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Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Gullah of the Sea Islands


Most religions of the world include in their theology and apologetic literature an explanation of how the universe (cosmos) came into being.  Known as religious cosmologies,  (as opposed to cosmology, which refers to empirically supported scientific theories of how the universe was created), these dogmas often can be traced to the earliest practices of a religion. All of the universal religions (Christianity, Islam and Buddhism), as well as all of the secondary world religions (Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism and Taoism) include an aspect of religious cosmology in their dogmas. Religious cosmologies usually involve the presence of a deity, and more specifically a deity that was responsible for the creation of the universe.  Similar to religious cosmology, ontology is a metaphysical branch of philosophy that seeks to explain the nature of “being” in terms of the reality of (being) and the illusion of (being.) Entangled within ontological philosophies are also the concepts of the self, the other, and identity. Religious cosmology and ontology are of key importance in African religiosity, and given their prominent position, they are two significant aspects of African religion that endured the slave trade and thrived among Africans referred to as  the “Gullah” residing the in the Sea Islands off the coast of Southern South Carolina and Georgia. 
In her essay Gullah Attitudes towards Life and Death, Margaret Washington cites the work of John Mbiti, who combined African religious cosmology and ontology into five distinct categories: “God, as the ultimate of the Genesis and sustenance of all things; spirits, made up of superhuman beings and the spirits of those who died long ago; humans, including those who are alive and those who are born, animals and plants, or the remainder of biological life; and phenomena, objects without biological life.”[i]  This blog post seeks to examine specific examples of each of the each of these five categories from Margaret Washington’s abovementioned essay, The Sacred World of the Gullahs by Joseph E. Holloway, and the film Daughters of the Dust directed and produced by Julie Dash.  
Many non-Africans believe that the African religions outside of Islam and Christianity are polytheistic.   This is because specific regions of Africa had differing names for the Supreme Being, or God.  These names included Onyame, Nzambi, Ngewo, and Daya.  Similar to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the Supreme God was considered omniscient and omnipotent and served as the creator of all life forms. [ii] Unlike the universal religions whose God (Allah, Jehovah and God the Father) was both feared and loved, the Supreme God of the Gullah and other Africans living in the New World was not a being to be feared.  Ngewo just was as he was, and no amount of worship or prayer would change that.  He was responsible for the creation of all living things in the universe, and existed both within these living things and outside of them.  Known as mysticism within the realm of spirituality, this concept of the Supreme God within all created a connectedness between humans and all living things.  This is pointed out in Washington’s essay, as she explained how humans really consisted of two entities: the outer and the inner being.  Known as the outer being, the body was just a shell, which was created to eventually rot and decay. The inner being was divided into two parts: one’s personal life, and more significant to this discussion, the Kivuumuni, which was the agent of life and breath.  Neither death, nor evil spirits nor hoodoo amulets or charms could destroy it.  This Kivuumuni was the very essence of life itself, and was the mystical notion of the experience of the Supreme Being, or the Ngewo within.  It was this connection that allowed Africans of several geographic areas to acculturate with each other before they acculturated with the native whites. They shared amongst them the same creator, and breath of life. As time passed, and as the Methodist, Episcopal and Baptist missionaries worked hard to convert the Sea Islands, this notion of the Supreme Being melded with the Jesus of Christians rather than God that Father, which would be more inline with the concept of a Supreme Being.  While the religion of voodoo and it’s hoodoo practices thrived and melded with the Roman Catholic base in amongst the Africans of New Orleans, the Gullah melded their religion and their concept of the Supreme Being with the more Pentecostal Baptist, Methodist, and later the Episcopalians.  This sometimes created conflict and disconnect amongst the older Gullah and the younger more acculturated Gullah.  This can be seen in the portion of Daughters of the Dust when the women of the family were gathered and lamenting over the “old ways” of Nana Peazant.  The outspoken daughter –in-law Haagar objects that Nana  “doesn’t even pray to Jesus~, she still believes in the magic of her old tin can”.  The daughters and granddaughters of Nana stay silent on this, as they seem to understand that Nana’s God is the same God as this Jesus, or at least is experienced in the same way, which at the end of the day is what really is important.
Given that the Supreme Being does not require worship or prayer, as He wills all and controls all of life’s cycles, which included birth, coming of age, death, and existence in the afterlife, more emphasis was placed on what the Africans and Gullah felt they could control, which was the spirit world.  This spirit world consisted of both supernatural spirits and the spirits of ancestors laid to rest.  Evidence of this strong belief in the spirit world can be noted in the religions of Africa, the melded religion of the Gullah and the Voodoo and Hoodoo traditions of New Orleans and coastal Louisiana. It is important to remember, however, that while the African Gullah’s did recognize the supernatural spirits that affected aspects of life, the Supreme Being remained the central pinnacle of being, and as Washington stated, “lesser spirits were intermediaries, representing an assurance of human perpetuity beyond the grave.” [iii]  Amulets, potions and fetishes (small carved animals pounded through with nails) abounded in the slave quarters.   Several rituals existed to “keep de ghost out de House,” [iv] or to purify the body for religious ceremonies.  Of particular interest is the merged Christian and African ritual of using water in religious ceremonies.  Holloway wrote about this in his essay, comparing the use of water in baptism amongst the missionaries to the water spirit cults of Ibibio, Calabar, Ijaw, Yoruba, and Grebo of Liberia. who all visited the river to immerse in the water in order to purify themselves (rid themselves of any spirit possession.) [v]  The spirit possession rituals of the Gullah involved shouting, dancing, and entering trance-like states. This was picked-up by the missionaries and became a popular theme amongst Southern Pentecostals, where even today dancing and speaking in tongues can be a part of the worship experience.   Several of the characters in Daughters of the Dust make reference to the spirits of ancestors, or their own future spirit afterlife.  Specifically, we see Nana Peazant showing the family the treasured hair of her mother, and presenting to them the hair, wrapped in herbs and twined to a Bible, for the family to take with them to the mainland.  Nana tells the family this hair is the presence of her mother in their life, (their “history”) and when she (Nana) passes on, her spirit will be with that of her mothers in the amulet she created.
The great care the Gullah took in preparing the dying for death and the dead for the grave also exemplifies their belief in the spirit world.  Washington wrote:
 “ In the Sea Islands they would keep all-night vigil, singing, praying, and preaching around the bedside of the dying.  This was supposed to strengthen the person as they passed death’s door.  When the person died, they would immediately begin shouting over the body.  The loud shrieks were made as the last breath was breathed, as it was believed hat loud shrieking scared off the spirits of hell who were always lurking around to get possession of another soul.”[vi]
After death, the rite of burial and maintenance of the gravesite was extremely important to the Gullah. In the Sea Islands, when a person died, the possessions of the dead were placed on top of their grave.  Holloway quoted a Gullah who said: “tat dis wuz de way dey bury dem in Africa…Dey use tuh put duh tings a pusson use las on duh grabe.  Dis wuz suppose tuh satisfy duh spirit and keep ir frum follin yuh back tuh tuh house.”[vii]  We see the importance of the community graveyard in Daughters of the Dust as several scenes include the graveyard. 
The importance placed on the family and the strong sense of kinship exhibited by the Gullah illustrates their understanding and appreciation for a human life worth living in alliance with each other. Holloway wrote, “The patrilocal extended family consisted of a patriarchal head, his wife or wives, his unmarried children, his married sons, and their wives and children.”[viii]  Another common family unit was much more matrifocal family, as the matriarchal traditions of Africa were reinforced by the forced separation of men and women by the slave owners.  Daughters of the Dust clearly illustrates the strong bonds between extended family, as the families are portrayed as living together, and celebrating the return of a cousin (Cousin Mary) who had moved to the mainland.  We also see exemplified in the Presenze family, a household seemingly led by the grandmother of the family, that contained far more women than men.  During the scene when Eula reveals to the family her true feelings about the family leaving the island, she expresses how Yellow Mary is a part of her, a part of all of them, The women in the film also clearly dominate the men, and come across as more educated and in charge.  African American women were oftentimes more acculturated then the men, as they were oftentimes assigned work inside of the plantation homes, they gained greater fluency in the language and ways of the whites, thereby giving them an edge over the men, who were usually assigned to the fields or stables. 
The essays of Holloway and Washington do not present very much information about the importance of plants and animals in African religiosity.  Holloway briefly mentions palm kernel, coconut oil, camwoods and herbs in his description of the final wash before burial,[ix] and Washington makes no mention of it at all. However, much is made about the use of plants and animals in the Voodoo religion and its accompanying Hoodoo practices.  Nana Peazant’s tin can and her bundle of roots and herbs tied to the Bible show the connectedness between humanity (the hair of her mother) and the natural earth. 
Phenomena are the last of the cosmological and ontological categories of African Religion.  In this context, Phenomena refers to non-living things or objects carrying powers to prevail against evil, or even carrying the very presence of an ancestor, as in Nana Peazant’s tin can. These objects often remain tucked away and private for the Gullah slaves.  However, upon the death of the owner, the objects would appear en masse upon the gravesite of the deceased.  Washington wrote of bits of colored glass, carved wooden figures and patchwork quilts all being placed on the grave. [x] 
The Gullah cosmology and ontological categories of the Supreme Being, the Spirits of evil and ancestors, the respect and value of human life, the use of plants and animals and the phenomena of special powers associated with non-living things reflect the acculturation process and religious experience of the Gullah people.  While each of these categories reflects their roots in African religiosity, the Gullah were able to mix their African traditions with those of the native whites.  Specifically, this can be seen in their acceptance of Jesus in place of the Supreme Being, a choice that made their religion much less offensive to the native Christians.   As the acculturated, many of their own religious practices, such as dancing, spirit possession and trance like prayer states became a part of the Southern Pentecostal experience. 
The Gullah religious worldview was rooted in African spirituality.  Study of these essays and the film revealed a people who were totally immersed in their religion.  In fact, life and religion could not be separated.  One could not “be” without the other.  To be detached from the religion of ones family, as Washington writes, “is to be severed from his roots, his foundation, his context of security, his kinships, and the entire group of those who made him aware of his existence.  To be without one of these elements in life is to be without the whole picture…African peoples do not know how to exist without religion.”[xi]  Understanding the cosmology and ontology of the Gullah religion is a step towards understanding the Gullah as a people, a culture, and a vital part of the history of African Americans. 




I must add to this Blog a personal note: The Island of Edisto and Pawleys Island are probably my favorite places on the planet.  My family vacations on the beach there in the summer.  I have visited the rice plantations, and a few of the vacation homes and retreats that still have detatched slave quarters and have survived hurricane Hugo, which devastated the area in 1989.  There is a quiet but powerfully strong presence about these islands that I have never been able to adequatley articulate.  I can almost feel the presence of a mournful, soulful past. During our annual stay, every member of my family (including the children) seem to find a quiet moment here or there to stop, reflect and think.  Maybe it is the heat (which can be downright oppressive), maybe it is the sleepy inlet, with its reeds and ripples, blue crabs, and magical sunsets,  or maybe it is the warm, humid breeze that continuously blows.   There is just something magic about these islands.  It is different than nearby Charleston (which has it's own interesting haunts and history), and a world away from places like Myrtle Beach  or Hilton Head.  If you have a chance, go and visit.  

This house was built on 10 acres of beach land by the laBruce family who were successful rice planters in this area of All Saints Parish.  Two small dwellings on the property were slave cabins.  The residence was purchased by Calhoun Lemon of Barnwell, SC in 1952 and still remains in this family. Additions have been made to the house through the years.


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[i] Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr, 2006.Pg. 156
[ii] Pg.166
[iii] Pg. 156
[iv] Pg. 207
[v] Pg. 207
[vi] Pg. 198
[vii] Pg. 200
[viii] Pg. 189
[ix] Pg. 197
[x] Pg. 175
[xi] Pg. 155

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