Two years ago I posted something about the Gullah language of those African-Americans living along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. That post was inspired by their version of the Twenty-Third Psalm, a version that thrills with its colorful and very human take on the King James. A little research proved that storytelling in the Gullah culture, like much of storytelling everywhere, has strong ties to the African oral tradition.
The Gullah are a distinctive group of African-Americans whose beginnings lie along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, reaching out into the adjacent sea islands. Their community has lasted through slavery, Civil War, and the rise of our modern culture, people still living and practicing their lifestyle in areas that were home to their ancestors. Through the Gullah people we continue to see a glimpse of the distinct culture of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. The name, “Gullah” probably derives from “Angola,” as a large number of slaves arrived from that part of Africa in the early 1800s. Over 20,000 slaves came to South Carolina from Africa between 1804 and 1807, and 14,000 of this number came from Angola and the Congo. The newly arrived slaves breathed life into African traditions already established on the islands.
Angolan slaves being readied for transport to America
The black slaves living along the South Carolina coast, spoke what is called the Gullah dialect, a Creole form of English that began as pidgin, but became a language in its own right within only one generation of slaves born in America. Most of the vocabulary is of English origin, but grammar and much of the pronunciation come from West African languages like Mandinka, Igbo and Yoruba. Traditions, language and myth stayed long with the coastal Carolina Gullahs, because they were allowed a greater latitude of self-sufficiency and were relatively isolated on the Sea Islands.
The Gullah language is spoken today by about 100,000 people in coastal South Carolina and Georgia. For long years mainstream scholars viewed Gullah speech as substandard English, a hodgepodge of mispronounced words and corrupted grammar which uneducated black people developed in their efforts to copy the speech of their English, Irish, Scottish and French Huguenot slave owners. Accordingly the Gullahs developed the habit of using their language only in their own homes and local communities. They avoided it in public situations outside the safety of their home areas.
African-American linguist, Lorenzo Dow Turner did a groundbreaking study of the Gullah language during the 1930s and 1940s, basing his work on field research in the rural communities of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. His study was so well researched and detailed in its evidence of African influences in Gullah that it inspired a rethinking of academic conclusions. After publication of Turner’s book scholars began visiting the region regularly to study African influences in Gullah language and culture.
Gullah storytelling, cuisine, music, folk beliefs and crafts, all exhibit strong influences from West and Central African cultures. Their stories include “Brer Rabbit” and “Brer Fox” as well as other characters discovered by Joel Chandler Harris in the Georgia slave quarters. A good many of the stories were used as moral teaching for children, as the one below suggests. “Brer Lion an Brer Goat,” was first published in 1888 by story collector Charles Colcock Jones. The language is difficult at first, but becomes easier with patience. A translation follows the Gullah version below.
‘Brer Lion bin a hunt, an eh spy Brer Goat duh leddown topper er big rock duh wuk eh mout an der chaw. Eh creep up fuh ketch um. Wen eh git close ter um eh notus um good. Brer Goat keep on chaw. Brer Lion try fuh fine out wuh Brer Goat duh eat. Eh yent see nuttne nigh um ceptin de nekked rock wuh eh duh leddown on. Brer Lion stonish. Eh wait topper Brer Goat. Brer Goat keep on chaw, an chaw, an chaw. Brer Lion cant mek de ting out, an eh come close, an eh say: “Hay! Brer Goat, wuh you duh eat?” Brer Goat skade wen Brer Lion rise up befo um, but eh keep er bole harte, an eh mek ansur: “Me duh chaw dis rock, an ef you dont leff, wen me done long um me guine eat you.” Dis big wud sabe Brer Goat. Bole man git outer diffikelty way coward man lose eh life.’
Translation: ‘Brer Lion was hunting, and he spied Brer Goat lying down on top of a big rock working his mouth and chewing. He crept up to catch him. When he got close to him, he watched him good. Brer Goat kept on chewing. Brer Lion tried to find out what Brer Goat was eating. He didn’t see anything near him except the naked rock which he was lying down on. Brer Lion was astonished. He waited for Brer Goat. Brer Goat kept on chewing, and chewing, and chewing. Brer Lion couldn’t make the thing out, and he came close, and he said: “Hey! Brer Goat, what are you eating?” Brer Goat was scared when Brer Lion rose up before him, but he kept a bold heart, and he made (his) answer: “I am chewing this rock, and if you don’t leave me (alone), when I am done with it I will eat you.” This big word saved Brer Goat. A bold man gets out of difficulty where a cowardly man loses his life.’