The traditions and culture of West Africans brought to America through the Atlantic slave trade have been preserved for generations through the Gullah and Geechee people. Today, this community of African Americans own the land that their ancestors once toiled as slaves in the Lowcountry coastal region, from Georgia to Florida. They farm their own food and continue to practice African-rooted customs. They also speak their own language, Gullah, which is a blend of African tribal languages and English. Once used as a survival tool that allowed slaves to communicate with one another, now this hybrid language is being taught to a new generation of students at Harvard University.
Sunn m’Cheaux, a performance artist, activist, and native of Charleston, South Carolina, was hand-selected to teach a Gullah language course at the Harvard University’s African Language Program this past Fall. For m’Cheaux, who’s also fluent in Geechee—a derivative of Gullah—the preservation of the Gullah and Geechee culture is an integral part of his work.
Gullah is an oral language that is full of “figurative terms, not necessarily literal terms,” m’Cheaux told the Charleston City Paper. Because it was established without standards for grammar and spelling, it requires abstract thought on the part of its speakers. For example, the Gullah words for infant and toddler are “han’ baby” and “knee baby,” respectively. A hand baby is small enough to carry in your hand; while a knee baby is a little bigger and needs the support of your knee. “I want to build these students’ intuition in order to know when to apply something literally and figuratively because that will help bring the language to life,” m’Cheaux said.
Instead of going to college, m’Cheaux developed a career in entertainment and activism. Still, he was recommended to teach the course by a Harvard alum who connected him with the program’s director, Dr. John Mugane. After speaking to the director and giving him a lesson in basic Gullah, m’Cheaux was hired on the spot. “He starts talking about getting my information and taking a picture for the website, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Wait a minute — did I just get hired?'”
Not only was Mugane impressed by m’Cheaux, he says Gullah is a crucial part of history that needs to be passed on and studied. “To engage in intellectual and professional work in the Gullah community, we deem it necessary — even critical — that scholars be literate in Gullah whose basic demonstration is an ability to hold non-trivial conversations with the people they write about, including (and especially) in Gullah, the language of the people they write about,” Mugane said.
The class that m’Cheaux taught at the Ivy League school is part of an introductory version of a course on Gullah. Along with Gullah, the school’s African Language Program teaches 44 other languages to help students better understand diverse communities.