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Gullah Geechee...Me?

My Mamanem from Brunswick County. Southport to be exact. My mother and her siblings were born and raised there. Southport is a small, coastal North Carolina community where Highway 211 runs out at the waterfront. It’s SO pretty, cute little boutiques on every corner, churches, and plenty of sidewalk to play on. The most important to me, though, was Granny and Pop-Pop’s house. Oh, the joy that would flood my soul when we would turn down Clarendon Avenue, and be greeted at the door by Pop-Pop, while Granny would be sitting at the kitchen table. I loved that woman, I remember her voice, her hair, her smell. I loved her, everybody did. We visited often throughout my life. I remember making fun of my aunties and cousins because of their accent. I couldn’t really put a finger on it. It wasn’t a southern drawl, it was kinda different. They’d say things like “row-ed” for road, and “Gawd” and not Tommy, but “Toe-meh”. The vowels were pure with very little diphthong. I never knew what it was but it was cute and funny. I just called it the Southport accent. My Pop-Pop would great us with a “Whataseh, Baba” or “Whataseh, boo?” He was actually saying “What do you say” but I ain’t know dat. There still is a coffee table in the corner of the living room filled with pictures, a bible, and sometimes a little flameless candle. The air smelled slightly of salty ocean water. There was the living room and kitchen were where the grown folk would hang out, and the den where the kids, or “chirren” would play. I have many fond memories of playing with my cousins. At that time there were 14 of us. Now there are more, and most of us have our own “chirren”. I remember great aunts coming to visit, like aunt Titi (pronounced “tih-tih” which I now know is Gullah for ‘sister’), aunt Helen, and aunt Piggy. Friends of the family would often stop by and hang with the grownups in the kitchen. When you walk into the house, you greet everybody, no questions asked. If you don’t, you’d get hit with a “Did I sleep with you last night?” And you betta take that hat off in my Pop-Pop house, hear? We sang. We SANGGGGG. All the time. I come from a long line of musicians, singers, and choir directors. Music is a staple in my family. We spent a lot of time at our family church, Mt. Carmel AME, where my 4th great-grandmother and her friends got together, purchased the church, and had it rolled on logs with donkeys to the location it still stands. Even though I technically didn’t grow up there, Southport is and always will be home. Growing up I never knew we were Gullah Geechee. I had heard the word Gullah before in a book I read in 2nd grade by Virginia Hamilton called, “The People Could Fly”. I even got to meet her and hear her read it! The People Could Fly is filled with African American folklore, lots of it coming from the Gullah people. But that’s all I knew. Of course, we all were blessed with the greatness that is Gullah Gullah Island! Miss Natalie reminded me so much of my own Mama. I never missed an episode. Then when I was about 16, my Mama had me my siblings, and one of my high school friends come down to Southport for a Gullah Celebration. It took place at the church. We dressed up and sang some Gullah songs, also some other gospel tunes. I remember Uncle Derrick leading, “Come Out The Wilderness”, and the song “Mi dun dun whatcha tol’ mi fa do” and “Mi haat dun fixed”. I thought all of that was so dope, but I didn’t know we were celebrating our actual ancestors.

It wasn’t until about 2006 when I was doing some research on Sierra Leone. I don’t know how I ended up there, but I did and went down a rabbit hole. I read about how Sierra Leone was a coastal west African country. Its lands were marshy and good for cultivating rice. Wait a minute, isn’t Orton Plantation a RICE plantation? Then my wheels started turning. I started doing more research which led me to the Gullah or Geechee people. There wasn’t much on the internet at that time. Mostly articles about a “dying culture” down in St. Helena Island. So I stopped looking. In my mind, I knew we had to be connected in some way though. Marshy land in Sierra Leone for rice, marshy land in Brunswick county for rice. There had to be a connection. Then came the corridor! The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor was established by Congress in October of 2006. It runs from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida. Its purpose is to recognize the unique culture of the Gullah people, which are originally rooted in coastal North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. I KNEW IT!! I knew there had to be a connection, even though I wasn’t seeing much information on North Carolina being a part of this conversation. I was still hype though. I told my uncle, I told my granddad, my siblings, all hit me with an “oh that’s nice”. Chile,they did not care. I was a little discouraged, so I kinda gave up on digging. Fast forward to about 2019 I was doing some more random digging and decided to look up Gullah people again. This time, I found something. I found some people my age on youtube talking about being Gullah Geechee. Akua and Chris were two millennials from Charleston, South Carolina talking about Gullah Geechee language and heritage on their platform, Geechee Experience. Finally, somebody my age I can connect with. I loved all their videos on speaking Geechee and how they do stuff down in da Chuck. Then I found Sunn M’Cheaux, a Gullah teacher at Harvard University, also from Charleston. His videos were about the Gullah language and its connection to Africa. I was thrilled to know that our African American culture was much deeper than I thought. In Sunn’s videos, I heard words and phrases that my family says, and that was the confirmation I needed. No, we aren’t from Charleston but we are, indeed Gullah Geechee and it’s okay to be proud of it. Still, there weren’t many people my age talking about being Gullah Geechee from North Carolina. GX and Sunn had Charleston on lock, I heard people talking about Savannah, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida but where the NC Geechees at? Who’s talking about us? Guess it would have to be me. I started doing more research on Gullah culture in North Carolina and found out that one of my ancestors had a church that was the oldest standing building in the Cape Fear Region. Its located in Navassa, NC where a large population of Gullah Geechee people lived. Then I learned about the Mayor of Navassa who also celebrates being Gullah Geechee. Then I found out that my Pop-Pop, though he grew up in Wilmington, his mother grew up right there in the Navassa area. Things really started coming together for me. Then I asked my mom one day, “Ma, how come nobody claims being Geechee?” She said, “Back then didn’t nobody wanna be Geechee. We knew we was Geechee, but we wanted to be bougie. Back then Geechee was fightin' words”. The word Geechee was seen as derogatory and synonymous with bad English and intelligence. So, people down there did NOT want to be associated with “Geechee”. From that moment, a fire began to burn in me. Being Gullah Geechee is anything but bad, and I was determined to let everyone in my family, everyone in Southeastern North Carolina know that. It's something to be proud of, something to be respected! Now, every time an article in the Southport newspaper says anything about Gullah culture, I get a call or text from my family in Southport! Slowly but surely we are regaining pride in who we are as Gullah Geechee descendants. My kids speak Gullah now, and I make sure they know that they come from a resilient people who made this country what it is today. We from Southeastern North Carolina, and We Geechee.

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Alicia Reaves
Alicia Reaves
Nov 25, 2021

This connected some dots for me. I also remember those phrases growing up. Never even thought anything about it, but somehow Christie and I naturally understood what they meant! I also remember hearing people say back then; in fact even now, what your mom said about talking or being "geechie". So sad the negative light was shed on the language. What may have sounded like broken, misused english was instead a tool! A new language was created! That's genius! We should definitely be proud of our culture.

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