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Gullah Excursion 1993: Ancestral Breaths of Life

by Marquetta L. Goodwine

Looking out over the sea I feel someone else looking back at me. I sit and wonder to myself what is going on. The image reflecting back could be from Sierra Leone.

Maybe it's the ancestors watching over what I do and making sure that the spirit of my mission holds true. The salt filled winds circle me like many bands and enters in the life of the Sea Islands. Yes, the life of the Sea Islands, a life of slow pace, hard work, and a long history with a thread that runs through it around the world from the United States to the Caribbean and to the Motherland. As the bus rolls across Interstate Highway 95 and the environment around us changes mile after mile, I can feel a new energy building up within as I get closer to home. Finally, we exit the highway and I see the signs for Beaufort, SC. I begin to sit on the edge of my seat in anticipation of hitting the county line. I now have the opportunity to see the home of my ancestors through the eyes of the other travelers as they witness the swaying of the marsh and the Spanish moss in the Sea Island breeze.

When we finally set foot on the land outside of the hotel, I feel revitalized for all the stress of the city and the mainland has been removed just by landing on the island. Yet, I think of the fact that my ancestors had to have had the opposite reaction when they were brought to this shore in chains and without their families in the sixteen hundreds. When slave ships set sail from the coast of Sierra Leone and dropped passengers in Barbados and other Caribbean islands and then moved on to the ports of Charleston SC, I am sure that the slave catchers, sellers, and owners had no idea that as these people would be scattered throughout the East coast from Florida up to North Carolina and that they would endure all that they put forth. Even though these people were repeatedly tested through beatings, separations, renamings, and other destruction and distortions of their culture, they still held on to their customs(with some adjustments to the new environment) and technology and built African communities here in America.

All these years later here we stand on land that now has a sacred feeling. One gets a strong feeling of walking on grounds that have been hallowed by the bones of the ancestors who are buried beneath it and surrounded by water which has been blessed by the blood and spirit of those who decided to have freedom through death rather than to be someone's property.

After spending the day seeing memorials and artifacts and hearing the stories of the African people that built the Sea Islands and seeing the plantation houses of those who prospered from the building, it is inspiring to sit back on Wikky Holmes Hill, Dr. White Plantation on St. Helena Island and eat gumbo as the sun goes down. As we reflect on the day and try to give our feet a rest, we have the opportunity to sit together and talk by the light of a torch in the yard while fanning away the gnats and mosquitoes as they try to also get a taste of the cornbread. This brings to mind what our ancestors must have done as they came home, talked, and sang songs of praise for another day's passing. Pleny a wak don don. Soon day ga clen gen. (Plenty of work is already done. Soon it will be another day.)

When the next day comes in we drift back in time at Oyotunji African Yoruba Village on the outskirts of Beaufort City limits. We are greeted by village priest and priestesses and welcomed to enter in and to learn of the Gods and Goddesses(the Obas) of the Yoruba. After witnessing the rituals of the return of the ancestors and seeing the various shrines, we are now in the mind set to journey back out into the islands of the Gullahs. Gullah is said to mean God's blessing or blessed people of God and the islands do give off an air of a blessed land. Praise is given through songs at community sings and prayer meetings as well as devotional and regular services through the Baptist, Methodists, and various other churches that are all over the islands. We stop and look at some of the ruins of churches which were set a flame during the Civil War and one can only think of the lives that were lost and how certain things just had to happen for our physical chains to be removed. Now if we could only begin to realize that so much more has to happen for our mental chains to be removed.

Travel to the city of Charleston or Daufauskie or Fripp or Dataw or Hilton Head Islands shows us how time brings change and development and how development also may cause loss. Loss has occurred in these places as the indigenous people are being pushed into smaller and smaller spaces and the land that they cultivated is now being removed from beneath them. The beauty and the crafts of the islands are being gradually eliminated by resorts. The sweetgrass baskets which are also made in Africa are now only being done by a limited number of people in the Sea Islands because the grass is no longer as abundant as it once was and many of the places that people could once walk or boat to and collect it are restricted areas-for resort visitors and villa owners only. Nevertheless, there are those still fighting to keep the history and culture alive through local festivals at different points during the year. This give us an opportunity to celebrate and mingle with the local people.

Some of the museums throughout the islands hold pieces of the way things were suspended in time. Penn Community Center and Historic District which was the home of the first agricultural school for freed slaves is still grappling to survive and to keep the history of the Islands being told accurately. There is a struggle to restore the school's buildings, but the drive to raise $5 million is half way done and it makes me ecstatic to know that I have been there and brought people that have been able to give of what they had in order to bring them one step closer to achieving that goal. Listening to the development of the Islands and the destruction of the Gullah culture through miseducation and misinformation, reminds me that my work is not done and that ourstory must be told accurately as often as it can be.

Those who manage to keep ourstory in the forefront everyday all year long are the elders that we see as we drive past their homes. Many of them sit on their porches or are out in their fields and yards working and they look up and wave as we pass by. Many of them still hold on to not saying a lot about things that have happened because that is the way they were brought up. Yet, when they are comfortable with you and they feel that they see something true in you, they open up and let you know how things were never easy for us, but how we can make it through working hard, getting your education, and using your mother wit'.

After seeing a local parade and having partied and praised with the Gullah and Geechee people, we spend our final day in relaxation by the waters of beautiful Beaufort by the sea. The water seems to act as a mirror reflecting right into my soul and as the image that is before me ripples away with the tide, my own philosophy rings through my ears-"There is a great urge to gain knowledge and to take it with you, but when something is taken from somewhere, something should be put back." I know that again I will journey back from my birthplace, New York City, to my home, the Sea Islands, and my counterpart sitting at the base of our family tree in Sierra Leone will be looking at me and at her or his counterpart in Barbados sitting on the branches of the tree as our souls reach out and embrace over the waters.

1993 by Marquetta L. Goodwine


Copying and reprinting from this site not permitted without permission from Ms. Goodwine (Published in Upscale Magazine November 1993)


If you are interested in more information concerning traveling to the Sea Islands or to make a donation to Penn Center, please call the Marquetta L. Goodwine at the Afrikan Kultural Arts Networkx(AKANx) at (212) 439-1026 or write her at QueenMut@aol.com or Extended Kinship Appeal, Inc. Post Office Box 40-0199 Brooklyn NY 11240-0199. She would love to assist you in touching one of the branches of Africa's family tree in America.