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Gullah Geechee Curriculum at HBCUs

Photo: The Geechee Gulluh Ring Shouters

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Gullah Geechee Curriculum at HBCUs

The Gullah Geechee proverb “Ef oonuh ent know’ whe’ onnuh gwine, den onnuh should kno’ whe’ onnuh cum fum,” emphasizes the importance of remembering where you come from, even if you do not know where you are going.

Walking onto the campus of South Carolina State University in 2008 to begin my master’s degree, I remember feeling anxious and excited. Of particular interest was seeing the infamous Chuck Phi Chuck organization. As a native of the Charleston area, the idea that people from the low country came together to form an organization that celebrated and acknowledged being Gullah Geechee was fascinating. As I scrambled to get textbooks and financial aid in order, I saw a group of students wearing white t-shirts with black writing. Each shirt was engraved with a line number, line name, and Chuck Phi Chuck written across the top. I quickly recognized that Chuck Phi Chuck and the HBCU campus of SC State University was a safe haven for Gullah Geechee natives. Most notably, this was a space where speaking Gullah Geechee was accepted.

The completion of a research study during graduate school intensified my perspective on the importance of incorporating Gullah Geechee into academia. The study examined pre-service teachers’ attitudes toward different dialects, using 2-minute clips of speakers of African American English, Southern White English, and Mainstream English. The pre-service teachers overwhelmingly rated speakers of Gullah Geechee lowest in the categories of intelligence, education, friendliness, and ambition when compared the other speakers. The results of this study were disheartening but not surprising. Spoken language is a consistent factor in how the world views and makes decisions about a person’s capabilities.

Therefore, as HBCUs continue to fulfill their mission of serving African American communities by providing equal education opportunities, it is important for HBCUs to take the lead in educating students about their history. One way of educating African American students at HBCUs about their history is the incorporation of Gullah Geechee courses into the curriculum as a foundation for future African/African American studies. Such focused education will provide students with the knowledge necessary to refute unfounded conclusions about their capabilities based solely on their spoken language.

Gullah Geechee is distinct because it is the only English-based creole language spoken in the U.S. that was created by enslaved Africans on the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Gullah Geechee has been preserved and retains many significant remnants of the South Atlantic slave trade that have since faded in other areas of the U.S. Furthermore, like other nonmainstream languages and dialects spoken in the United States, Gullah Geechee is a structured rule-governed language and not broken English as has been previously assumed. Perhaps introducing systematic education about this unique culture and language at HBCUs would promote a change in the narrative and negative stigma that has surrounded the Gullah Geechee language and culture for decades.

The potential impact of the inclusion of Gullah Geechee in the curriculum at HBCUs is profound. The Gullah Geechee proverb “Ef oonuh ent know’ whe’ onnuh gwine, den onnuh should kno’ whe’ onnuh cum fum,” emphasizes the importance of remembering where you come from, even if you do not know where you are going. HBCU students are primarily of African American descent, creating a central audience for learning about their connections to the Gullah Geechee history, culture, and language.

The Gullah Geechee proverb “Ef oonuh ent know’ whe’ onnuh gwine, den onnuh should kno’ whe’ onnuh cum fum,” emphasizes the importance of remembering where you come from, even if you do not know where you are going.

Similar to the purpose of HBCUs in their goal of providing education to a population that was otherwise excluded, the implications for inclusion of Gullah Geechee are similar. I theorize that there are three major positive implications for the implementation of Gullah Geechee into the curriculum at HBCUs. First, acknowledgment of the contributions of the Gullah Geechee culture to the vibrant African American culture of today’s society could energize students to explore their family roots and preserve their stories. Preservation of Gullah Geechee history, culture, and language are important to safeguard for the next generation. The current generation of HBCU students should be equipped with the stories of the past that will help to guide them into the future.

Second, understanding of the magnitude of the preservation of the African languages and traditions of the Gullah Geechee people is important to support and provide a foundation of HBCU pride. The opportunity for students to learn about the intentional preservation of Gullah Geechee traditions like sweetgrass baskets, music, and foods (i.e. okra soup & red rice) gives credence to the brilliance of the ancestors who paved the way for modern HBCU education. It will also demonstrate to students the importance of their role in the deliberate preservation of their HBCU legacies.

Third, the celebration of Gullah Geechee people through Gullah Geechee curriculum would promote pride in the historically marginalized culture. A recent surge of interest in the Gullah Geechee culture has manifested with a Gullah Geechee language course being offered at Harvard and a CNN documentary hosted by W. Kamau Bell that explores how the Gullah Geechee culture is different. These examples of acknowledgment, understanding, and celebration of the Gullah Geechee culture by mainstream entities, in many ways, validates the importance of HBCUs taking the lead in educating students about Gullah Geechee. The rising interest in the Gullah Geechee culture in many ways proves that the time is now for HBCUs to take the lead in educating African American students about a culture that reflects who they are.

The Gullah Geechee proverb, “Every frog praise e own pond” proposes that we all have something to praise or celebrate. Gullah Geechee is worth learning about and being celebrated in a structured college classroom environment, like many other languages (e.g. Spanish, French, German). The incorporation of Gullah Geechee into the HBCU curriculum will give students, like the members of Chuck Phi Chuck, a foundation of educated praise to lavish on their HBCU and their culture.

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