By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Staff Writer
The Gullah Geechee first became a nation 17 years ago in front of international observers. One million members residing along the East coast from Jacksonville, NC to Jacksonville FL and stretching 35 miles inland at some points, then elected Queen Quet Chieftess and Head of State, to defend their culture and heritage.
The responsibility made her a champion of environmental causes and a frequent ally of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP). Consequently, she was only too willing to speak to a group assembled by SCELP at Bowens Island on February 12.
Queen Quet stepped up to the microphone to the welcoming smiles of familiar faces, and introduced her topic. The speech had all the marks of a stateswoman accustomed to public speaking. There were spikes of enthusiasm, loud pointed finger admonishments, and the hushed tones of an “inside joke,” all rolled together with a comfortable, practiced tenor. The smiles remained Queen Quet as continued, but brows began to furrow and ears tilted toward to the speaker, because no one understood a single word she was saying.
Everyone tried and everyone wanted to, and some thought they did, but no. Not so much.
You wouldn’t have thought such a diminutive person could laugh so loud but confused attendees were jarred again and Queen Quet resumed seamlessly, now in the King’s English. Hard to decide if this was art imitating life or the other way around, but the demonstration made an important point about the heritage she defends.
The Gullah language/dialect was long maligned as pigeon English or even deliberate attempts to be obtuse. “Missionaries [visiting the Gullah] centuries ago said ‘they have no command of English’ instead of them actually recognizing that we speak a different language or taking the time to listen,” said Queen Quet. She highlighted her point by recalling a trip to France, where she constantly noticed fellow Americans asking why nobody spoke English. “Because you’re in another country,” exclaimed Queen Quet. She says today’s Gullah youth are still subjected to disdain for speaking their native tongue, when they deserve credit for being bi-lingual. Speaking two languages is the only way to get along in the modern world, yet still preserve their heritage, Queen Quet insists. Speech, however, is only one component of the heritage Queen Quet protects.
Both sides of Queen Quet’s family have been here since the 1600’s and are part of a melting pot which includes the peoples of West Africa, as well as the Caribbean islands of Barbados, Jamaica etc.
“Many times the slave ships from Africa would stop in the Caribbean. Sometimes they would pick up sugar, and sometimes they would pick up more people for their cargo. Then, they would come to the port downtown [Charleston]. We always say ‘water in, water out’ because we got here over water and we will leave here by water,” said Queen Quet as a segue to describing life in her community.
The Gullah/Geechee have no problem “believing” in climate change because they actually see the effects every day. Some members of the Nation have gone into information technology, but most live simply by farming or fishing and taking any extra products to market.
“We can hardly stand being here [Bowens Island] without our nets. We want to be casting right now, but we feel very at home here because of all the shells along the road. I was visiting New York and had to laugh at people who wanted to treat me to fresh fish. You want fresh fish? This isn’t fresh fish. If it comes on ice, it isn’t fresh fish. When you hear the [boat] horn and everybody goes down there [to the docks, right that minute] and the gills are moving, that’s fresh fish,” says Queen Quet. Consequently, her alliance with SCELP is easy to understand. Sea level rise affects low lying Gullah farms, and off-shore drilling could destroy the Nation’s fishing industry.
“We first started working together [with SCELP] and it was called SOS [Save Our Shores, a national movement applied locally]. We won protections for St. Helena Island, and we won when they [Bureau of Ocean Energy Management] ruled against seismic testing [January 7] and we can win again. We have to face climate change because we are literally on the very edge of this fight. [We] will work together to protect a heritage centuries in the making, that has been handed down from generation to generation,” concluded Queen Quet.