Identifying as Gullah-Geechee

Though my family falls within the realms of the Gullah-Geechee corridor, for whatever reason we never identified ourselves as a part of the culture.

I suspect my ancestors traveled too far inland to remain in touch with the Sea Island experience.

In a talk with the director and producer of Wineglass Gullah/Geechee Productions Lesa Wineglass-Smalls said self-identification is a process. Now, she considers herself to be Gullah-Geechee. Before that, she was African-American. And before that, she was black.

She attributes her change in identity to researching Gullah-Geechee culture and history. The more she learned, the more connections she discovered between it and her life.

Her grandmother’s dialect, childhood trips to Edisto Island and the land her family farmed all had its place in her heritage.

Wineglass-Smalls, who was born in 1958, said her parents haven’t come to identify as Gullah-Geechee the way she has. Over the years they’ve embraced African-American, shaking off labels meant as limitations like colored and Negro.

Wineglass-Smalls views me as Gullah-Geechee, and she’s probably right, but I view myself as a black American. I’m not knowledgeable enough to claim otherwise.

I don’t speak the language, I’ve done no research that proves my ancestors resided in West Africa and I’m resistant to being culturally boxed in by any label. Right now, I am waiting for the day when we are all just labeled as Americans.

That resistance triggers a number of questions though — the main being why don’t I see the Gullah-Geechee in me?

Defining a culture From the language, rice, indigo, cotton and sweetgrass basketweaving — the makings of the Gullah-Geechee culture are defined by the experiences of its people. However, people change.

As a Gullah-Geechee person, Wineglass-Smalls said integration exposed her generation to outside influences in an unprecedented fashion.

With that exposure came knowledge, the opportunity to excel professionally and by association the tendency to assimilate into mainstream white society.

Dialects were softened in favor of a more pronounced English — whatever it took to draw attention away from the cultural differences that once made our ancestors proud.

Wineglass-Smalls is fighting to preserve the Gullah-Geechee in her. I, however, have already conformed, but her passion and interest makes me want to explore the hidden details in my background. I plan to do more research into the Gullah-Geechee culture, and it’s possible my identity, too, will change.

Regardless of whether it does, I agree with Wineglass-Smalls in one thing: If cultural preservation is sacrificed from generation to generation as a means to get ahead, as a society we’ll lose more than we’ve gained.

Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908.

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