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THE AFRICANS OF SOUTH CAROLINA

Have you ever heard of the Gullah people of South Carolina? They are also called Geechies. The word “Gullah” is short for the “Gola” people of Angola, and “Geechie” refers to the “Gidzi” people of Sierra Leone. Many of the inhabitants of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida, originally came from the areas of Africa that are today the nations of Angola and Sierra Leone. The Sea Islands are lowland areas separated from the mainland by marshes and rivers.

The largest Gullah community is found in and around Charleston, South Carolina. In the early 18th century many wealthy Europeans came to Charleston from the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Barbados. They brought with them enslaved Africans and set up large rice plantations in the wet and  marshy soil of the Sea Islands. The Africans outnumbered them more than 15-to-one. Therefore, the Africans were able to maintain and preserve, up until today, very much of their original culture.

The cobblestone streets of downtown Charleston are lined with old-fashioned, brick and wood-frame buildings. You will often find a cool sea breeze whistling through the leaves of the luxurious palmetto trees. Proud Black women dressed in brightly colored clothes carry large baskets on their heads in the market where they sell their vegetables, fruits, paintings, carvings and “show baskets” to the eager tourists. They speak with an accent that sounds Caribbean. Their tongue is a combination of English and African languages including Wolof and Mandingo.

The Sea Island people are quite self-sufficient. They take care of nearly all their needs themselves. They sell each other fish and farm goods. Some families are known for “growing” carpenters, others “grow” tailors, some raise butchers, others ministers, some builders, and so forth. Everyone on a particular Sea Island is usually related, and the residents, especially the older ones, can trace each other’s family tree in great detail. Young people have to travel to other islands to find marriage partners.

Children are very well taken care of. If the natural mother and father are unable to care for a child, other relatives gladly will. Many senior citizens on the Sea Islands say that the reason they have lived so long, and kept in such good health, is that they cannot die until all the children entrusted to their care are grown. Many children learn how to make and use fishing nets by age 3. Boys and girls are also taught basket-making at a very early age. The Gullah jewelry, pottery, fans and baskets are similar to ones made in West Africa today.

The islanders are keenly aware of the ways of local animals. Their stories about Brer (brother) Rabbit and his friends, and foes, are re-tellings of Wolof and Hausa folk tales. In Jamaica, the children hear about Brer Anansi, the spider. The same spider is found in Hausa and Twa folk tales. In all these stories the small, weak animals are somehow able to outsmart the larger, stronger animals trying to devour them. Most cartoons, especially those from years ago, involve small, weak animals being chased and hunted by much larger beasts, just like the tales of Brer Anansi and Brer Rabbit. In fact, the most famous cartoon character is a rabbit. Might he not have been copied from Brer Rabbit? And what about the other weak, but very smart, animals that are always chased in the cartoons? Have they too been copied from African folk tales?

If you happen to be traveling down I-95 why not take time to stop off in Charleston, South Carolina. It is a very beautiful city that has been restored and preserved with its fine old buildings that predate the Civil War. They were built by African craftsmen who learned their skills in the Motherland. In Charleston, the African people, culture and spirit are literally to be found everywhere!

by Dr. Arthur Lewin, author of Africa Is Not A Country: It’s A Continent, www.AfricaUnlimited.com

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