The muse of Gullah

“One Blue House,” an oil on canvas by Charlotte Hudson-Wrenn of Edisto Island. The artist says the Gullah influence “is rich and deep across many genres.”

When a language is dying, can the arts associated with it long survive?

According to recent research, 50 percent to 90 percent of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken today are expected to go silent by the end of the century, some well before that. In a global age, English, Spanish and Mandarin dominate, with 94 percent of the world’s population speaking only 6 percent of its languages.

In the Lowcountry, Gullah, the rich patois of the Sea Islands, might seem to be in decline. As little as 25 years ago, one heard Gullah (or variations thereof) spoken almost every day in the streets of Charleston. Today, many must seek it out.

This, along with the gradual disappearance of the grasses that artisans use to sew the signature sweetgrass baskets of the Lowcountry, could have consequences for all Gullah-related or Gullah-influenced art forms, from theater and dance to music and fine art.

Linguists say Gullah began in the Western Hemisphere as a mixture of West African languages and English, but today is regarded as a Creole tongue, a language in and of itself. The question is, is Gullah going the way of such vanished or endangered species as desktop computers, snail mail, handwriting and the incandescent light bulb?

And, if so, what will it mean? Beyond that, and acknowledging the remarkable history of the African-American contribution to the cultural history of the South and the U.S., to what extent is Gullah the principal “voice” or origin of those contributions?

“I think Gullah is declining to an extent,” says Lee Pringle, founder and president of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Gospel Choir and the CSO Spiritual Ensemble. “While I agree that the language is evolving, I also think it’s in decline as fewer people have a connection to it.

“My grandfather spoke it, and my father spoke a version of it, but I don’t hear it as prominently as I used to. It has evolved to a point where there is less occasion to hear the language.”

Alphonso Brown, a retired music educator and author, is director of the Mt. Zion Spiritual Singers and owner of Gullah Tours of Charleston. He contends that one way to preserve the language is to perform it.

“But the powers that be don’t always endorse that, seeing it more as a novelty thing.”

First, notes Brown, one must be aware of the origins of Gullah, a term used to describe descendants of enslaved people who live, principally, in the Lowcountry regions of South Carolina and Georgia as well as their distinctive language.

“The principal African-American voice in America is Gullah,” he says. “But remember, blacks of past eras in America were not trying to speak ‘Gullah.’ They were trying to speak English. We were criticized for that then, and we are now, too. My grandparents spoke Gullah, but others came around and made a concerted effort to speak English. We were not trying to preserve a language or a culture. We didn’t recognize it as a language until later. It is not being used as often today, but I don’t see it disappearing because so much of it is written now.”

Today’s linguists owe a considerable debt to the late Lorenzo Dow Turner (1890-1972), a longtime English department head at Howard University and Fisk University who performed groundbreaking research on Gullah. The Elizabeth City, N.C., native also introduced African studies programs at Fisk and Roosevelt universities.

Author and actor Ronald Daise (“Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage,” “Gullah Branches, West African Roots”) is a native of St. Helena Island. Vice president for Creative Education at Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, where he presents a weekly Gullah/Geechee program series, Daise also serves as chairman of the National Park Service-administered Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The historical designation extends from Wilmington, N.C., to St. Augustine, Fla.

Daise believes it is a challenge for young adult audiences to embrace the culture because for so many years speaking Gullah or identifying one’s self with Gullah is what many chose not to do.

“But I think there is a renaissance of awareness of the importance and significance of the culture, and the arts reflect that. Thirty years ago, you may have heard Gullah spoken more consistently in the community, but I hear it consistently when I go to gatherings. Perhaps the intonations are not the same, but you will hear it spoken, even among educated Geechee people, wherever they are in an environment where they feel comfortable.

“My daughter is a student at the College of Charleston, and she talks constantly about the different Gullah expressions she hears among her peers. So I think that as long as the language is spoken, it will affect the arts.”

Artist Charlotte Hudson-Wrenn of Edisto Island counts herself firmly in the evolution of Gullah camp. Among the art forms she holds as uniquely Gullah are sweetgrass baskets and the late Philip Simmon’s renowned ironwork.

“They come immediately to mind, but the Gullah influence, I feel, is rich and deep across many genres. Gullah speech is a song language based on lyricism and rhythm and is a creole of English and African sounds and syntax. And since oral interaction was the only means of communication for so many years during slavery, rhetoric skills became highly developed and were marks of being properly educated within the community, according to Patricia Jones-Jackson’s ‘When Roots Die.’”

(The late Jones-Jackson was a noted scholar and linguist who wrote several of the most influential books on Gullah language and culture. “When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands” (1987) is among her most well known. Others include “Gullah: An Endangered Language” (1981). She conducted research among the Gullah of South Carolina and Georgia for more than nine years until her accidental death in a car crash in 1986.)

“The use of metaphor, riddle and storytelling within the rhetorical tradition is the basis of poetry, storytelling and song,” Hudson-Wrenn adds. “Symbols in gardens and yard art continue this tradition. Gullah spirituals and music were arts that soothed and brought hope in the past, and I believe they continue to bond and connect the community today.”

A more obvious influence has been exerted on the culinary arts, Hudson-Wrenn says.

“Certainly the thriving Charleston food scene is indebted to Gullah culture. Local foods like shrimp and grits, okra, cornbread and many others are foods clearly descended from Gullah kitchens.

“Finally, I think the Gullah church might be the most powerful force with a continuing influence. The intricate rituals produced by this highly adaptable and creative society exemplified a new expression of religion. And I know at least that on Edisto Island the church population swells the island every Sunday and continues to creatively and elegantly intertwine prayer, music, song, storytelling, dance and ritual into a cohesive whole. The sense of community is strong.”

Born and raised in the Gullah/Geechee neighborhood of Union Heights here, Carlie Towne, producer-director of the forthcoming MOJA Festival play “Da Beat Gwine On From Africa Ta Da Gullah/Geechee Nation” (Oct. 3, Circular Congregation Church), considers the present state of Gullah and the arts to be one of revival. And she attempts to bring all the arts to bear in her annual productions.

“A lot of people are infusing the language into various art forms,” says Towne, whose play melds mixed-media, song, music, dance, poetry and oral history with audience participation. “I always try to speak life into things. I am a traditionalist, and in my play, I try to give people reasons why the language should continue.

“We are bilingual, but it’s important to hold onto our traditions. I think more people are becoming aware of this need to keep it alive. More institutions are teaching about the Gullah-Geechee heritage, though language is just one part of it.”

A contemporary play with a cast composed of Gullah speakers, “Da Beat Gwine On” employs a combination of English and Gullah/Geechee dialect.

“You could say we spice the production with it,” says Towne, minister of information for the St. Helena Island-based Gullah/Geechee Nation and co-founder of the nonprofit organizations Gullah/Geechee Angel Network and Gullah/Geechee People Foundation. “If we did everything in Gullah, few would understand it.”

Painter and rice-field historian Jonathan Green says the language is like a living organism that’s “always adapting and changing and having some hiccups” along the way.

“Today, more people speak a form of Gullah than ever did before. You have more European cultures speaking the Gullah dialect, something you found very little of in the days of DuBose Heyward. They are speaking it like it’s something hip to do. The language is there in all sorts of diverse musical forms: blues, jazz, rap, R&B.

“For me, the problem of anything disappearing in reference to Gullah is the art form of visual imagery. Visual art exists before, during and after the language.”

Much of the language in its earliest form does not survive, Green says, but the art does. And one can reconstruct the language through that art. Although many recognize that Gullah-influenced music derives from West African work songs, Green notes that “West Africa is a painted world; they paint on everything.

“That, too, was the power of the Bible, because the stories were told through visual imagery,” adds Green, whose work will be showcased in the traveling show “Ashe to Amen, 100 Years of Art by African-American Painters” early next year. “I believe this visual imagery is most important, and that is what I am more in fear of being completely lost.”

Green says most of the art forms that derive from Gullah still exist, and there is considerable momentum on the part of African-American people “who know they must protect this legacy.”

Visual arts portrayals by artists of the Gullah-Geechee culture are too often wed to a single time period, says Daise, whose own programs meld memoir, historical documents, traditional and nontraditional spirituals and photography to illuminate cultural connections.

“I think artists who are of Gullah-Geechee heritage need to transcend that (focus). It’s because we are contemporary individuals. The intonations of our language also are contemporary now. It is changing and this is healthy.

“There are a number of artists who depict Gullah life, not solely as people who carry objects on their heads, but as people who are living their daily lives. These are very accurate depictions and I would like to see artists do that more and more. I think the Gullah community will begin to celebrate itself more and more because it is a living culture.”

Not surprisingly, the picture that many Americans continue to embrace is that of an outsider’s interpretation of the culture.

“I think of ‘Porgy and Bess’ and subsequent versions of it as being a very ironic form that is really the only thing that most people can relate to,” says Pringle. “And that’s a Jewish man’s interpretation of what was going on at the time. I would say that the Gullah-Geechee language is at a point that if there is not a focus on re-establishing it in the arts, there is a chance it will continue to decline.”

For Brown, whose Mt. Zion Spiritual Singers are a fixture of Piccolo Spoleto each year, there’s also the issue of purity.

“What we do, that’s real spirituals. We do the pure, unarranged Negro spirituals as opposed to the arranged spiritual, for which music is designed or found to accompany it. It’s modernized, and very little of the lyrics of these spirituals are from Gullah.”

Green contends that Gullah is too little a part of the academic curricula.

“The school system does not support the teaching of Gullah. For what little is done it’s in schools with a very small percentage of African-American kids. If they don’t have an active art department in a school, you can’t get a math or science teacher to do it.”

Change is inevitable, Hudson-Wrenn says, and should be celebrated.

“In Gullah they say, ‘Things change up now.’ I trust art and art makers to continue telling stories about this unique place and culture. It is just too powerful. You are writing about it, Alphonso Brown is touring about it and Jonathan Green is painting about it.

“Much is up to the singers and poets and painters. I was drawn back to the Lowcountry of my ancestors to live in the heart of Edisto Island where I find Gullah culture still alive. The influences are just a bit more subtle, but I argue that they are still there.”