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Gullah Culture Isn't Dying, But It's on a Ventilator

I recently had the pleasure of taking a three week intensive course on Southern Regional Cuisine and Culture, taught by chef, scholar, and author Kevin Mitchell. As with most classes these days, Chef Mitchell assigned a number of readings to which we were asked to give our thought and insights. Imma be honest with y'all, I don't think my classmates read my discussion posts, but I had to write them so somebody's gonna read them. I've decided post them here (with some edits and amendments) for your reading pleasure.

In response to People Say Gullah Culture Is Dying by Hilary Cadigan for Bon Appetit Magazine

I love BJ Dennis. Genuinely... Before I ever put on an apron or contemplated becoming a chef, I was a fan of his, and not just of his food but also the way he is so outspoken in his promotion of Gullah-Geechee culture and cuisine. Which really means a lot to me.

My family is Gullah-Geechee on both sides; my mom's family is from Southeast GA near Brunswick, and migrated down to Jacksonville FL, and my father's family is from James Island. (Fun Fact: My home is less than 5 miles from the plantation where my 5x great-grandfather was born.) My family has been on this Island for more than 7 generations, but I fear this generation may be the last.

See the thing that most people don't realize about Gullah-Geechee culture is that isolation has been the key to its preservation. In the antebellum south, plantation owners and their families would leave their hot marshy sea island rice and cotton plantations and move inland to escape mosquito born illness like yellow fever and malaria, leaving behind just a few overseers, who were more concerned with production than assimilation. Thus allowing enslaved Africans to preserve much of their language, culture and foodways (this is a huge oversimplification but for the sake of time, just go with me). After the Civil War, with many of the Sea Island Plantations defunct the now free Gullah people continued to live in relatively isolated communities separated from the mainland by location, language, and law (read: Jim Crow and segregation). And it remained so up until the 1970's.

And then came the bridges that made the islands more accessible, central air conditioning which made the hot marshy climate more tolerable, and de-segregation which brought a connection to the mainland and mainstream culture. Now suddenly Gullah wasn't the language of our ancestors, brought with us from across the seas, it was 'broken English" to be corrected and unlearned. "Geechee" was considered an school yard insult. Rootwork and herbalism, gave way to western medicine. And now 40 years later, families are selling off land they used to farm, and making way for cookie-cutter subdivisions (that most Gullah-Geechee people cannot afford). And at times it seems like all we have left are a few phases and the food (which get appropriated as often as is profitable). In this cultural exchange we've lost so much already.

While BJ Dennis, Kardea Brown, Matthew Raiford, Amethyst Ganaway, Geechee Experience, and many others are doing their part to preserve and promote Gullah-Geechee culture (or what's left of it), I wonder if their combined efforts are enough to turn the tides of decades of erasure. I find myself questioning where do I fit into all this? As a chef, as a community member, as a daughter and granddaughter. What role to I and others have to play in this preservation effort but more importantly am I doing enough?


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