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Gullah Geechee conference offers opportunities for the scholar and the public to come together

February 26, 2019
The Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters.Marcus Amaker, poet laurete of South Carolina.Charles "Chaz" Joyner, who the Charles Joyner Institute of African and Diaspora Studies was named for.

As academics conduct research on Gullah Geechee cultural artifacts and traditions, they uncover fascinating information, yet what they learn is often discussed apart from the very people who created that culture. An organization at CCU wants to remedy that situation.

Coastal Carolina University’s Charles Joyner Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies hosts the International Gullah Geechee and African Diaspora Conference, the first of its kind in the region, on CCU’s campus March 7-9.

The conference is themed “Tracing the African Diaspora: Places of Suffering, Resilience and Reinvention” and is organized by musicologist Eric Crawford, director of the Joyner Institute and associate professor in the CCU Department of Music. The event will bring together scholars, practitioners and community members for three days of presentations and performances. Ninety-five Gullah experts from across the country and nations around the globe including Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Barbados will participate.

Conference sessions will examine significant social, political and cultural experiences among African-American communities and various African and Caribbean nations in the past, present and future.

Crawford emphasized the distinction between this conference and the traditional academic gathering, in which scholarly experts present their research and findings to a group of highly specialized peers. At this conference, presentations and activities are designed to be accessible to the general public and the communities from which the culture emerged. Many events are free and open to the public.

“It’s not just going to be an academic effort,” said Crawford. “It’s an effort to engage scholars, yes, but there are also scholars who are in the communities themselves who will be here. We will have basket makers, performers and doll makers alongside academics.”

Crawford thinks this model sets a useful and necessary precedent for Gullah Geechee studies, as well as for other academic disciplines.

“Too often, scholars focus either entirely on archives somewhere in some structure and never go down and apply it to the actual people,” he said, “or, they’ll study people and write a book, and people never see it. At this conference, we connect the scholarship to the actual people. If we’re going to discuss the Gullah Geechee people, they should be here, and they should understand what we’re saying and the research we’ve conducted.”

Highlights of the conference include a keynote address by Sheila S. Walker, director of the African Diaspora and the World Program and professor of anthropology at Spelman College. Walker is a cultural anthropologist, documentary filmmaker and executive director of Afrodiaspora Inc., a nonprofit organization that develops documentary films and educational materials that focus on the global African diaspora.

Marcus Amaker, South Carolina’s first poet laureate, performs spoken-word poetry on March 7. Also a graphic and web designer, videographer and musician, Amaker has been featured on PBS Newshour, TEDxCharleston and the Huffington Post. His latest project, “empath,” is a collaboration with Grammy-nominated producer Quentin E. Baxter.

A Salute to Gullah on Friday evening, March 8, brings a crowd of iconic performers to the stage in Wheelwright Auditorium with the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, Ron and Natalie Daise, and Aunt Pearlie Sue. The Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, all descendants of African slaves, tour nationally performing one of the oldest surviving African artistic traditions. Ron Daise, vice president for creative education at Brookgreen Gardens and a native of St. Helena Island, and his wife Natalie Daise, a storyteller and artist, are writers, actors, educators and television performers known for their roles on Nickelodeon’s “Gullah Gullah Island.” Aunt Pearlie Sue is the creation of Anita Singleton-Prather, a native of the Sea Islands in Beaufort County, S.C., who has entertained audiences with Gullah-inspired folktales for more than a decade.

Community Day is March 9, dedicated to the history, customs, stories and current issues of our local communities. Presentations range from papers and musical performances to film, theater and dance on topics including language, folklore, spirituality, medicine, archaeology and anthropology.

Heather Hodges, executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and participant in the event, said the Joyner Institute itself and the conference offer opportunities and resources that she hopes other institutions will replicate. The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor spans coastal areas and sea islands through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina where Gullah Geechee people have traditionally resided.

“Other than the Joyner Institute, no other institution in the corridor has anything similar. There’s no department, there are no chairs, and so this has become the focus and locus of a lot of that research activity,” said Hodges. “One of the benefits of having this conference is that it brings to the surface all of the researchers and all of the community members who are part of this project. It brings a better understanding and documentation of Gullah Geechee cultural history, and we’ll use that program to make the case to other conferences and other universities why they should be doing similar things.”

For a full conference schedule, including admission information, visit coastal.edu/joynerinstitute/conference.

The Joyner Institute, established in 2015, is named after the late Charles Joyner, CCU distinguished professor emeritus of Southern history and culture and author of the groundbreaking work “Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community” (1984). The Joyner Institute examines the historical migration and scattering of African populations to local geographical areas and the subsequent evolution of blended cultures, specifically Gullah.

Additional information:

Video: Marcus Amaker and Quentin Baxter at TedXCharleston

Video: Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters

Video: Aunt Pearlie Sue

coastal.edu/joynerinstitute