Gullah Culture ‘Hangs On’ at Weekend Institute in Denver

DENVER
The “Mile High City” may be considered an unlikely location
to hold a conference on Gullah culture, but more than 100 scholars, students
and local residents came together last weekend to participate in the First
Annual Gullah Studies Institute, sponsored by Metropolitan State College of
Denver and spearheaded by Jacquelyn Benton, visiting assistant professor in the
African and African-American Studies Department at MSCD.

The Institute, themed “The Water
Brought Us: Gullah History & Culture,” was in response to an overwhelming
interest expressed in the Gullah/Geechee people after Benton, who has
researched Gullah culture for more than 10 years, took a group of students from
MSCD and the University of Colorado to St. Helena Island off the coast of South
Carolina.

“People were transformed by the
richness of that island, the culture, and the people who live there,” says
Benton, who also serves as director of student services and community outreach
at MSCD. “When we got back to Denver
virtually everybody that went said they wanted to go again…and soon!”

One Metro
State student, Lashanta Ase, who
came to appreciate the richness of Geechee culture while on that trip, was so
affected by her experiences on St. Helena that she
returned to Denver and began making
plans to move back to the islands permanently. And less than a year later she
did just that. 

As word about the 2005 trip spread,
people began to inquire about going on the next trip. And so last year, Metro
State students, as well as 25
Denver-area residents, traveled to St. Helena and
participated in the Penn Center’s
annual Heritage Days Festival. Participants said that they were deeply moved by
the experience and the knowledge they acquired on the trip, but were regretful
that the conversations they had and connections they made were not available to
others back in Denver. As a result,
Benton responded by laying the groundwork for an opportunity for purveyors of
Gullah culture to come to Colorado and share the abundance of that culture with
people who may not have the opportunity to travel to the Sea Islands.

The Institute opened with Gullah
storyteller and entertainer Ron Daise, known for his work on the television
show for young people, “Gullah Gullah
Island.” Joseph A. Opala, a history
professor at James Madison
University, followed with a lecture
on the connection between Africans brought to the Sea Islands
off the coasts of Georgia
and South Carolina during the
Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and Africans in Sierra
Leone.

The second day was replete with
workshops, presentations and crafts. Participants, many of whom were educators,
and students from elementary to post-secondary, were presented with a wide lens
of history that included a presentation on the Black Seminoles and Gullah
freedom fighters who waged a war against the United States to establish “Negro
forts” and free zones in the late 1800s. 

The Institute also provided
opportunities for participants to learn about the Gullah language, which is a
hybrid of English and African languages, the food, and the customs, that,
according to noted historian Emory Campbell, a fourth-generation Gullah family member and former executive director
of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, “seem to hang on.”

Despite historical deletions and
misrepresentations, Gullah culture does hangs on. It shows up in the sweet
grass baskets that are endemic to the culture, which participants learned how
to make under the guidance of Henrietta Snype, Gullah artisan and basket
weaver, who learned to make the baskets from her grandmother and who is now
teaching the art to her granddaughter.

The Institute concluded with a
Sunday morning service at Park Hill
United Methodist
Church with readings from The New
Testament in the Gullah language and impromptu performances by storytellers and
musicians alike.

Organizer Benton
says Opala summed up the event best.

“Outside the low country, there has
never been this many Gullah people in one place at one time,” Opala said.

Indeed, Gullah culture hangs on,
and plans for next year’s Gullah Institute are already underway.

– Dominique Johnson 

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