This Land is Our Land: The Struggle and Beauty of Gullah/Geechee

by Ali Akhyari

If you’ve been in Charleston for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the term Gullah/Geechee. They’re the folks sewing sweetgrass baskets at the Four Corners of Law downtown and along strategic stretches of Highway 17 when you’re leaving the Holy City. You might taste some Gullah/Geechee cuisine at a local restaurant. If you’re into history, maybe you catch somebody doing some storytellin’ at an event on Kiawah. Regardless of your experience, odds are that you don’t really know the Gullah/Geechee nor do you realize that many of these entertainment experiences work to trivialize a living, indigenous people in the same way a Cleveland Indians bobblehead makes a mockery of the native populations who managed to survive the attempted genocide we celebrate in school as Colonization.

Something else you may not realize is the Gullah/Geechee are a declared minority group with their own language and ethnicity that is discernible even within the African-American population. A nation within a nation. They are the continuous group of African-based enslaved people who settled on the mosquito-infested coastal islands from southern North Carolina to central Florida. They have their own language, culture, and way of life that has remained unique and protected from mainstream America to this day. They are largely self sufficient, depending on much of the same farming and fishing techniques that have sustained them since the enslavement of their ancestors.

The Gullah/Geechee Nation has an elected Queen with borders. Marquetta L. Goodwine is now in her third, seven-year term as Chieftess and Head-of-State of the Nation. Queen Quet, as she has been known since her enstoolment, has been working to preserve her people for a very long time. In fact, she has been protecting the land of the Gullah/Geechee as a youth even before she realized the full story and struggle in which she was participating. Like Queen Quet, I don’t recall learning about the 20 African-American preachers who met with General Tecumseh Sherman regarding the “40 acres and a mule” statement related to Special Field Order 15 as the Civil War was coming to an end.

“As a child,” Queen Quet says, “I had been part of this struggle, dancing and singing during fundraisers, to help the Gullah/Geechee keep their land. I didn’t know that history then. I didn’t know I was part of that continuum. I know that now.”

There seems to be a purposed relegation of the Gullah/Geechee to fun re-enactment events in the South. At least, there is a contentment to treat this living people like a fossil or a group less deserving of respect and relevance than other Americans. This would simply be a continuation of history. It is, in fact, a clear and tangible representation of the epitome of the African-American struggle. Outside of the people within that nation, there is little-to-no-concern for their existence and way of life except to entertain.

I found a review of a historic immersion event on TripAdvisor for Middleton Place, which used to be a functioning plantation. The review praised the event. The public relations manager at the time (2013) responded by saying, “Yes, Plantation Days offers a magical experience for visitors…Demonstrations also included…styles of 18th century cooking-one showing the dishes commonly made by the plantation’s enslaved populations, and the other demonstrating how and what dishes would have been prepared for the high-society Middleton family.”

This sort of sanitized and romanticized interpretation of plantation life creates increased struggles for the Gullah/Geechee. How can you respect them as a people and recognize their sovereignty when they are presented as cartoons?

So who is the Gullah/Geechee Nation?

Disya who WEBE

I drove to St. Helena Island, the location of the headquarters of the Gullah/Geechee Nation to speak to the Queen herself and get the story from their own tongue. Queen Quet started by telling me we needed to go back to 1999 to hear about the origin of the Gullah/Geechee Nation although it wasn’t declared until 2000. There was a recognition among the Gullah/Geechee that they needed a way to protect themselves from having their land taken. Queen Quet organized the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition (www.GullahGeechee.net) in 1996 which initiated the work of formally cataloging the Gullah/Geechee as a people, land owners, paperwork, et cetera. Queen Quet even had a Gullah/Geechee TV show called “Gullah Connection.” She was eventually invited to speak before the United Nations and present her case on behalf of the Gullah/Geechee in 1999. The speech almost didn’t happen because of the infamous Kosovo incident. However, Queen Quet says the Spirit of God led her and provided the opportunity to speak. Her speech was well received at the UN with many of the representatives asking for copies of her speech afterward to the point she ran out of them and was led by a West African representative to a copy machine behind a hidden wall so that she could obtain more to satisfy everyone. 

Over the course of a year, Gullah/Geechee natives voted for their own leader while UN observers insured that the election met the proper standards.

This led to Queen Quet being elected as the Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation.  UN human rights advisors and observers advised the Gullah/Geechee to have a public confirmation for the sake of their desire to be officially recognized as a nation. So, on July 2, 2000 there was a public confirmation at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island with media outlets present to announce the Gullah/Geechee as a Nation.

Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (www.QueenQuet.com) enstooled as the first Queen of Gullah/Geechees in world history.

Queen Quet will be the first to tell you this is an over-simplification of the sequence. However, I realized after speaking with her the Gullah/Geechee Nation began well before.

Gullah/Geechee History is American History

The spark for the Gullah/Geechee Nation was a need to protect itself. History has shown common, humane desires for self-preservation and respect as a human being are considered irrelevant if they don’t conform to the current administration of manifest destiny. A remnant of the enslaved population inhabiting coastal lands, which are sky-rocketing in financial value, are nothing more than speed bumps to the modern descendants of those who put their ancestors in chains in the first place. The idea that profit is more important than humanity is crucial, not only to a philosophy of white supremacy which advocates for racism and slavery, but to a modern philosophy that hides behind markets and paperwork in order to steal land from beneath the feet of the descendants of those who survived that very American enslavement.

If you want to see a great example of this, study the history of Hilton Head Island or “heirs property” and how it has been used to take land from the Gullah/Geechee.

As a reporter, I record conversations and pick out pieces that highlight the main points of the story. However, this is such an important piece of local history and Queen Quet was so clear about her frustrations regarding the misrepresentations of the Gullah/Geechee that I just need to put this here:

“Our culture did not develop in Africa. It developed here. It is indigenous to here [the Sea Islands].”

“We would have been annihilated and only been museum pieces and pictures for people to put on display at festivals while people sing and stir grits and do some storytellin’ and somebody else sew a sweetgrass basket,” she says. “They wanted to relegate us to that. Relegate us to non-existence after the Civil War. Relegate us to just happy, singing negroes. That was unacceptable…and outwardly deny that slavery was a bad thing. It’s a crime against humanity. Are you insane?! My ancestors didn’t go through all that and our family oral history wasn’t a fun thing. I’m not going to just sit here and let you now remove all of us through genocide that you call gentrification and all of this stuff and be comfortable and sing you a diddy and show up when you want somebody to entertain you in a gated area up and down the coast. That’s not going to happen. That’s why these people had to come together. That’s why we’re still together.”

That is the catalyst for the Gullah/Geechee Nation. Even after being recognized at the UN and doing a confirmation to announce themselves on Sullivan’s Island the work to suppress them continues. It’s almost seems natural. As people became aware of the Gullah/Geechee, they were turned into cartoons. While physical chains had been legally removed years before, cultural and social chains were there to replace them. These chains kept them in the background as “happy, singing negroes” who could remind us of a simpler time and make us feel good about how far we’ve come as a society that went from treating black folks like animals to displaying them as educational pieces. They were ignored as a sovereign people and turned into entertainers. Images of their culture are decorations for swanky downtown hotels. Their culinary history is an accent for $50 plates at local restaurants. Give it enough time and you may see a Gullah Bobblehead representing a local sports team.

Still, there’s no problem until there’s resistance to the manifest destiny. The declaration of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, while cute for many casual observers, is a “call to task”, according to Queen Quet, for the US Government for never recognizing them. Of course, that governmental lack of responsibility spreads to South Carolina as well. Queen Quet says they have been censored by media outlets and that she has even had her life threatened.

“As long as you’re entertainers, you can do that story,” she says, mocking those media outlets and organizations who belittle her people. “If they’re storytellin’, do that story. If they’re over here doin’ a little diddy, do that story. But don’t you talk about her [Queen Quet].”

That’s because Queen Quet represents the “educated Negro;” a dangerous breed. This is important because there is an intense passion in addition to that knowledge which can’t be replicated by anyone who doesn’t share the blood of the oppressed; the blood of those who threw themselves overboard while crossing the Atlantic simply to avoid being a slave. That kind of passion can’t be silenced with Plantation Days. It’s that conscience that won’t allow sin to go unacknowledged. That is Queen Quet in relation to those who would prefer quiet gentrification for the sake of profit over recognizing the Gullah/Geechee as more than a mascot for fun plantation side acts for tourists.

That would require an assessment of local history and morality which would most certainly end in reparations and sovereignty. We can’t have that. After all, we’re still trying to remind everyone the South will rise again by raising the Confederate Flag in Columbia once a year.

This land is your land

Inherent to the culture of the Gullah/Geechee is the physical land. As their ancestors were no longer enslaved and became owners of land that had previously been the plantations on which they were enslaved, they continued utilizing the same knowledge which kept the plantation owners in “high cotton” in order to provide for themselves. After being plucked from their homes in Africa, they were planted here. They rooted and grew. They produced their own food. Made their own cast nets. Built homes and communities. 

“There’s no greater asset than land,” Queen Quet says. “Other than your health and your strength that you could have in this world because you can build what you want on it. If it’s viable land you can feed yourself from it and you won’t need to go into a store and get it.”

It is because of the land the Gullah/Geechee have been able to maintain their communities and their culture. It ties them together. It feeds them and houses them. They recognize it, not as an investment worth a lot of money, but as a divine gift. Despite UN recognition, their formal congregation, the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and because of home rule concepts, land belonging to the Gullah/Geechee continues to disappear. It disappears at the hands of developers, legalities, and ignorance. Even the sweetgrass they use to weave baskets for tourists has been made off-limits in many places where they used to live.

Consequently, the Gullah/Geechee Nation is about the business of maintaining their land and working with local municipalities to recognize their people and boundaries in their planning and development. In Charleston, Mosquito Beach and Sol Legare Road are currently being discussed between the Gullah/Geechee and the County to give those local communities more rights and responsibility over that land. While some may wonder why not just sell the land, make money and go somewhere else, Queen Quet reminds us the land is life. It is history. It is an unbroken connection with those enslaved ancestors who persevered so that the Gullah/Geechee can still be here today.

“Without the land, we don’t have the culture,” Queen Quet says. “Land is family to the Gullah/Geechee and the waterways are our bloodlines.

“You can’t come to me and ask me to buy my land. That’s like asking me to put my family back on the auction block. Our literal blood, sweat, and tears is in every stitch of this soil from Jacksonville(NC) to Jacksonville(FL) and it’s not a joke. When you have people disregarding that you’re ancestors literally worked this land for free, FOR FREE, from the 1600s all the way to 1862 and you don’t think they ought to get something back for that? We got nothing back from that! We still had to pay taxes ever since.”

The Gullah/Geechee Nation is here. They are real and they are not sideshows for festivals and events at posh island resorts. They are a unique people worthy of recognition and protection from the same American ideals that allowed for the atrocities of slavery in the first place. Fortunately, Queen Quet embodies the spirit that resides through the Gullah/Geechee Nation. It is one of faith, strength, and identity. It is a humble approach to the earth and a love for fellow beings. While their culture is under attack, even by climate change, there is some comfort that can be found in the spirit Queen Quet represents.

They overcame the struggles of the past. They fight with the same fervor and faith in the present not only against human weeds but human environmental impacts that threaten the globe. 

But what about the future?

“The king used to be cotton,” Queen Quet says. “Now it’s the tides. But I’m the Queen and I’m telling you we’re going to be here for sure.”

For the sake of America’s soul, I take comfort in that.


NOTE by Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (www.QueenQuet.com): I will never forget the interview with Ali. He was an extremely seasoned journalist that was relaxed and casual. His interview style was a pleasant dialogue with direct questions that weren’t contrived in a way that said that he had a particular box that he simply wanted to fill by speaking to me about Gullah/Geechee culture which is often the case with many of the journalists who are simply intrigued by who were are and want to add us to a list of “things that they got to see.” Ali was sincere. This sincerity was truly shown when we concluded the interview in prayer together. He asked if he could pray with and for me. I never pass up a moment to pray. So, this was a once in a lifetime request from a journalist which showed that his faith meant more than making money at a job.

The power of the prayer I thought would be the most memorable moment we had, but we had another when he sent over the article that he wrote which the newspaper turned around and refused to publish because it was too controversial. In my opinion, it was too truthful for them and who they thought could potentially be their advertisers. Ali worked for GOD, so TRUTH is what he chose to walk in. Life is always about choices.

Unfortunately, Ali didn’t have a choice in his death. I was shocked that the day that I was waiting to hear back from Ali about proceeding with publishing his article at www.GullahGeecheeNation.com that the Spirit kept saying, “You know he is not going to respond, right?” I wondered why that would be the case given that he consistently responded in the past. I waited and I prayed once again. No response.

Finally, as “Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Awareness Month” got under way, I knew it was time to get the article online one way or the next. As I proceed through my email, I looked at an alert to only open it and see Ali staring at me with a headline that he had died in a car crash the day that I last emailed him to check on him. I was saddened that such a sincere soul had gone to the next realm. However, I give thanks for him having been in my life for the brief time that he was and for us capturing the moment of our prayer together on camera. I now pray that his transition is smooth and that he rest peacefully. May others that he left behind continue to walk in TRUTH and tell the TRUTH as he did. GAWD bless hunnuh spirit Ali.

Ali Akhyari prays for and with Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (www.QueenQuet.com). She was one of the final people that he interviewed before he passed away.

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