At the partition of India in 1947, the Bengal province was divided into two parts based on the predominant religions. The western part became part of India and the eastern part became a province of Pakistan known as East Bengal and later East Pakistan. This created economic, cultural and lingual friction between East and West Pakistan.
The problems only got worse in 1948 when Pakistan’s government declared that Urdu was the national language and no other languages were going to be acceptable. This sparked protests amongst the Bengali-speaking majority in East Pakistan. The government tried to outlawed the protests but on students of the University of Dhaka and other activists would not stand for it. On February 21, 1952, they led a protest and the police opened fire on the demonstrators and killed four students. These students’ deaths in fighting for the right to use their mother language are annually remembered on International Mother Language Day.
On November 17, 1999, UNESCO proclaimed February 21 to be International Mother Language Day and it was first observed on February 21, 2000. I find this extremely significant since I was advised in early 1999 that when I got to the United Nations to speak on the human rights of Gullah/Geechees, I should refrain from speaking in my mother tongue. In spite of having written the speech in English as required, the Spirit would not allow me to speak in English. So, I said the first part of the speech in Gullah and then returned to English after having silenced the entire room filled with global dignitaries.
From April 1, 1999 when I first entered the United Nations to July 2, 2000, native Gullah/Geechees exercised their right to self-determination by doing a one year long election to have me as de Head pun de Bodee of de Gullah/Geechee Nation. I bin too gladdee fa see how e stand by mi and push mi fa gwine on crakin mi teet fa allawe ebeewhey. Yet, in the midst of my numerous journeys around the world to represent my people, I was not made aware that the beginning of International Mother Language Day took place only months after I made world history by sitting in the honored circle of the United Nations and speaking in a language that is not a “major language of the world.” The cheers that I received by doing this made it clear that it was a significant thing that I had been led to do and many told me to never stop. I listened and like the students in Pakistan, I was willing to die for the cause of holding on to a major aspect of my culture in order to honor my ancestors and my elders who were degraded because they were blessed to be bilingual and were strong enough not to assimilate.
To educate others on the fact that we have the right to speak our own language in any arena, I created this video on Human Rights and Language which aired on Gullah/Geechee TV (GGTV) almost a decade ago:
Among the many that we have online and in De Gullah/Geechee Alkebulan Archive, my favorite is the Gullah segment of the British documentary, “The Adventure of English:”
I’ve been blessed to not only appear in documentaries, but to do lectures on my language at hundreds of conferences. I have also done language and dialect coaching for films and outstanding TV shows like “Underground:”
Interestingly enough, “Underground” brought Gullah/Geechee above ground and made it more visible to and heard by the world. This ignited even more pride een who webe fa dem churn and ting! However, it also caused many to begin thinking that slang videos online are the same as Gullah language when they definitely are not. The Gullah/Geechee Nation Constitution makes it clear that “Gullah is a code of the Spirit.” Therefore, not everyone can grasp it and those of us that do have hold of it, have to keep fighting for it the way we fight for the same land on which our ancestors shaped it and shared it with their children so that we would hold the blessing and anointing of this tongue which brings peace, healing, and unity throughout the Gullah/Geechee Diaspora and reconnects us to our kin in the Caribbean and Mother Africa.
As I completed the broadcast, I was elated to be honored with a letter from a United Nations Chair informing me that Gullah was the language that they celebrated on February 21st. In order to insure that the world recognized the value of Gullah/Geechee Nation and our language, they published this blog: https://www.unausannj.org/post/a-united-celebration-of-international-mother-language-day-and-black-history-month Win mi shum, mi haat be too gladdee fa kno sey mi libbin ain dee een vain tall tall! Tenk GAWD fa Mudda Africa and fa gee we disya mudda tongue and fa all mi eldas, ancestas, and Gullah/Geechee Famlee wha hol pun um fa de chillun! Tenki GAWD WEBE Gullah/Geechee Anointed People and we crak we teet proudlee!