When author, lecturer and film producer Derek Hankerson was ten years old, he announced to his parents what his life’s work would be. He sat at the dinner table that evening, some three decades back, and shared with his parents that he wanted to “preserve the richness of American culture.” Hankerson, who was born in Chicago and grew up outside of the greater Washington, D.C. area, recalls hearing stories from his father and mother about his ancestors in Florida. They were free men and women, and their stories were as much a part of American story as any other. Yet, Hankerson could find no trace of this history in the school books of his classrooms. If not for the stories and the songs he learned from his parents and grandparents, Hankerson may have never forged the path he walks today.
The Gullah Geechee culture, which was officially recognized by the U.S. Congress in 2006 as part of the National Heritage Areas Act, refers to the barrier island communities that line the southeastern seaboard. From North Carolina to Florida, the isolated islands dotting the coastline were once home to both free and enslaved West Africans transferred over to the New World. Today, the islands are still vibrant hubs of lore, artisanship, movement and song which serve to preserve and sustain the history of the Gullah Geechee.
The Gullah and the Geechee
West Africans initially came to the New World alongside the Spanish as both free men and women and as slaves, which places them shoulder-to-shoulder with the earliest explorers and settlers of non-indigenous origin in the Americas. More than a century later, they arrived in droves to the new, southern colonies exclusively as slaves. According to the U.S. Department of Interior, the Gullah were located on the barrier islands of North Carolina and South Carolina and the Geechee were the inhabitants of the Georgia and Northeast Florida seaboard. There is no real consensus as to how the names Gullah and Geechee gained permanence, but most agree that the words are Creole, the patois-infused English spoken by the West African communities in the New World, in their origin and harken back to locations near Angola, a major slave exporting country in the 16th century.
Michael Allen is a Community Partnership Specialist at the National Park Service (NPS). He is based out of Charleston, S.C., and the last sixteen of his thirty-three years of service for the NPS have been dedicated to the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which today runs from North Carolina to St. Augustine, Fla. He shares that the cultivation of rice was what actually tied together all of the West African communities in the Southeast.
“What is today known as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor was basically an incubator of culture and history,” Allen says. The agricultural practices were brought to the New World from West Africa and were tailored to the new terrain. Different communities shared best practices and the veritable dos and don’ts through song, dance and story. The network was something akin to an oral and cultural telegraph system running up and down the coast.
“The Gullah and the Geechee communities became so good at farming rice that they, in turn, served as instructors to many of the white plantation owners,” says Patricia Jones, a St. Augustine-based cultural activist who has spent years on the forefront battle to help the Gullah Geechee communities gain respect and recognition.
Allen adds that, “the culture [music and dance] is about making seen what may have been hidden in plain sight.”
Watch, Listen and Learn
Topically listening to Gullah Geechee songs elicits movement mainly because of the rhythmic beat of the drums or the patterned delivery of the vocals. The back-beat is syncopated, yet steady enough to drive the song and dance. Closer attention to the lyrical content provides rich insight into the lives of the people singing. Gullah Geechee songs can, at times, be about fish and fruit, as in where to catch it and how to tell if it is ripe, respectively. Some songs served as public service announcements recommending staying off of certain roads patrolled by slave catchers looking for runaways. Many of the songs partake in call and response as a method of memorization and transmission.
At times, the songs and dance take on a deeper invocation. Ring Shouts were spiritual and religious ceremonies, which contained songs about hope and lifting the spirit out of bondage. The celebrants march in a tight circle, singing and dancing praises and proverbs alike. “These Shout Circles are so reverential that Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters performed at the pre-papal Mass during Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia in 2015,” Jones says.
Gullah Geechee dancing enraptures the entire body of the performer. In many of the dances, the arms palpitate from closed to open as an expression of setting the spirit free. Choreographed steps were carryovers from ancestral ritual and celebration, again used as a form of memory and messaging. No part of the songs or dance, nor of the stories or artwork, was performed out of frivolity; every discipline served to preserve the culture and the history of the Gullah Geechee.
The American Fabric
Today, the efforts of informed activist like Hankerson, Allen and Jones are bringing about a new awareness of the Gullah Geechee communities. Having spent a lifetime in the service of reconnecting America with a part of its history that has been neglected, Hankerson has been instrumental in extending the boundaries of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which initially ended at Jacksonville, to also include St. John’s County and the West African communities that have thrived in the area since the time of the Spanish settlers. He lectures at the University of North Florida’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) and is helping produce the upcoming Mende International Films & Cultural Arts Festival, which will celebrate Gullah Geechee culture.
Whether he is talking about the little-known Underground Railroad’s southern trajectory, which led blacks from slavery in British colonies to emancipation in Spanish Florida, or expounding on the virtues of Fort Mose, which gave sanctuary to escaped slaves who were able to reach St. Augustine, Hankerson can always tie every story and lesson back to those he heard from his family as a child. “The information that was shared with me, I share with others,” he says. “It helped build my pride and self-esteem and now I am built on solid ground.” The American story can be sung, or spoken, danced or written. But regardless of the delivery, understanding where we come from will root us all in a stronger foundation from which to grow together as a nation.
If you want to learn more about the influence of West Africa on our region, go to the World of Nations Celebration from April 21 – April 24 at Metropolitan Park. For more info visit: facebook.com/WorldofNationsCelebration/