FLORENCE, S.C. — Many South Carolinians hear the word Gullah and automatically think of sweet grass baskets and not much else, but on Monday Francis Marion University students and faculty got to learn how it is so much more, straight from the source: Queen Quet, the head of state for the Gullah/Geechee Nation.
“What I would love the general public to know about the Gullah/Geechee is that we are more than sweet grass baskets,” Queen Quet said. “We are more than just a few words at Black History Month, that we are a living breathing culture that the world has recognized as another nation of people and a linguistic and ethnic global minority that needs to be celebrated and commemorated.”
As part of FMU’s 2014 Black Heritage Month series, the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Multicultural Advisory Board brought Queeen Quet to the school for what she calls a “histo-musical presentation” with opening acts by the university’s own Young, Gifted & Blessed Gospel Choir and the Praise in Motion Dance Ministry.
The Gullah/Geechee Nation, which officially came together to create an internationally recognized nation in 2000, extends from Jacksonville, N.C., down to Jacksonville, Fla., along the coast and encompassing 35 miles inland to the St. John’s River. The culture encompasses several African ethnic groups with unique Gullah traditions and language, a lot of which has been preserved and cultivated since the introduction of African slaves to the region for plantation work along the coast and on the Sea Islands.
Estimates by anthropologist suggest that about 500,000 people identify as part of the Gullah/Geechee nation based on their heritage, but Queen Quet said with a very large margin of error that number may be more like 1 million people.
Queen Quet, who was elected the nation’s leader and spiritual chieftess in 2000, gave the lively crowd a taste of that culture as she gave an oral account of just a fraction of the people’s long history, all while wearing traditional garb and speaking Gullah. She also lead the audience, including members of the public, in the singing of the spiritual “Walk Together Children,” which many students knew but were surprised to hear had Gullah roots.
The presentation was the first stop on Queen Quet’s Gullah/Geechee Land and Legacy World Tour this year, with the goal of showing people that Gullah/Geechee “is still a living, breathing culture right here in the state of South Carolina.”
She said that despite many academic studies and articles written declaring the death of the culture, her mission is not to preserve the culture, but to continue it.
“In our culture, Gullah/Geechees, we do preserves, we do jarring,” Queen Quet explained. “So you take a food element, you put it in a jar, you lock the top, which means you don’t want any air to get in. So if these are human beings and there’s no air, what happens to them? They die out. So that’s what preservation does. Continuation means it’s going to be here for every generation that comes after, and growing and breathing, evolving, and it’s not static.”
She said many people who rally for museumization of the culture are mostly interested in gathering only a snapshot of the culture to be lectured about in history classes, but that she sees it as her mission to help people find and know their culture and then celebrate it.
One of the questions posed to her at the presentation was why Gullah and Geechee continue to be cultures and languages that are practiced, while other languages that melded from other languages in America, like Creole, have begun to die out.
Her response was that in part, the languages were allowed to exist and be spoken fluently on the Sea Islands, including her native St. Helena Island, S.C., without the pressures of larger cities. She also said that families learned a preservation technique by which Gullah was spoken as a first language in the house, but children were instructed not to speak it at school or in public because of the reaction it got for years.
But also, the will to keep the culture and language alive, played a big part of it.
In addition to educating people about the Gullah/Geechee Nation, serving as a head of state at United Nations meetings and other NGOs around the world and providing practical and spiritual leadership for her people, Queen Quet has some very specific goals for 2014.
The Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, which she founded, is trying to establish the Gullah/Geechee Land and Legacy Fund so there will be money to help families fight to keep their property and do property rights education among the Gullah/Geechee population.
Queen Quet also wants to procure some equipment, including hard drives, servers, additional computers and scanners so she and others can digitize the Gullah/Geechee Alkebulan Archive at St. Helena Island to share with the world.
A computer scientist by degree, Queen Quet said she can easily do all the programming herself, if she can only find the time.