The Gullah Geechee Commission has a dream, too
BY RONALD DAISE
As the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission finalized plans for participation in today’s 57th Presidential Inauguration Parade on the public holiday for the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., two sentences of King’s immortal 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech galvanized me: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.”
The float’s vibrant cultural displays will depict a dream of Gullah Geechee people that “every valley shall be exalted.” For centuries our crafts, customs, arts, food ways, language and beliefs were considered by many as indicators of an inferior, simple-minded and somewhat unproductive heritage, yet they have prevailed. I imagine parade viewers marveling at intricately sewn and artistic sweetgrass baskets, which are carryovers from a West African heritage of skilled rice growers; story quilts, which showcase spiritual expression; and first lady Michelle Obama, whose heritage is aligned with ours.
I envision spectators inquiring about the meaning of bottle trees, which were used to lure evil spirits away from homes; fishing nets and ships, which provided livelihoods for families; and hand-carved walking sticks, for which production required entrepreneurial skills, patience, and a work ethic passed along by our ancestors. We are indebted to the organizations and individuals who donated cultural artifacts.
The float participants will salute the troops of the 11 military bases within the corridor and exemplify “every hill and mountain shall be made low.” In the spotlight of world attention, the commission will affirm that our congressional support as the only National Heritage Area that promotes the living culture of an African-American population distinguishes us from all other organizations. With me will be seven other commission-affiliated representatives — Commissioners Willie Heyward (South Carolina), Griffin Lotson (Georgia), Ralph B. Johnson (Florida), and Eulis Willis (North Carolina), Michael Allen (National Park Service community partnership specialist), Zelda Grant (commission administrator) and Robert Macdonald (member of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Foundation).
The foundation has applied for 501(c)3 status and is partnering with us to jointly fulfill the commission’s goals and mission. Five Gullah Geechee community representatives, including one young adult and two teens, will join us: Latanya Allen, Octavia Ivory, Sara Daise, Simeon Daise and Dominique Heyward.
As the parade advances, our float will broadcast lively music to signify “the rough places will be made straight.” Gullah Geechee music, yes, spirituals and children’s songs, but also songs of genres that have been birthed by and that have influenced Gullah Geechee culture will delight listeners: blues, jazz, swing, and gospel.
When we float ride by, de peepul dem gwine jump an crack dey teet!
When our float passes, listeners will dance excitedly and smile in celebration.
“And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together,” King proclaimed.
Float participants are pleased to worship with Commissioner Danny Cromer at his church, St. Monica and St. James Episcopal, on Sunday. During High Mass, a passage from De Nyew Testament, or Gullah Bible, will be read.
Gullah Geechee is the language King heard during visits throughout communities that comprise the present-day four-state corridor.
The commission has held meetings in venues where King inspired audiences during his journeys for civil and human rights: St. Peter’s AME, St. Augustine, Fla.; Dorchester Academy, Riceboro, Ga.; Penn Center, St. Helena Island, S.C.; and International Longshoremen’s Hall, Wil-mington, N.C., where, following the date of his assassination, he had been scheduled to speak.
Following a mountaintop experience, the commission, like King, will look over and see the Promised Land.
“This is our hope”:
That Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar fully knows the commission’s gratitude for his support along our journey since 2007 and welcomes his signature finalizing approval of the management plan prior to his retirement in March 2013. That his signature is affirmed by the president, in whose inaugural parade we will have participated.
And that our vision will be seen: An environment that celebrates the legacy and continuing contributions of Gullah Geechee people to our American heritage.
Ronald Daise is chairman of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission.