in disyah wu’ll fud do

While oonuh sending up e timber dem four gals ga see onnuh t’ru

Four Beautiful Sisters

There are many gifts that God in the Universe did release

Among them four beautiful sisters, Love, Hope, Joy and Peace

Share with others as much love as you can, because she rids the world of pain

As long as she’s powered by your good works, Hope is never in vain

And when your hope is realized, you’ll reap the rewards of joy so kind

And when conflict and war surround your body, search for peace within your mind

You have so much to offer this world, so many wonderful things you can be,

keep the four sisters with you as you shape your destiny.

– Zenobia Harper, Gullah Geechee artist and storyteller –

From beautiful baskets woven by women whose hands move like lighting, to storytellers and singers in brightly colored clothing, a walk through downtown Charleston is filled with examples of the Gullah Geechee culture. Even the soft drawl of a Lowcountry native, regardless of skin color, has its roots in the melodic syllables of the Gullah language.

The Gullah Geechee culture is a creole culture, meaning it developed from a variety of influences. The (mostly) West Africans that were captured and enslaved, beginning in the late 1600s, came to the States speaking a variety of different dialects. In Nigeria, for example, dialects could change within a space of 20 miles.  European slave owners likely spoke English, but they may also have spoken French or German. The Lowcountry of that time was a melting pot of languages, all of which influenced the development of Gullah.

The heyday of rice plantations brought hundreds of thousands of slaves to the Lowcountry from the African continent. Rice brought great fortune to the landowners and a short, miserable life for the slaves who labored in horrible conditions. In the 1800s, 80-90% of the population in Georgetown County to the north was enslaved African labor – these people brought with them a variety of dialects and skills that meshed to form the language and traditions of the Gullah Geechee people.

Until the Civil War ended slavery, Gullah was spoken by much of the plantation population and understood by plantation owners to those they enslaved.  During Reconstruction, when much of the land was lost by the original southern owners, Gullah became a way for freed slaves to communicate freely even in the presence of white people.

The Jim Crow era was nearly the end of this remarkable language.  African American parents had concerns about passing along the Gullah to their children, telling them to instead speak “proper” English. They only wanted their children to be successful, but it caused a deconstruction of the old, essential ways that African Americans communicated with one another. Fortunately, the culture survived and has become a source of great pride for those descended from African slaves, providing a bridge back to their roots.

In Charleston, visitors may experience Gullah culture through food, handmade items or tours. Several local restaurants serve Gullah cuisine. This healthy and delicious food was developed by slaves who had to eat the “leftovers” from plantation kitchens.  It is not the stereotypical high fat, greasy or fried food that is often mislabeled as Gullah. And, surprisingly, slaves ate little to no rice, because that was the cash crop of the plantation. Rather, they ate anything from the sea, root vegetables and other vegetables like tomatoes, okra and corn. Clever cooks took the waste meat from animals and created delicacies that are highly prized dishes today, such as pig’s feet, pork rinds and chicken gizzards.

One such dish that Zenobia Harper, Gullah artist and storyteller has loved her entire life is potato poon.  The sweet potato is grated with the skin on, and cooked to a thick, pudding-like consistency, sweetened, and flavored with cloves, cinnamon and allspice.

Intricately woven sweet grass baskets are found throughout the Lowcountry and are a popular purchase for locals and visitors alike.  Most every home will have at least one of these baskets displayed.  What many don’t know is the first basket weavers were African men, and these beautiful creations were made for strictly utilitarian purposes. Sweet grass baskets were essential to rice production, and some were so well made they could hold water.

Gullah women’s colorful headwraps are also more than just a fashion statement. There were once laws requiring African American women to cover their heads, simply because those who made the laws did not like the way their hair looked. Instead of cowering down in plain head coverings, Gullah women made them brightly-colored, large and beautiful.

When asked, what Gullah is today, Ms. Harper says, “It’s a lifestyle, a bridge to the original moral compass of our ancestors and a way to view relationships, justice, peace and harmony.”

Interested in learning more? Try a tour! Gullah Tours operates Monday – Saturday. Call 843-763-7551 or visit www.gullahtours.com. Gullah Gullah Tours is another local company and may be contacted at 844-4Gullah or by visiting www.gullahgullah.tours.com. A visit to any of the area plantations is another great source of information or visit The Angel Oak in John’s Island where Gullah storytellers share songs and memories daily.