From the Ramparts
Junious Ricardo Stanton
Thank You Mrs. Rosalie Pazant
This past weekend I traveled with the Cheyney University National Alumni Association to the annual Gullah Festival in Beaufort South Carolina. This was my first trip to South Carolina. I had heard about the Gullah People years ago and the festival. Last Fall one of my fraternity brothers mentioned he was thinking about sponsoring a tour to the Gullah festival. To make a long story short, I didn’t hear anything more from him and when my alumni association announced it was sponsoring a tour I jumped on the chance.
The Gullah people are the direct descendants of West Africans who were kidnapped, captured and stolen from their native soil and brought to this hemisphere to work the cotton, sugarcane and rice plantations, clear the land, till the soil, to make it bloom and profitable for whites. The most interesting aspect about the Gullah people is because of their location and isolation on the islands off the coast of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, their extremely limited contact with Europeans, they retained much of the culture, folkways and traditions of their immediate African ancestors. You probably have heard the term Geechee. That was the name given to Gullah people, which when I was growing up was an extremely demeaning term. To call someone a Geechee was an insult, on the order of calling you black before black became positive, or calling you trifling or a nigger.
Geechees are the Gullah people who spoke a blended language comprised of African and European words but with a distinctly African syntax and flow. While the Gullah people used European words, the sounds, phrasing and order were entirely different from the way Europeans, their imitators and surrogates sounded. As with all things African in this country, Gullah culture and language was viewed as “less than” backward and inferior by whites. It was also denigrated, derided and made fun of by black people who had no idea what Gullah culture was. To their credit however, the Gullah people steadfastly refused to acquiesce to white notions of what proper language was or what it meant to be human. The Gullah people are fiercely proud of their heritage and background. Over the centuries, even though they too were enslaved they developed a different approach to bondage, they were more self-sufficient and they were the first to be liberated when the Union troops invaded the area. It was in South Carolina where General Sherman, in attempting to deal with the “contraband” which is what they called our ancestors took it upon himself to order the Gullah people be given up to forty acres of land vacated by the whites who had fled the area. (This is where the term “forty acres and a mule” originated.) The Gullah people of South Carolina were the first large group of Africans to be land owners and to be given the opportunity to purchase land for themselves.
During the brief period following the US Civil War called Reconstruction, Africans in South Carolina as well as other parts of the South played a monumental role in shaping the reorganization of America with regard to how it treated all its citizens. Alas the democratic idealism and zeal of Reconstruction was short lived. The ruling elites in both the North and South reverted to their oppressive ways. Ironically they devised even more pernicious forms of peonage. But folks on the islands, because they were still isolated from whites and close knit, experienced more autonomy and self reliance then their mainland brethren. Because of this, the Gullah people tend to have more pride in who they are, their past and their potential albeit still living in a virulently racist country. It wasn’t until they ventured off the islands or as more and more whites infiltrated the coastal regions that the Gullah people experienced overt contacts with racism and a blatant denigration of their culture. In recent decades as more and more whites came to the coastal islands, as usual they brought their psychosis and greed with them. Over the years many Geechee families have lost their lands due to a myriad of reason and whites have eagerly gobbled up thousands of acres.
In the ‘80's a few descendants of the Geechees decided to do something to celebrate themselves, venerate who they were and honor their unique heritage. Mrs Rosalie Pazant who worked at Savannah State College at the time was retiring soon but she wanted to get involved in something positive to remain active. Some friends encouraged her to rekindle the spirit of a local tradition called “Decoration Day” but with an emphasis on education and preservation. So she and several others set out to plan what has evolved into what has become the Gullah Festival. The festival is a unabashed celebration of Gullah history, its’ African roots, its’ unique culture and legacy. This year the festival was held from Friday May 23 through Sunday May 25. The 2008 festival featured plays, panel discussions, artistic creativity, and assorted edutainment. But more importantly the Gullah Festival serves as a homecoming celebration ,it is also an initiation and baptism into Gullah culture. 2008 was the twenty-second year of the festival. The festival is held on the newly renovated waterfront area of the Beaufort River in downtown Beaufort. This is prime land. Naturally there are elements in Beaufort that don’t want a festival that unashamedly celebrates being African held at that location even though the festival brings in major tourist revenue for the hotels and restaurants in the region.
Mrs. Pazant and her supporters remain steadfast and undeterred. They plan to keep having the festival far into the future. If you want to experience what it genuinely means to be proud to be an African on a daily basis, attend the Beaufort Gullah Festival. In November the historic Penn Center in St Helena Island, across the bridge from Beaufort, also sponsors a Heritage Festival. This celebration is another opportunity to discover the richness and revitalizing power of the Gullah people. It is an opportunity to see first hand the Geechee people’s uncompromising pride in their African heritage. I was just as energized attending the Gullah Festival this weekend as I was in 2000 when I went to Kemet and saw for myself the wonders created by our ancient African ancestors. For facilitating this experience for me, I thank the Cheyney National Alumni Association but I especially appreciate Mrs. Rosalie Pazant who is now 91 years old. Mrs Pazant is still the president of the festival. I thank Mrs Pazant, her daughters who support her and their board for holding fast to the vision despite the myriad obstacles they’ve faced over the years. Thank you Mrs. Rosalie Pazant!