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
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
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
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
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
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.