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Unenslaved: A Redefinition for Social Change
9/11/2013 12:02:52 PM

Jonathan Green addressing an audience at the opening of his new exhibit at Avery, Unenslaved: Rice Culture Paintings, August 29, 2013 photo: Ade Ofunniyin

By Dr. Ade Ofunniyin

In the not to distant past people from Charleston and its nearby islands would fight you if you called them Geechie. This was especially true for those who had migrated north and west to places like the “big apple” or Chicago to a “better life” and an escape from the backward ways of the Gullah Geechie folk back home. If you wanted to truly unnerve someone you only needed to call him or her a rice eating Geechie. In other words, down south black people held a general disdain for the words Gullah and/or Geechie and wanted desperately to distance themselves from the memory of home. Some like my mother, who left Charleston for New York in the late 1950s vowed to never return, and some did not.

Despite those sentiments most still stood on Lenox Avenue in Harlem every other week awaiting the arrival of the truck from down home, that brought everyone’s favorite victuals; most still celebrated the seasons and holidays with customs and traditions that they had grown to know and honor. During those special occasions, everyone looked forward to visiting friends and family’s homes where you would be sure to enjoy steam crabs, shrimps, okra stew, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, cornbread, and everyone’s favorite was red rice. On New Years Eve, women would be in the kitchen throughout the night preparing the New Years Day meal that always included “hop and John” and an a sundry of favorites that delighted the Gullah Geechie palate.

Some of the same people would throw a fit if you called them an African. In my lifetime I have heard black people in the south say that they were not African. Some would ask me, “why you love Africa so much?” Usually followed by, “I ain’t left nothing in Africa.”

Yes, these words out of the mouths of rice eating Gullah Geechie, home grown, down south black folk. I don’t mean to be misleading and cause you to believe that people don’t think these negative things about Africa and Gullah Geechie culture in this day and time. The truth is that there are still many, young and old who still don’t know about or appreciate the beauty and essence of the Gullah Geechie people and their contributions to the establishment of the United States of America and the country of Liberia in West Africa.

We can certainly make an arms length list of the ways that Gullah Geechie people have influenced the world with education, spiritual and religious customs, health and medicine, science, industry, an agricultural economy, music, dance, theatre, architecture, and of course food ways and diet. The genius of Gullah Geechie people was hidden from the eyes and minds of the very people who manifested the genius, namely Gullah Geechie people.

Behind the veil that concealed the cruelty and contempt of enslavement were the masterminds of the African people that were captured and brought to the “New World” to re-create what the agents of the enslavers had witnessed in Africa. It is a historical fact that the process engaged in the creation of the enslaved African in colonial America resulted from the forced enculturation of captive Africans. Alex Haley’s book Roots depicts how Kunte Kinte was captured and stolen from Africa; he was forced to claimed his new identity through accepting Toby as his new name. The undoing of the African mind and ethos becomes even clearer in the film Roots as we witness the transformation of a free African mind to an enslaved disconnected mind over several generations. But the story was incomplete in Haley’s saga. What remained untold was the ingenuity of both the free and enslaved African mind, as Africans effectively transformed the landscape of a foreign land, rendering it useful to the ambitious and ruthless mercantile, planter settler class.  

Several generations of undoing did not erase Africa from the minds and soul of her descendants who identify as Gullah Geechie people. The ancestors were wise people whose foresight told them to mark themselves and their children as distinct. To hold on to something that would recall Africa; that would quicken their souls in a time such as this. A tribal marking not unlike the markings that were carved onto our bodies in Africa, a tradition that continues in some African communities until this day. They brought with them from their native countries a great many skills. They made baskets, farmed, hunted and fished as they did in their native countries. They were engineers creating landscape that would facilitate an agricultural economy. Some were blacksmiths and created the required tools. Others were tanners, carpenters, and net weavers. With their skills and knowledge they created a world for the enslavers to enjoy and flourish, while they were forced to endure and hope for a better day when their descendants would once again know themselves. Some resisted and ran away from their lives of servitude. Some fought back and were punished or killed. Almost all of them prayed, struggled and hoped for a time when they would be unenslaved.

Unenslaved, a concept whose time has arrived! Jonathan Green, a noted Gullah Geechie artist and liberated thinker is the originator of the Low Country Rice Project and gives to us the notion of unenslaved people. The project seeks to inform the world about the triumphs and greatness of Gullah Geechie people and to disengage ideas that continue to negatively influence the minds of the descendants of the enslaved and the enslavers, especially children. The influence remains nestled in the untruths and obscurity surrounding the contributions made by Africans.

The Rice Project overview states, “For a century, Charleston, South Carolina was among the richest communities in the world thanks to the labor of enslaved Africans and the business enterprise of a small and powerful landed class. Agriculture—especially rice cultivation, but also indigo, cotton and tobacco farming—was the economic engine that enabled these planters to establish a ruling class, wield political influence, and build the most dynamic and cosmopolitan urban center in the Southeast. Rice cultivation was a primary activity among blacks that helped forge what we know as Gullah Geechee culture. By extension, Gullah Geechee culture has lent much of the fabric required to stitch together an empire and contributed in a myriad of ways to life in the Lowcountry over the centuries. The efforts of rice cultivators, then, provided the basis for the South’s cultural and economic inheritance, which still is very much felt today, even as new influences make themselves felt.”

It seems perfectly fitting that God’s infinite wisdom would inspire Jonathan Green to reconnect disconnected people to the richness and beauty of Gullah Geechie heritage through the Rice Project. Rice was one of the main agricultural commodities that provided reason for the enslavement, transporting, and disruption of the body, minds, and souls of African people. The project holds inherent in it the possibility of engendering the spiritual healing so direly needed in our world. A healing that must begin with a telling of the truth about our common history, a truth that we must acknowledge and heed, lest history will repeat itself.

“The Lowcountry Rice Culture Project proposes to discover and revive the significance of rice cultivation and its legacies, and to use this history as a launching off point for broad discussions of race, class, art, trade, history and economics—in short, the various aspects of culture in the Southeast.

The Rice Culture Project is meant to be “indiscriminately inclusive,” to provide a clear frame of reference and safe environment in which such discussions can occur without fear of backlash or misunderstanding. By fostering open and informed dialogue, and by exposing participants to the many aspects and interconnections of Lowcountry culture, we hope to confront differences of opinion directly, resolve conflict, stimulate the local economy, and find common grounds on which whites, blacks, Native Americans, immigrants and others can express mutual respect, dampen false debates, and celebrate a common heritage.”

I encourage parents, caregivers, educators, and all those entrusted with the responsibility of cultivating young minds to attend the upcoming Lowcountry Rice Culture Forum. Teachers and professors that are interested in the intersections of disciplinary studies should attend and support their student’s attendance. For additional information about the forum visit the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project website at [email protected] or call (239) 641-0431.

I am very excited and anticipate that one day soon I will no longer have to explain to the young professionals, college students and graduates that I meet, the significance and merits of Gullah Geechie culture; that they will cease to be embarrassed when someone refer to them as a rice eating Geechie; and that they will use every occasion to celebrate the richness of the legacy that was left to them by those wise ancestors that foretold of a time such as this. We must commit our collective wills to do as the legendary Bob Marley advised, emancipate our minds from mental slavery, only then will we be unenslaved.

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