Slavery, Oppression. Weeping, Constant torture. Mental exhaustion. Dying Hope. These are the words that describe the long-forgotten group of people, the Gullah Geechee. These people belonged to the lands of Africa. They were sold and shipped as slaves on the American lands. The Gullah Geechee people were enslaved on the rice, indigo, and Sea Island cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic coast. The enslavement of these African people sowed the seeds of a unique culture. The distinctive arts, cuisine, language, and music.
It all began four hundred years ago when a ship containing 20 and odd Negroes arrived at the shores of a land that the world today knows as America. It was the Spanish people who brought the enslaved Africans to the lands of Florida and the Caribbean for the first time. It was the start of the two-century long period of slavery in America. The enslaved people belonged to Central and West and from many other ethnic groups. Together they laid the foundations for the structure of Gullah Geechee.
The Gullah Geechee people and the culture are a major part of American history as it was a culture that was born on its lands. Before this, there were no Gullah Geechee people. However, the descendants of these enslaved people were forced to give up their identity and to hide their origination. Being a Gullah Geechee was considered an embarrassment. The seventh-generation Gullah Geechee, Griffin Lotson, states, “When they said, ‘Boy, you too Geechee’ … we were ashamed of our culture. If we were Gullah Geechee, you were thought of being uneducated, unlearned, unsophisticated. So we did all we could to deny our culture.”
Things have begun to take a new turn, and Lotson, along with others, is embracing their culture and proud of their origination. The Gullah Geechee culture is fading away as most of the people who are aware of this culture are in the age range from 50 years to 90 years. In a few years, Gullah Geechee will cease to exist. Griffin Lotson, the national vice-chairman and former treasurer of the federal Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, is playing a key role in boosting the culture.
Finding the Way Back to the Gullah Geechee Culture
There is no denying there; the 400-year-old Gullah Geechee culture is close to vanishing from the face of this earth. It is under a ‘cultural genocide,’ as most of the descendants of this culture are too embarrassed to be associated with it. However, the 65-year-old Lotson is fighting to keep his culture alive, and it took him 40 years to find his way back to the culture of his ancestors.
Griffin was not proud of his identity, and he spent most of his life convincing the Americans that he was one of them. He grew up in Darien, Connecticut, and tried everything he could to cut his ties from the Gullah Geechee people. When Lotson got with the federal government in Washington during his teens, he tried hard to change his accent. He recalls that time of his ignorance in the following words, “I shunned my heritage. A lot of us did. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is Geechee, and he talks about how he disowned his own culture.”
He did not realize that his actions can take the culture of his ancestors towards its end. It was at the age of 40 that he realized how important it was to promote his culture to prevent it from dying. After returning to Georgia, he immersed himself in Gullah Geechee history. According to him, most of the history related to the Gullah Geechee people have been lost because the descendants were trying to get rid of their identity by ‘blending-in’ with the other people.
Attempts to Revive the Culture of the ‘Enslaved’
Along with being the vice-chairman of the federal Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, Lotson also serves as the manager of Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, a nationally acclaimed group, from the coastal community of Darien, Georgia. “Ring Shout” is a significant part of the Gullah Geechee culture. It is one of the oldest known black performance traditions surviving on the North American continent. It was a practice among the slaves where they moved in a circle, making a lot of noise. The masters gave this practice a name, “Ring Shout.” Griffin is fond of this practice as he grew up doing Ring Shouting with his grandfather.
Griffin is trying to make Ring shouting common among young people. In an attempt to popularize this practice, Lotson went to Washington, where he led 250 people into the Guinness Book of World Records: “The greatest number of people simultaneously performing a ring shout at a single venue,” in 2011. According to him, people are always trying to break world records. His world record will start a chain of people breaking the world record, which will keep Ring Shouting alive for a long time.
Lotson’s decades of research make his role in the spreading of Gullah Geechee culture around the country is remarkable. It was due to his research; he was hired as a consultant for a scene in the History Channel’s 2016 “Roots” series. Moreover, he also authored a book about the earliest American recording, “Kumbaya.” It is a popular song which was allegedly penned a white preacher from New York in the year 1970. Upon research and efforts to track the origin of the song, it was found out that “Kumbaya” was a spiritual song that was recorded in the year 1926 near Darien, Georgia. It was sung by Henry Wylie. Lotson is often called to give cultural tours. He believes that making Gullah Geechee culture a part of tourism can help boost the spread of this culture. He stated, “Tourism, now, is supporting the work that we are doing. And it’s bigger than me. In a few more years, I’ll be dead and gone. But the history is that, oh my God, it’s all right here.”
A Historical Culture, Worth Saving
Griffin Lotson’s research has been pivotal in the movement of spreading awareness about the Gullah Geechee people and their culture. He is doing all he can as he wants this culture to outlive him. For this, he is making efforts to make the culture known by young travelers and across the country. The Gullah Geechee culture is a treasure for not only Black History but also for American History. These people were oppressed and tortured, they were extremely brave, and their existence, including their culture and traditions, need to be respected.