Dr Ade Ofunniyin on Gullah Culture
Dr Ade Ofunniyin continues speaking of Gullah Culture, granting AOTCE what would become his last interview.
AOTCE Valerie: When did you become a Gullah activist?
Dr. O: I worked as a blacksmith for another couple of years, was injured in a car accident and had to determine what I would do with my life at the age of 45. I had a bachelor’s degree from Fordham University in New York, so I applied to University of Florida to do a PHD in anthropology. My master’s degree was in archaeology because I wanted to use archaeology and cultural anthropology as my inroad to better understanding the history that I was trying to gain an understanding most importantly I wanted to be able to articulate what I was learning to enlighten my community. I shared with you that I lived in Nigeria as a young man 27 years old. Now I find myself 47 years old back in Africa studying at Ela Effay in Orobo University (maybe Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) learning and seeing things that were similar in our Gullah Geechee culture being practice in the Yoruba culture on the continent of Africa, West Africa, in the country of Nigeria. I knew that it was important to make these links and to dig deeper into what exactly does it mean one to be an African and two to be a person that descended from Africans who became Gullah who were identified as Gullah, and some identified as Gullah. I like to tell the story that Gullah people particularly in this area we believe many of us came from the Congo and many of us came from Angola, Sierra Leon, Senegal, Ghana another west African areas. The enslavers, they knew we were from Angola, so they identified many of us from Angola. Just like in a lot of instances the A and the N stood out and the A & N was dropped, and the enslavers started calling us Gola people.
vf: That’s interesting
Dr.O: That’s one point of reference. There’s also a group in Senegal who identify as Gola people.
vf: What would you identify particularly as Gullah items or Gullah traits or arts?
Dr.O: Basket weaving is one. We are big on basket weaving here similar to basket weaving in Senegal and Sierra Leon, but you know we weave baskets all over Africa. In fact, we weave basket in several places in the Africa diaspora, then of course food. Gullah cuisine is very popular.
vf: What are some Gullah foods that others would know?
Dr. O: Okra most certainly, rice most certainly, seafood and the way we prepare seafood and, hopping john, does anybody know what hopping john is? It’s a rice and pea combination, of course our favorite is red rice. Red rice what they know in west Africa as jollof rice. Let me add that while those are signals of Gullahism the way that we built these homes and some of our funerary rites, you know they are exclusive to us.
Dr. Ade Ofunniyin
vf: Is there any similarities or relation of Gullah to Creole? Any cross-cultural things we might know?
Dr. O: Yeah, linguistics, when you travel to other places in the diaspora where there is large number of African, particularly port cities, you know, you’ll find that people that speak, what some like to call patois, and, you have the way Gullah people speak, not so much nowadays but in the past, and you would think you’re listening to one people though we are sometimes continents apart. You know that is largely because in port cities where Africans were the laborers at those ports, they heard a lot of different languages and they had to have a common way of communicating with each other.
vf: Do you think that dialect was a means of survival?
Dr. O: Oh absolutely, absolutely. Some say it was a means to talk to ourselves and others don’t understand us. In particular, the enslavers. When we had to plan, communicate, and you know, we needed a secret language. In fact, we still need a secret language. If I could figure out how we could reinvent the Underground railroad I would greatly encourage that.
vf: What do you think made the Gullah different from other enslaved Africans around the United States?
Dr. O: We were isolated on Barrier Island. Islands that the enslavers had plantations on and islands that they only visited to check on their business. If you familiar with Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash.
vf. Of course, I think most of our readers are familiar with Julie Dash.
Dr. O: Julie did a wonderful job and her imagery of our lives on those islands. So that was very important in terms of distinguishing us. Then there was the Gullah war where you had Gullah joining the Native Americans and we resisted and fought our way to St. Augustine, because the Spanish were there, and we were informed that if we made it to St. Augustine and joined the Spanish, we would be free.
vf: Needless to say, that part of the history was omitted.
Dr. O: So, we have a lot of contributions that Gullah people have made that speak louder to our intelligent and industrial spirit then what the tourist are told about us. Here in Charleston, gentrification has decreased greatly the number of Gullah people in this area.
vf: What are some of the impediments to maintaining Gullah culture?
Dr. O: Gentrification is a big part of it but also a big part of it is our disunity. We’re not unified in that way. Even today you have a large percentage of Charlestonians, who don’t identify as Gullah. Maybe, the majority of African descendent people here don’t identify as Gullah. We’re so committed to being African Americans and I always have to inform my students and sometimes when I was lecturing or listening to our scholars talk about our people at conference and their constant reference to us as African Americans, I have to remind them that there weren’t any African Americans on the planet earth until 1976 when Jessie Jackson brought that language forward during his campaign.
vf: So, you’re saying you take great pride in being Gullah and African?
Dr O: I think one of the other things about those of us that identify as Gullah these days, we bring along with that a consciousness the importance of our ancestors and the importance of us being strongly connected to our ancestors. In fact, being of service to our ancestors, because they are in service to us.
vf: By that what do you mean?
Dr O: Ok, so one important part of my work that I do these days, is I, in my organization the Gullah Society, I invite the audience to visit our website The Gullah Society - Home So, important to our work in Gullah Society is finding, preserving and restoring our ancestral burial ground, Most recently, we reinterred the remains of 36 Africans and some of them were born on the continent of Africa and some of them were descendants born here. These people had been in the graves in Charleston since 1760 or 1780 something like that and during a renovation of the auditorium, of the Gilyard auditorium. The construction crew uncovered these graves similarly to how they uncovered those graves at the New York burial grown. At the Gilyard auditorium these bones were disturbed, the city of Charleston put them in some boxes in a warehouse, while they determined what to do next with them. So, Gullah Society stepped in and organized the community so those bones would be interred with dignity. It was a phenomenal experience in that we reinterred, back into the grown, as close as possible where they were disinterred, and since we didn’t know their names, though we did DNA and found out some very important things about them, they had no names, so we did in Yoruba, I might add here, I am a Bobola in the Yoruba tradition and that came to me going to Nigeria as a young man, I been living that way since. So, we did ceremonies, traditional ceremonies. We gave each of those 36 individuals African names to go back to their graves with and it was so powerful to do that for them. Then it was even more powerful to witness what they have done for us, since we did that for them. We maintain the culture and the shift and changes that is occurring in Charleston.
For more of the interview please check back and read what Dr. Ade Ofunniyin talks about next as he speaks more about Gullah Culture in Charleston, South Carolina. His story will be posted in August 2021.
In the meantime you can assist Dr. Ade Ofunniyin with his mission, by going to his site and making a financial contribution to reinterring Africans and other enslaved people. Dr. Ade Ofunniyin (Dr. O) - The Gullah Society