Crossing the Bridge Built by Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner-Ọyọ́túnji Village: Yorubaland in Sheldon, SC
By Ade Ofunniyin, PhD
"An overheard conversation inspired Lorenzo Dow Turner, PhD’26, to become a linguistic detective. While teaching summer school at South Carolina State College in 1929, Turner listened as two students spoke what sounded like broken English. To others, that’s all it was—a remnant of a pidgin language that slaves adapted from white influences. Turner, who had a Harvard Master’s degree in education along with an English PhD from Chicago, heard the echoes of something more formal, although he couldn’t understand a word." Jason Kelly
This Gullah Society project involves a study of language in its social and cultural context. The research associated with the study focuses on Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner's wide-ranging comparative analysis between the physical patterns of the speech of Sea Island residents and those of their African antecedents, published in 1949 as Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect.
Nearly seven decades ago, Dr. Turner’s research identified several hundred West African names, phrases, and folklore that were embedded in the dialect of Gullah Geechee communities that currently constitute the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Dr. Turner’s work conveys the relationships between language and the transmission of meaning, worldview; social and personal identity within enslaved and post emancipation Gullah Geechee communities. Turner's research engendered an African diaspora transnational agenda that spanned over several generations. His findings resulted in groundbreaking observations, analysis, and conclusions about cultural memory and retention, identity formation, appropriation, and adaptation.
Researchers investigating Gullah Geechee language and cultural retentions have given new attention to Dr. Turner's contributions to research on Gullah Geechee creolized cultural patterns, retention of African words and folklore, basket-weaving, food-ways, etc. Much of the existing research focuses primarily on Sierra Leone, Senegambia, and Liberia links, while the Yoruba, Ewe, Fon, and Ga linguistic and cultural influences sited in Dr. Turner’s research has gained very little attention.
The Gullah Geechee Corridor Commission defines the Gullah Geechee people as such, “Gullah Geechee (\ˈgə-lə\ \ˈgē-chē \ ) people are direct descendants of Africans who were brought to the United States and enslaved for generations. Their diverse roots in particular parts of Africa, primarily West Africa, and the nature of their enslavement on isolated islands created a unique culture that survives to the present day. Evidence of the culture is clearly visible in the distinctive arts, crafts, cuisine, and music, as well as Gullah Geechee language. The culture is embodied in diverse patterns of social organization reflecting the intimate and private ways communities and families meet the challenges of life.”
The presence of Gullah Geechee communities provides the clearest case study of the persistence of multiple African languages within the twentieth century African descendant people’s community. Researchers debate the origin of the term Gullah. Vass has suggested that it came from "ngola," a royal title that the Portuguese mispronounced and applied to the area now called Angola. Other suggestions are that the term Gullah comes from the Gola people who came from Liberia, while the term Geechee originated from the Kisi (Kissi) also from Liberia.
Dr. Turner identified African language precedents for the diphthongs, verb tenses, consonants and vowel sounds, tongue position, phoneme, diacritics, and syntactical patterns spoken in the sea island communities of North and South Carolina and Georgia.
The Gullah/Geechee speakers have created a Creole language which merits preservation and being compared to Papiamento spoken in the Dutch Antilles, Haitian Creole, or Trinidad's Creole, based on their linguistic heritage from Yoruba and Hausa ancestors, portrayed in Maureen Warner-Lewis's "Guinea's Other Suns".
Dr. Turner’s work provides an opportunity for an ethnographic investigation of how Yoruba descendants, many still living in the Lowcountry, while others are returning to “ancestral home” and to “roots,” negotiate new identities that include Yoruba-Gullah Geechee and indigenous Yoruba. These Lowcountry natives are African descendants that have selected to not be identified as African American and frequently use both designations. Many of these newly defined Yorubas have traveled to Nigeria and despite not having Nigerian citizenship; they now refer to Nigeria as “home” and to Yorubaland Nigerians as family. Some have taken up residency in Nigerian, Benin, and Ghanaian communities, while others make frequent visits. Most have successfully fused their transnationalist identities and link their identities to Gullah Geechee ancestries.
Researchers investigating Ebonics have found that many African expressions fused with English over the centuries have remained a part of contemporary English, though the African root words are seldom recognized. As scholars continue their etymological investigations, they explore the use of time, sentence structure and verb placement in the speech patterns of African descended people that have African precedents. Perhaps it was this combination of linguistic research and the need for academic progress for African descendant children that encouraged the "Ebonics" resolution of the Oakland School Board. Teacher training that takes into account Gullah Geechee dialect may provide a better understanding of these linguistic links and may serve to facilitate increased academic performance and greater social adjustment in our local schools as students are not punished or discriminated against because of their use of “familiar” or indigenous words and terms.
Furthermore, the substantial increase in genealogical and DNA research provide evidence of the opportunities for the training of skilled practitioners, diagnostics, and interpreters. This growing field of genealogical inquiry and research supports and advances the mission of the South Carolina Historical Society, now located at the College of Charleston Addlestone Library, Avery Research Center of African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, and an emerging network of local and national organizations currently conducting and formulating research agendas.
The State of South Carolina and the Lowcountry in particular, possess a unique opportunity to engage citizens, students and researchers in scholarship that will advance Dr. Turner’s research and add to the existing body of scholarship focusing on Gullah Geechee people and their African heritage. Dr. Turner’s academic distinctions include his pivotal role as a founding member of the first African Studies Program in the United States at Fisk University in1943.
Dr. Turner’s research on Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect will certainly add to better understanding of the unique contributions made to the fabric of American culture by Gullah Geechee people and their descendants. ” The partnerships garnered through an association with Dr. Turner’s seminal research will support schools, colleges, universities, and sundry organizations in their work “to expand its academic horizons through strategic collaborations and partnerships.” The legacy of excellence and commitment to research, scholarship, and diaspora studies associated with Dr. Turner’s work provides considerable opportunities for research and access to an extensive collection of materials. Collections of Dr. Turner’s material can be found at the Herskovits Library at Northwestern University in Evanston; Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana; Roosevelt University, Chicago; the University of Chicago; Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University; and the Library of Congress, Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Washington, D.C.
Furthermore, Gullah Society intends to situate itself as the first institution to provide a curriculum that focuses on, celebrate and promote Gullah Geechee heritage, in the Lowcountry. This occasion will be further heightened as Gullah Society continues to broaden its mission and vision to garner global interest in educational programming that is a direct outgrowth of the scholarship of Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner, in recognition of his monumental work, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949) and his long-ranging contributions to Lowcountry heritage and culture.
A central component of the newly established Gullah Society project will be classes that support an exploration, analysis and re-vitalization of Gullah Geechie language and Gullah Geechee cultural worldview. The classes will serve to foster a greater awareness and appreciation of the rich linguistic and cultural markings that continue to be exhibited by Gullah Geechee communities throughout the Gullah Geechee corridor
Finally, in the spirit of Gullah Society’s commitment to move towards fostering a greater appreciation and understanding of Gullah Geechee history, heritage, and culture we will work to establish a location where interested students, scholars, and community folk can visit for research, community workshops and forums, and general engagement. We believe that we will be able to attract the requisite funding to support this effort. The Institute shall be named, The Lorenzo Dow Turner Institute of African Descendants History, Heritage, and Ongoing Development.
Crossing the Bridge
My dissertation titled, The Òsogbo Connection : transnational identities, modernity and world view of Yoruba Americans in Sheldon, South Carolina and Alachua County, Florida (1997), was privileged by my thirty-year membership in the Yoruba American community, my early established relationship with Yoruba Nigerians, and my deep connection to Gullah Geechee ancestry. My interest in and commitment to Yoruba Cultural Nationalism began in Ọyọ́túnjí African Village in 1974, two years after Adefunmi l and his followers founded the village.
My ancestral families were early settlers in the Charleston and Berkley County area. Some were white enslavers that raped African women on my maternal grandmother's side and many were enslaved on my paternal grandfather's side. My paternal great-great grandmother descended from the indigenous Cherokee Nation. Like so many others I stand on the bridge that was erected by Dr. Turner and the now ascended Adefunmi I, Ọyọ́túnjí African Village founder and first king, who offered these remarks to purport why Yoruba language and culture persist and remain prominent in the retention and reconstruction of traditional African religion and culture in the diaspora:
“There is no tragedy, which has caused a deeper personal conflict in the mind and spirit of the black American than the question of his pre-American origins. Nothing fills the average American born black with more discomfort and embarrassment than a discussion about Africa. The two basic reasons for his severe attack of inferiority on these occasions is firstly his complete lack of accurate knowledge about the regions of his pre-American origin, and secondly his even greater ignorance of any of the aspects of his ancestral civilization. Thus it is unthinkable that real, honest progress and purpose can be brought into the lives of a people who have no idea or measurement to judge their progress by. Briefly stated, it is impossible to know where you are going, if you do not know where you have been, or you cannot tell who are or what you can become, if you do not know who you are.
For years therefore, Africa and people derived there from, have been subjected to every conceivable ridicule and humiliation . With no society to defend its culture, it is inevitable that for every person of African origin, Africa became a badge of shame. It is therefore the purpose of this booklet and the Yoruba Temple to begin the re-endowment of every African born-in-America with confidence and appreciation of his origins and culture.”
The 1962 publication titled, “Tribal Origins of the African American,” came approximately thirteen years following the 1949 publication of Dr. Turner’s groundbreaking research, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect and ten years before the founding of Ọyọ́túnjí African Village.
Adefunmi was installed as the King (Ọba) of Ọyọ́túnjí, and was the first African American to be initiated to Ifá in 1972 during a visit to Nigeria to attend the first òrìsà conference held at Ife University (now Ọbafemi Awolowo University, OAU). Films depicting the Yoruba cultural development at Ọyọ́túnjí brought him acclaim at the conference and he became a candidate for coronation by the Ooni of Ife. On June 5th, 1981, Adefunmi I became the first non-Nigerian to be named a Baale (Chief of a town). Adefunmi and his followers have recreated in Ọyọt́únjí Village, with some accuracy, several aspects of Yoruba culture.
Although the Yoruba elements at Ọyọt́únjí reflect some aspects of Old World Yoruba culture/religion, there are a number of notable differences. The word Ọyọ́túnjí mean, “Ọyọ again awakes” (Ọyọ-tún-jí) and was chosen to express Efuntola’s desire to see Yoruba culture revived and recreated in the United States. The City of Ọyọ is in Nigeria and is the capital of the kingdom of the same name. Ọyọ is said to have been the largest and most powerful Yoruba kingdom (see Johnson’s “History of the Yoruba, Clarke’s “Mapping Yoruba Networks).
Since 1972, Sheldon, South Carolina has been the geographical site for Ọyọt́únjí African Village. Residents of Ọyọt́únjí practice Yoruba life-ways and have reclaimed Yorubaland in Southwest Nigeria, Benin, and Togo as the source of their transnationalist identities. For nearly five decades the village has provided fertile ground and intriguing material for researchers, filmmakers, and artists. Several doctoral dissertations, documentaries, journal articles, and monographs exist that examines and discuss Ọyọt́únjí’s commitment to multi-linguistics, cultural reclamations, and African identity formation in diasporic contexts (Blier 1995, Brandon 1993, 2002, Clarke 1997-2004, Clark 2000, Cortez 2000, Dismantles 1994, Elebuibon 2000, Gleason 1987, Hagedorn 2001, Holloway1990, Hunt 1979, Idowu 1991, 1994, Mason 1985, 2002, Murphy 1989, Murphy and Sandford 2001, Neimark 1994, Sangode 1996, Teish 1997, Thompson 1984, Wippler 2000, Ofunniyin 2008, Hucks 2014).
In the mid-1980s, the population of the community plummeted from two hundred to seventy, but this led to an expanding constituency of thousands of urban affiliates in areas such as Atlanta, GA., New York City, Washington, DC, Miami, FL., Las Angeles and San Francisco, CA, and several Caribbean communities. These satellites continue to expand, with growing loyalties to Ọyọt́únjí African Village. The village laid the seed for ensuing links with continental Yorubaland and the Yoruba diaspora. Village progenitors and now living descendants propagate the widespread use of Yoruba names, phrases, and attire as cultural markers.
Some personal names, especially in lowcountry Gullah Geechee communities are drawn from places, such as Kano from Northern Nigeria and Abomey from Dahomey (present day Benin).
This proposal recommends a contemporary examination of Dr. Turner’s hypothesis, analysis, and conclusions concerning the significance of the Africanisms that were identified in the Gullah Geechee dialect and cultural practices, during his three-decade investigation. Dr. Turner’s research will be examined in its African diasporic context. The research will place emphasis on the Yoruba influences that are detailed in Dr. Turner’s research and elucidate on-going processes of change and globalization that are influencing Gullah Geechee communities that continue to develop new formations and transnationalists identities.
Finally, the proposal situates Dr. Turner’s life work as central to the founding of diaspora studies, particularly the study of the Gullah Geechee people of the Sea Islands. The African American Studies Program at the College of Charleston and the Graduate School of Charleston are in a prime position to develop a research agenda that includes a comparative and contrasting analysis of Dr. Turner’s examination of the Candomble spiritual practices of Brazil, the Lucumi of Cuba, Voudon of Haiti, and the practices of Ọyọt́únjí Yoruba African Village practitioners. Dr. Turner recorded hundreds of hours of African Brazilian (Candomble) ritual songs, life stories, and African folktales. These materials are rich with evidence of the types of borrowings and adaptations that were necessary for the survival of African languages and culture in the diaspora. They are also replete with substantial artifacts, visual, audio, and narrative ethnographic data that provide prodigious samplings of Dr. Turner's appreciation of Yoruba and Gullah Geechie links. The bibliography below provides a list of additional authors and scholarship focused on Gullah Geechie language, culture, and traditions.
Director of the Center for African and African American Research and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, J. Lorand Matory (2005) in his study of Candomble in Brazil writes the following about such borrowings and adaptations: “The ongoing 19th–to 21st–century dialogue among the massive urban populations of the Atlantic perimeter has, to my mind, done as much to constitute the Africanity and the creativity of these populations as has any ancestral African or plantation culture. The social contexts of Candomble but also Dahomean/Beninese Vodùn, Cuban Ocha, West African and Cuba Ifá divination, Rastafarianism, North American Jazz, and black Protestantisms all over the Anglophone Americas (to name just a few famous instances of Afro-Atlantic “folk” culture) have always had important supralocal, interethnic and cross-class dimensions. In all these traditions, African-American practitioners borrowed from, studied, and communicated with Africa (and strategically manipulated Africa’s image) as they institutionalized their own African-American forms of solidarity and social hierarchy. An African-Americanist cultural history need not assume, even in the context of plantation slavery, that African-Americans lacked a means of access to Africa. And they never lacked their own strategic priorities.”
Finally, I offer these remarks by Yoruba religious scholar and Africanist, E. Bolaji, Idowu (1991), “The world outside of Africa still has to wake up to the fact that African traditional religion is the religion which resulted from the sustaining faith held by the forbears of the present Africans, which is being practiced today by the majority of Africans in various forms and various shades and intensities, nakedly in most cases but also, in some cases under the veneer supplied by Westernism and Arabism; it is also a religion which is receiving a new vitality in certain areas in consequence of nationalism plus inspiration by other religions.”
Courses that I created and taught related to Gullah Language and culture at the College of Charleston include: • ANTH 109: Special Topics-Back to the Big House: African and African Descendant Artisans in the Lowcountry 1800-2000 • ANTH 205: Language and Culture: Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect • ANTH 319: Special Topics in Anthropology - Preserving Charleston's Gullah Graveyard Traditions • ANTH 329/AAST 300: Special Topics in Anthropology/African American Studies - Documenting, Interpreting and Preserving Gullah Traditions • FYSE 103: The Gullah Community: Ethnographic Research in Gender and Identity FYSE 141: The Gullah Community: Ancestry, Gender, and Identity
Baldwin, William 2010 Gullah Cuisine by Land and by Sea: Evening Post Publishing Co.
Branch, Muriel Miller 1995 The Water Brought Us: The Story of the Gullah-Speaking People: Sandlapper Publishing Co., Inc.
Brown, Alphonso 1993 A Guide to Gullah Charleston: Gullah Tours Charleston
Brown, Michael Ras 2012 African-Atlantic Cultures and The South Carolina Lowcountry: Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale
Carney, Judith A. 2001 Black Rice: The African Origin of Rice Cultivation in the Americas: Harvard University Press
Chireau, Yvonne E. 2003 Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition: University of California Press
Creel, Margaret Washington 1988 “A Peculiar People,” Slave Religion and Community-Culture Among the Gullahs: New York University Press
Cross, Wilbur 2008 Gullah Culture in America: Praeger Publishers
Crum, Mason 1940 Gullah: Negro Life in the Carolina Sea Islands: Negro Universities Press
Davis, Marianna W. 1976 South Carolina’s Blacks and Native Americans 1776-1976: The Bicentennial Project Editorial Board, A Publication of the State Human Affairs Commission
Dillard, J. 1972 Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States: Random House
Drago, Edmund L. 1990 Initiative, Paternalism, and Race Relations: Charleston’s Avery Normal Institute: The University of Georgia Press
Edgerton, Douglas R. 1999 He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey: Madison House Press
Falk, William W. 2004 Rooted in Place: Family and Belonging in a Southern Black Community: Rutgers University Press
Fashagba, J. A. 1991 The First Illustrated Yoruba Dictionary
Fields, C. "Histrionics About Ebonics 101- What we have learned." Black Issues in Higher Education. Jan 23 1997, Vol 13, no. 24.
Fordham, Damon 2009 Voices of Black South Carolina: Legend and Legacy: Charleston History Press
Frazier, Herb 2011 ‘Behind Gods Back,’ Gullah Memories: Cainhoy, Wando, Huger, Daniel Island, St. Thomas Island, South Carolina: Evening Post Publishing Company
Furro, Broteer 1988 A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Ventura, A Native of Africa: Wesleyan University Press,
Genovese, Eugene D. 1974 Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made: Pantheon Books
Green, Alvin J. 2009 The Struggle for Peace of a Gullah Mind: Xlibris Corporation
Grosvenor, Verta Mae Smart 2011 Vibration Cooking or, The Travel Notes of a Geechie Girl: The University of Georgia Press
Herskovits, Melville J. 1941 Myth of the Negroes Past: Harper & Row Publishers
Holloway, Joseph E. 1990 Africanisms in American Culture: Indiana University Press
Kellersberger, Vass K. 1979 The Bantu-speaking Heritage of the United States: UCLA
Lockhart, Mathew 2005 Slave Records in the Manuscripts of the South Carolina Historical Society: A Catalog: South Carolina Historical Society Charleston
Major, C. 1994 Juba to Jive; A Dictionary of African-American Slang: Penguin Books
Manfredi, V. 1994 "Sourcing African English in North America." International Journal of African Historical Studies: Boston University
Mintz, Sidney and Richard Price 1992 The Birth of African American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective: Beacon Press
Mullin, Michael 1992 Africa in America: Slave Acculturation and Resistance in the American South and the Carribean 1736-1831: University of Illinois Press
"Oakland Amends Ebonics Resolution." Black Issues in Higher Education. Vol, 13, no. 25, Feb 6, 1997.
Ofunniyin, Ade 2008 The Osogbo Connection: Transnational Identities, Modernity, and Worldview of Yoruba Americans in Sheldon, South Carolina and Alachua County, Florida. PhD Dissertation, University of Florida
Opala, Joseph 1987 The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection: United States Information Service, Freetown, Sierra Leone
Pollitzer, William S. 1999 The Gullah People and their African Heritage: The University of Georgia Press
Rhyne, Nancy 2002 Slave Ghosts Stories: Tales of Hags, Hants, Ghosts, & Diamond Back Rattlers: Sandlapper Publishing Co., Inc.
Ross, Randy "Why Black English Matters." Education Week, January 29, 1997.
Sea Island Translation Team in cooperation with Wycliff Bible Translators 2005 De Nyew Testament: The New Testament in Gullah Sea Island Creole: American Bible Society
Starobin, Robert S. 1970 Denmark Vesey: The Slave Conspiracy of 1822: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Tracey E. 2014 Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism
Turner, Lorenzo Dow 1949 Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect: University of South Carolina Press
Twining, Mary A and Kieth E. Baird 1992 African Presnce in the Carolinas and Georgia: Sea Island Roots: Africa World Press, Inc.
Young, Jason R. 2007 Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery: Louisiana University Press
The Language You Cry In
Family Across the Sea
Priscilla's Homecoming: A guided Tour of a Slave Fortress
I Am Geechie: Our Gullah Story
Speaking the Gullah and Geechie
The Gullah Wars: Independent Afurakani
Gullah of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
The Gullah History Lecture- Dr. Lliala Afrika
Gullah Life- National Geographic Magazine
Holding On to Gullah Culture
Preserving the Gullah Culture- on Vimeo
Gullah TV: A Gullah Journey from Africa to America
Stay on the Boat
All of the above listed videos can be viewed on YouTube.
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