A New Yorker's Journey to South Carolina to Retrace Her Gullah Roots
My cultural identity has always been somewhat of a mystery. Like many African Americans, I have taken ancestry tests and even a trip to the continent in hopes of finding my origin story. My mother and her mother did not know anything about their African roots, either—only that their ancestors arrived in the Lowcountry marshlands of South Carolina.
Preparing dinner in our Harlem kitchen, my mother would have me sit by her so I could learn recipes passed down to her from my aunts and grandmother, to connect us to our Gullah roots back in South Carolina. My earliest food memory is my mother making a pot of white rice. It was the first thing she demonstrated to me in the kitchen, something she felt every Southern woman should know. Making rice was her way of teaching me about growing up the daughter of working-class people from South Carolina because she didn't know much else about our culture outside of Harlem. While she didn't live in the South herself, her mom and sisters had immersed her in Gullah traditions. It happened in the kitchen.
"[Rice] was our first introduction to cooking," said Sara Green, who owns the Gullah Grub in St. Helena with her husband, Bill. "That's a major milestone in your growth and development for that family."
Rice is a central part of Gullah and Southern cuisine. The crop brought in more revenue for the Southern colonies than any other import, and it was mostly farmed and planted by enslaved women. The sophisticated farming technique, wrapped in centuries of tradition, is what ultimately made the enslaved people from Sierra Leone so valuable to plantation owners. It was a skill that allowed them to cultivate rice in the deep water and marshlands to sell for lofty profit.
After the Civil War, the enslaved Africans living in South Carolina were among the first group freed. Many were awaiting liberation from Union troops still making their way across the Confederate South. They pushed towards the marshlands: inhabitable, harsh terrain that was thought to be worthless. With their hands, they brought greenery and new life. They planted vegetables and fruits and taught their children to take care of the land with the same loving tenderness.
Today, those lands looked a lot different. Upon my arrival in town of Beaufort, I was met with colonial-inspired homes reminiscent of its Antebellum roots. I arrived in South Carolina as a native New Yorker and descendent from the people of the Great Migration, who had journeyed north for a better life. But I always found myself looking in the other direction. When I travel, I see Black people from other countries who are afforded the privilege of knowing their origins. I went to South Carolina to learn more about where my parents came from, things that couldn't be told through percentages and saliva swabs.
Related: Rice Is Everything
Within those stories of migration to major cities across the country, some families brought the possessions they could carry with them, both tangible and intangible memories from a life they were leaving behind. These families still held onto small traditions, like their food, to preserve their cultural identity.
Over several days, I traveled through the Lowcountry to the colonial town of Beaufort and Bluffton, where I met with chef BJ Dennis and others of the Gullah community. At the Lowcountry Café, where he now serves as culinary director, we talked about his memories of Charleston farmers hauling watermelon and other harvested goods to places like Harlem, where they could visit their relatives and sell on the street. It reminded me of another food memory: countless summers of waiting for the stands of fresh yellow watermelon that came every season from down south.
"It was a way to keep [them] connected to something that may have been traumatic for someone else who migrated, but for some, [there was] a grounding that was still there," he said.
From Bluffton, I continued on to Sea Islands, where much of Gullah culture is centered. On Daufuskie Island, where juneberries grow sparsely amongst green shrubs and trees, the contrast between wealthy and poor is blinding. Hiding away from the pristine grounds of wealthy patrons are the Gullah people who still nurture their land and plant seeds that birth fresh vegetation. The island is surrounded by oak trees that hold the history of the souls that have crossed its path.
It is there I met with Sallie-Ann Robinson, an accomplished chef and cookbook author who shares Gullah stories through recipes. The chef spends her days between private catering, writing cookbooks, and giving tours to visitors to teach them about the culture she works hard to keep alive.
"Our parents were storytellers and hard workers. Today we are book writers," she said. I could hear in Sallie-Ann's laugh the same familiarity of hundreds of birthdays and backdoor barbecues spent with my family. As I watched fans from the tour bus eagerly approach her to sign their cookbooks, she reminded me that this isn't a dying culture. Sallie-Ann and others like her are continuing the work of their ancestors and preserving their African heritage in the food they make.
Back on Hilton Head Island, I ate other foods that transported me to childhood, like Lowcountry boils with fresh shrimps and snow crabs marinated in spices to farm-raised meats. Everything reminded me of my mother, of the things she taught me. The detail in the food preparation, the connections to African foods brought by their lost ancestors—all represented the Gullah's resistance to leaving their culture behind.
My family and the people I met during my trip to Beaufort and the Sea Islands also taught me that Gullah is more than those who survived; it is about preserving the heritage that slavery tried to erase.
"They should know that Gullah culture is built on trust, and it is built on love," said Bill Green. "Gullah culture is love and kindness."
The Gullah community has survived numerous attempts of erasure. While many Americans are only just learning about this resilient group of people, it is important to remember that they aren't just lost faces hidden from history books; they are the same people living there today.
"We still here," said Dennis. "It's not vanishing, dying people. You know, it's a culture that's here. Even through gentrification, we still here. We are still living and breathing, you know. Just understand that those who never left still love those who [did] and we still one people …We need each other."
Gullah people are still here—still thriving, still preserving the land, despite attempts of removal and growing gentrification around them. They are still here, tending to the land and sharing their stories to keep the Gullah culture alive. I will teach my son and daughter all the Southern traditions my mom introduced to me—through food and with love.