Thursday, July 03, 2008

Book Review: Gullah Culture in America

Exploring an ancient culture in modern America
Gullah Culture in America by Wilbur Cross; Price: $49.95; Praeger Publishers; 270 pp.

The United States of America has emerged as the sole superpower of the 21st century. The continent-sized nation has impacted its presence and power upon the rest of the world with its economic, technological and military superiority. Popular perception about America across the world is that of a multicultural, prosperous and hardworking society, with little interest in history, environment or cultural heritage. While it is largely true there are several initiatives from the government as well as by private individuals and foundations aimed at preserving ancient culture. One such example is the excellent efforts of The Penn Center, based in the island of St. Helena off the coast of South Carolina in the direction of preserving and documenting the history, heritage, religion, cuisine, medicine and prayer practices of the Gullah and Geeche Culture. The members of this ancient African-American culture trace their origins and ancestry to Sierra Leone and other parts of West Africa.

In an attempt to make the excellent work of The Penn Center known to people in America and also to introduce the Gullah culture veteran journalist Wilbur Cross has written the book Gullah Culture in America (GCA), in which he efficiently chronicles the history of Gullah culture and how it has impacted itself upon American nation, particularly in the southern seaboard states. “The Gullah people are the descendants of African ethnic groups who arrived in America as early as the late seventeenth century, and were forced to work on plantations in South Carolina and later Georgia. They were from many tribes including the Mandingo, Bamana, Wolog, Fula, Temne, Mende, Vai, Akan, Ewe, Bakongo and Kimbundu. The mixture of languages from Africa, combined with English, resulted in a creole language that eventually came to be known as Gullah,” writes the author of this well-researched treatise on an ancient culture.

Cross a veteran journalist and former editor of Life magazine has authored or co-authored over 50 books in his career has taken pains to do indepth research and portray the intricacies of the Gullah culture in his book. Spread over 12 well written chapters GCA starts with a foreword by Emory Shaw Campbell, executive director emeritus of the Penn Center. “Although thousands of articles and hundreds of books have been written on discoveries of Native American cultures and Indian lore, the Gullah-Geeche culture has been almost totally overlooked,” rues Campbell in the foreword commending that the GCA is one of the few well written books on the subject.

This book explores the Gullah culture's direct link to Africa, via the sea islands of the American southeast right from the days when Gullahs came into the contact with the western world during the height of the American Civil War through some missionaries who travelled to St. Helena Island, South Carolina, to establish a small institution called Penn School to help freed slaves learn how to read and write. According to Cross this was the first interaction between Gullahs and White Americans who noticed that most of the islanders spoke a language that was only part English, combined with expressions and idioms, often spoken in a melodious, euphonic manner, accompanied by distinctive practices in religion, work, dancing, greetings, and the arts.

The other chapters of the GCA explore various facets of the Gullah culture. The chapter titled ‘Hallelujah!’ talks about the religious practices of Gullahs, which they kept alive despite persecution by their masters. Chapter four titled ‘Growing up Gullah’ profiles several accomplished individuals who spent large part of their childhood in the southern islands isolated from modern America. “Many a Gullah person has risen from the most humble origins in neighborhoods in the poorer parts of town to successful careers in music, the arts, business and other callings. One fine example is that of Anita Singleton, who carried the procedure one step further by actually using her simple beginnings as the theme for her road to success,” writes Cross. Anita Singleton went on to become a popular radio host with a huge fan following for her one-woman show on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) known as ‘Tales from the Land of Gullah’.

According to Cross even today, there are more than 300,000 Gullah people, many of whom speak little or no English, living in the remoter areas of the sea islands of St. Helena, Edisto, Coosay, Ossabaw, Sapelo, Daufuskie, and Cumberland. If not for this book, this unique and colorful culture would have remained hidden away in the remote pockets of America. The book is not only a treatise on the history of Gullah, but takes the reader behind the scenes of Gullah culture today to show what it's like to grow up, live, and celebrate in this remarkable and uniquely American community.

Cut to the Indian scenario where several such minority cultures are dieing a slow death thanks to rapid modernisation and urbanisation across the country we need people like Wilbur Cross to research, record and publish papers and books on these cultures. There are many such tribes and groups such as Chenchus of Andhra Pradesh, Ilagas of Karnataka etc, whose culture need to be researched and documented urgently.

No comments: