SAVORING AMERICA’S CULTURAL GUMBO: A Holiday Taste of Gullah Sea Island Soul

 Talking Drum: At Peace...Bot de angel tell um say, “Mus dohn feah! A hab good nyews was gwine mek ebrybody rejaice. Cause A come fa tell oona, ‘Right now, dis day, a Sabior done bon fa oona. E Christ de Lawd. An e bon een David town!’ A gwine tell oona wa oona gwine see dey. Cuase ob dat, oona gwine know A done tell oona de trute. Oona gwine find de chile  wrop op een closs wa been teah eenta scrip, an e ben leddown een a trough.”  (Luke 2: 10-12, “De Nyew Testement”:  The New Testament in Gullah Sea Island Creole, American Bible Society, N.Y., 2005) 

English Translation: 

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”  (Luke 2: 10-12, King James Version, “Wycliffe Bible Translators”)


It’s that time of the year, again- Christmas Day!  Around the world, within an untold number of languages and dialects, young folk and old folk alike, Christians and non-Christians are resurrecting feasting and festive holiday traditions- passing them along to celebrate the miracle birth of Jesus Christ- consistent with their historical or cultural version of the Nativity. 

Over the years, while growing up in Kentucky and living most summers on my grandparents’ farm in Ohio, I often thought about the truncated versions of our own history, the African-American chapter. As a child, much of what I knew of our unique journey was gleaned through osmosis at kitchen table meal-times or while slopping hogs with “Big Daddy” (my maternal grandfather), a huge, sun-kissed, dark chocolate-tinged man, a tobacco-chewing farmer with big hands, wide grins and a buzz-cut hair style, who wore bibbed overalls everywhere we went. 

According to “Big Momma” (my maternal grandmother), he was from “somewhere in Georgia” and the gray hair which covered his head had been there since he was 16! I recall his being a well-liked and much-respected farmer within the mostly Dutch and German farming community. He was also a spiritually converted moonshine runner, transformed somewhere within the process of courting and marrying “Big Momma,” a devout Pentecostal Evangelist whose zeal often launched her into preaching at tent revival meetings. Other tidbits of history came from backyard or street-corner bull sessions with cousins and friends. Often, although we didn’t realize it at the time, some version of the Georgia or South Carolina Sea Island Creole or Gullah dialect (some call it “Geechee” language) would creep into many of our conversations. 

We found ourselves laughing, when some of the elders, excited or peeved at something us younger ones had done to upset them, would revert to what we simply called gibberish. We only knew it was far from the heathen language of the streets to which we became accustomed. No matter how angry they became, we always thought it was hilarious the more their frustrations seemed to mount. As they sprinkled in a few choice words or phrases, we just assumed they were surreptitiously cussing us out. The language or dialect certainly wasn’t from the so-called “King’s English” that our parents and teachers struggled to get inside our heads. Yet, paradoxically, its rhythmic cadence was still beautiful to hear, like the syncopated beat of Africa’s “Talking Drums” we all hold so dear.

Many times, I recall being embarrassed, when dragged along to various prayer meetings, where “Big Momma” wryly asked others in attendance to pray for her “little heathen grandson.”  But, it wasn’t until this year, 2011, after three kids and five grandchildren of our own (not counting #6 this month), that my wife and I decided to take a step back in time to where some of the dialect possibly originated, perhaps even more with her side of the family than with mine. At least, we were able to trace more of her family to the Georgia-South Carolina Low Country marshlands.

While my dad was also born in Georgia, not much was known of his early beginnings. But, I knew his dad, my paternal grandfather, a kindly Scotch-Irish gentleman who proudly carried me everywhere, had married my paternal grandmother, whom I didn’t know but strongly resembled the Sub-Saharan black Africans I met while stationed in the Mediterranean.  The paternal grandmother I did know was a dutiful, cinnamon brown-skinned woman of Cherokee Indian and African descent. But, such is the cultural gumbo and racial rainbow within many African-American families. 

As for my wife’s side of the family, I used to laugh at her step-father who believed much of the gibberish he used on occasion came from the Polish language. At least, that’s how he’d explain his humorous tirades after a few too many straight drinks of Seagram’s Gin, which he claimed was “prescribed” by his doctor. Actually, her paternal grandfather was from “somewhere in the Caribbean, the West Indies or Jamaica.” And, everything about him- his complexion, his bone structure, his attitude, his walk, and the talk- seemed to confirm it. From my observations while overseas in the Navy, his photo strongly resembled folk I knew from Trinidad and Tobago. 

My wife and I recall probably learning about some elements of our somewhat sketchy family histories by eavesdropping on kitchen table talks, especially when children weren’t supposed to be around, seemingly during large holiday or family celebrations and funerals- especially funerals.  Just the food, alone, often spoke volumes about the various West African and coastal American cultures our ancestors came from. And, the inviting smells in the air which teased our nostrils were the first things we noticed when we visited the Low Country, during the Memorial Day holiday weekend, between May 27 and May 29, this year.

That’s when the 25th Annual “Original” Gullah Festival was held at the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, in Beaufort, SC. We were there 22 years earlier, when our eldest son graduated from Marine Corp Boot Camp (Parris Island, SC). But, we were unable to take in the surrounding area, in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Hugo which shortened our stay. We were also unable to visit nearby Savannah, Brunswick and Hinesville, Georgia where my wife’s grandparents and other kinfolk were from and where she spent several summers.  Nor, were we able to travel to Atlanta and Pineville, Georgia, where my kinfolk’s origins had been traced. 

Traveling to Beaufort in our pick-up truck, we crept along the Atlantic shoreline marshes, passing the drooping hemlocks, weeping willows and Southern magnolia trees, before stepping on South Carolina soil and wading through the masses and magic of the festive carnival atmosphere which transported us back in time. The warmth and friendliness of easygoing  black strangers made me think of earlier times when African-Americans automatically bonded with, and watch out for, each other no matter what part of the country they came from or what circumstances brought them together. But, this was a festival where everyone was welcomed. And, they seemed to run the gamut of every color, race, religion, nationality, age range and language or dialect possible. It was a scrumptious assortment of people and food.

The air was thick with whiffs of savory smells which collided with aromas of Cajun-Creole, West African, Southern and Soul Food cuisine, distinctively flavored with the genius of Caribbean and African experiences. Like the Low Country area itself, the area’s cuisine represents a unique preservation of West and Central African cultural heritage, like the mixture of free blacks, runaway slave or Maroon societies, as well as Black Seminoles, who settled there long before the Civil War- and, long before this nation could even envision a black president. The genius of West African rice cultivation, which African slaves brought with them during the Middle Passage years, is still evident within the ever presence of rice in Gullah recipes. 

Strolling past the festival’s various food vendors, the kitchen dinner and breakfast tables of my own grandmother, my mother and my wife’s creations came to mind:  spicy beans and rice, black beans, red beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, chitterlings, deep-fat fried chitterlings, grits, fried recycled grits, baked chicken, fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, sausage, rice and sausage, seafood, shrimp, shrimp and rice, oxtails, pig tails, Southern fried cabbage, calabash stews, Collard greens, Kale, buttered sweet potatoes, spicy plantains, yummy yams, spoon bread, hot-water cornbread, hushpuppies and more, much more.

Then, the music: distinctive blends of Jazz, Reggae, Delta Blues, Southern Gospel, Spiritual, Soul, Rock & Roll and even some contemporary Hip Hop and Rap. To be honest, we’re not much into Rap, but the rest of the music was heavenly to me. 

As my mind drifted, and my nostrils and ears sponged up the surreal surroundings, I could even hear “Big Momma” lecturing again about a heaven on earth. Then, meeting and chatting at length with Gullah royalty- the Gullah queen, Queen Quet Marguetta Goodwine, a highly educated woman with a thick Gullah dialect and the unblemished look of Ancient Africa, unmarred by European influences- punctuated the meaning behind the entire festival. 

Then, I thought of our African-American President, Barack Obama, and his historic journey to the White House, pricking the fringe of racism, still resurfacing this very day.  I also thought about Maya Angelou’s beautiful poem, “Still I Rise,” especially her closing lines:

 Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Once again, I am reminded of  the genius and beauty of Ancient African Kingdoms and civilizations that must be passed on to my grandchildren- and, yours, as well. The unique melding of many African languages and dialects and the Middle Passage transplantation of African culture to the Western Hemisphere must be appreciated, if we are to continue to advance as the universal beacon of freedom. Our strength lies within our nation’s diversity, not its sameness.

As I pause and reflect this Christmas Day, on the cultural gumbo and mosaics of my family, as well as the patchwork quilting unique to my country, these words come to mind:

“Leh we gii glory ta God een de mos high heaben. Leh dey be peace ta dem een de wol wa hab God fabor!”  (Luke 2:14 “De Nyew Testement”:  The New Testament in Gullah Sea Island Creole, American Bible Society)

Translated:  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  (Luke 2:14, King James Version, “Wycliffe Bible Translators”)

 …And, Merry Christmas everyone!

                                                                             “Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.



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About William "Duke" Smither (a.k.a., "Backstreet D'jeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at and former contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy. A second installment ["Passage(s) to Saint-Domingue...."] is pending completion.