“You didn’t learn your history. You lived it.”
Those are the words of Cornelia Bailey, 65, as she recalled the “buzzard lope,” a ritual dance the Gullah or Geechee people practiced long ago.
As quoted in a Smithsonian.com article, Bailey is one of the last in her community to remember the stories of how when a slave died in the fields, the others were not allowed to stop working and tend to the body. Instead, the slaves would return that night to dance and sing around the body symbolizing the buzzards that had already visited the dead; this dance was their way of mourning the one who died.
The Gullah or Geechee people are found on a small strip of land off of the coast of Georgia. Once a well-populated island, there are now only 55 Sapelo natives living in the village of Hogg Hummock. The Gullah are unique in that they retained much of the music and dances from West Africa. Their language, which is unique to them, might sound like poor English, but it is, in fact, a language comprised of roughly 3,800 words and is derived from 31 African languages.
Thanks to the hard work of Lorenzo Dow Turner, an African-American linguist (1890-1972), the world can still hear the rich language of the Gullah. In 1933, he had the insight to record the Sea Coast residents. He also studied their language and determined that Gullah language was indeed a distinct dialect.
Turner’s work is now being used as part of an African-American studies curriculum at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, the title of which is “Word, Shout, Song: Lorenzo Dow Turner Connecting Communities Through Language.” The exhibit will be on display through July 24.
While many of the young people leave the island for college never to return, Bailey and others hold onto the hope that the Gullah culture will remain.
“The Sapelo Island Culture and Revitalization Society is working to build a Geechee Gullah Cultural Interpretative Village—an interactive tourist attraction recreating different time periods of island life. It would bring jobs and generate revenue, Bailey says. The society, however, needs $1.6 million to move forward with the project.”
Thank you, Mr. Turner, for having the foresight to record the rich voices and history of these people. Your work is now available to the masses in one of the most prominent museums in the world. Let all who see and hear the exhibit, see and hear the richness of the Gullah culture and people. Let all who see and hear not forget the history that is part of the soil of the Sapelo Island.