Special to the AFRO by Renee Foose
Gullah/Geechee represents a small population of African Americans living in the coastal low country of South Carolina, Georgia and Northeastern Florida. Gullah/Geechee represents not only a people, but a language and a culture that have survived in original form for more than 300 years.
With origins dating back to the Atlantic Slave Trade, when thousands of slaves were imported by plantation owners in the Carolinas during the 18th century, the language evolved as a way for slaves to communicate with each other. And throughout the years Gullah people have maintained not only their dialect but also their heritage.
Some well-known and prominent figures can trace their roots to the Gullah region such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former first lady Michelle Obama, American Idol winner Candace Glover, and artist-activist-turned-Harvard instructor Sunn m’Cheaux.
m’Cheaux now teaches Gullah as an official language at Harvard University in the African Language Program within the Department of African and African American Studies
In 2017 Harvard University became the first Ivy league school to introduce Gullah as an official language.
“Gullah/Geechee is not broken English, it is a whole language of its own, one that is no less valid or worthy to be spoken than English or any other language,” m’Cheaux told the AFRO. m’Cheaux teaches three sections of Gullah and said the greatest challenge for students is enunciation.
Because Gullah is a spoken language there is not much in the way of resources, such as textbooks, available to m’Cheaux. He has developed his own curriculum and innovative way of teaching both the language and the culture.
m’Cheaux teaches students through Harvard’s Project Teach program, which helps local seventh-graders see themselves as college-bound, showing them that college can be an affordable, accessible, and attainable opportunity. (Research out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education has shown that middle school is when students begin to envision themselves going — or not going — to college.) The program works to expose students to examples of some typical and some atypical courses and acknowledges that college can be different things to different people The Harvard Gazette reported.
His classes are becoming quite popular and diverse. “The most challenging and most rewarding things have been the same thing; being mindful of my culture and community, not just myself,” m’Cheaux said.
A common phrase, and one widely known and still used is Kumbaya (“Come By Here”), taken from the folk song, is of Gullah origin, m’Cheaux said.