Daughters of the Dust and the History of Gullah communities

by Prof. Emily West

On Tuesday 17th October the University kindly invited me to introduce Reading Film Theatre’s showing of the 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust, written and directed by Julie Dash.  Her father grew up in the area where this film is set, the flat ‘lowcountry’ coastal sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia that dot this beautiful, yet very poignant, part of the world.

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Julie Dash’s film focuses on one large extended ‘Gullah’ family who live on one of these islands at the turn of the century.  Released in 1991 and initially marketed as a ‘non-mainstream’ African American film, Daughters of the Dust has now been digitally re-mastered and its value is now being more widely recognized.  The New York Times refers to Daughters of the Dust as being a film of ‘spellbinding visual beauty’ – and of course the fact that it allegedly provided the inspiration for Beyonce’s Lemonade video has also generated a lot of interest in the film.

Writing in The Guardian, Carvell Wallace writes that the film provides a welcome antidote to the typical depictions of ‘blackness’ we see on screen, and I agree the film provides some welcome relief from the all too common depressing racialized tropes of masculinized urban gang violence.

Daughters of the Dust is quite unlike any other film I have seen.  The pace is slow, even dreamlike.  The film lacks a chronological narrative, and so harks Gullah story telling traditions.  It focuses on the different perspectives of various extended family members as they make a painful decision to move from their rural sea-island to the mainland US.  Women of all ages play a central role in a celebration of female strength.

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Yet the stunning visual imagery of this film, of people eating a picnic on a beautiful, remote beach can be juxtaposed with a more painful backdrop — the legacy of why this family is actually there.  The lowcountry gets its name from the humid, swampy marshlands of the area, a flat landscape extremely well-suited to growing high quality, American sea-island cotton and long grain rice.  And hundreds of thousands of enslaved people grew both of these crops before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.  Lowcountry enslaved people lived on some of the largest plantations in the United States, sometimes labouring alongside hundreds of other enslaved people.  This meant the area had a significant black majority in terms of the overall population — and despite the violence and horrors of slavery — sea island enslaved people were able to maintain strong cultural traditions.  These traditions drew very strongly upon the West African cultural forms of people imported to America until the closing of the international slave trade in January 1808.

While slaveholders obviously tried to obliterate the cultural traditions of people captured from West Africa – because through knowledge comes power and strength – in the black dominated low country areas this proved simply impossible. So here, people with different ethnic and tribal heritage – for example the Mandinka, Yoruba, Fon, and Igbo — created a new and distinctive creole culture that drew upon elements of a diverse West African past alongside (and to a lesser extent), the Euro-American cultural forms they encountered in the new world. Gullah is also influenced by the Caribbean world, since many captured Africans crossing the Atlantic spent time on the Caribbean islands before eventually arriving in America.

In the Carolina and Georgia lowcounty, this new culture became known as ‘Gullah’, enslaved people became Gullah slaves, their patois or dialect became the Gullah language, and their region (now dominated by route 17) became known as the Gullah area, though some people in Georgia sea-islands became known as the Geechee, hence the hybrid term Gullah-Geechee culture.

The etymology of the term Gullah—its origins — are debated. It might be a derivation of the ‘Golas’ people of West Africa, or a shortened form of ‘Angola’, from where many of South Carolina’s slaves were imported.  But for me what is important is that Gullah was new and unique in the US.Daughters of the Dust 3

The easiest way to explain Gullah culture is obviously to watch and listen to the film itself.  Julie Dash’s historical advisor was Margaret Washington Creel, the foremost historian of Gullah life.

So we hear the Gullah language – a dialect derived from pidgin English and spoken in English but with West African intonation and grammatical structures. We hear Gullah patterns of story-telling – so important to enslaved people who were forbidden from reading and writing – and for their ancestors much history comes from the oral tradition.  We see Gullah food practices which again draw upon the use of west African herbs and spices in making soups and stews in communal pots, especially with the readily available seafood of the area. Gullah women famously made baskets using local sweetgrass in a pattern that continues to this day.  We also hear gullah singing and spirituality – again something that represents much more than simply a fusion of Euro-American Christianity with west African magic and witchcraft – including hoodoo, or voodoo — beliefs. Gullah is greater than the sum of its parts.

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The Thirteenth Constitutional Amendment abolished slavery in the USA in 1865, after the Southern confederate states lost their Civil War with the Northern Unionists.  Thereafter, former slaveholders fled the lowcountry.  They still had the time and the money to escape the semi-tropical humidity, heat and mosquito-infested landscape, especially when the price of American cotton and rice fell in international markets towards the end of the nineteenth century. Unlike elsewhere in the US, where formerly enslaved people became involved in an exploitative system of sharecropping, in the lowcountry freedpeople found themselves alone and isolated from broader white society, which in many ways was a welcome relief.  Although subjected to racism and institutional discrimination via Jim Crow segregation in the same way as other African Americans in the Southern US — the geographic isolation of Gullah communities meant that they were thankfully spared segregation’s worst forms of exploitation and violence, and Gullahs were largely left alone to run their small self-sufficient plots of land how they wanted. In many ways the lowcountry was a static, quiet place.

Set in 1902, Daughters of the Dust captures this unique, isolated, quiet place at a specific moment in time, a place quite unlike anywhere else in the US.  But the longer-run history is a less positive one.  It is ironic that nineteenth- century slaveholders typically disliked the marshy sea-islands and left shortly after slavery ended. But the white people didn’t stay away forever.  They returned to the lowcountry in the 1950s and ‘60s, built bridges to the islands, and a new, feverish land-speculation led to the wholescale invasion of Gullah communities in a beautiful coastal area ripe for tourism.  So people built luxury ‘sea island’ hotels and huge gold courses, for example on Hilton Head Island. The area became a playground for rich white Americans where African Americans, in a cruel echo of slavery, yet again cleaned floors, prepared food, tended gardens, did the laundry, and looked after white children because these were the only jobs available to them.

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Many Gullah inhabitants felt unable to resist the prices being offered for their land, so they understandably left for mainland USA and new opportunities there.  Their homes and communities were simply razed and replaced with ‘plantation’ style five-star resorts.

So although Gullah culture survives, some of its manifestations are problematic and based upon the appropriation of Gullah culture for commercial ends. Yet there have also been community-led initiatives such as the creation of the Penn Centre on St Helena Island, a resource centre and archive which educates about Gullah language and culture as something to be both preserved and maintained. This is ultimately something to remain positive about in a very special and unique part of the world.

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For further reading on Gullah culture, please see:

Josephine Beoku-Betts, ‘“She Make Funny Flat Cake She Call Saraka”: Gullah Women and Food Practices Under Slavery’ Quarters’ in Working Toward Freedom: Slave Society and Domestic Economy in the American South, ed. Larry E. Hudson (New York, 1994), pp. 211-231.

Margaret Washington Creel, Creel, Margaret Washington, ‘A Peculiar People’: Slave Religion and Community Culture Among the Gullahs (New York and London, 1988).

Charles W. Joyner, Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture (Urbana and Chicago, 1999), chapter sixteen.

William S. Pollitzer, The Gullah People and their African Heritage (Athens, GA., 2005).


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