Research on Gullah culture is a little skimpy, according to one local professor, but he’s hoping to change all that through a class that explores the history of a culture that still lives through the singsong pidgin and practices on nearby St. Helena Island.
Professor J. Herman Blake is leading the first accredited university-level class on Gullah culture in the United States, offered at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort this semester.
The class stems from the university’s Sea Islands Institute, a center for research on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia founded by Blake in 2005 to promote study and preserve Gullah culture.
The weekly, three-hour class will count as three liberal arts credits.
Blake’s hope is to cultivate future Gullah scholars.
“I hope to work toward an understanding of the enduring values of the Gullah culture and promote scholarship,” says Blake.
Originally from New York, Blake has conducted research on Gullah people, particularly Daufuskie native-islanders, since 1967.
Alex Haley, author of Roots and co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, wrote an article for Smithsonian Magazine in 1982 about Daufuskie native-islanders that mentioned Blake.
And local author Pat Conroy also mentions Blake in The Water is Wide, his book about teaching Daufuskie native-islander children in the 1960s. Blake, though, says “Pat Conroy and I have had our differences.”
Blake has interviewed hundreds of Gullah people, who share a mixture of West African, American Indian and European backgrounds with roots in the slave trade. He says he plans to use his interviews and a handful of essays, books and films on the Gullah culture for class.
“I needed three extra hours to keep my health insurance,” says senior Tara Bender, an English literature major and one of Blake’s six students. “I decided this would be a good class to take. I’ve lived here for six years and, at some point, I needed to learn something about Gullah culture.”
Most of the class echoes Bender’s reasons for signing up for the class. Jean Cosby, Blake’s assistant, however, says she’s working toward a doctorate in education and “wants to get in Blake’s head.” Jeremiah Glenn, a psychology major that considers Blake a mentor, says he is taking the class for no credit.
A couple students squirmed in their seats as Blake reviewed the syllabus and described his mantra on standardized grades — he doesn’t believe in them; he believes in hard work demonstrated by individual competence.
And more eyebrows raised when Blake relayed the fact that all seven of the books on his reading list are out of print and not available at the student bookstore.
“So where are we going to get the books?” 20-year-old secondary education major Rickey Reinhardt asked Blake nervously. “And how much are they going to cost?”
“I see a lot of dubious eyes,” Blake retorted. “This is going to be an exploratory, embryonic venture.”
— Associated Press
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