Sunday, June 17, 2007

"Bin Yah!" -- Protecting the Gullah people

The Gullah people of the Atlantic Sea Islands are a small and vanishing treasure of the American cultural tapestry. The current Smithsonian Magazine writes about their situation.

In the early 1900s, long before developers and tourists discovered the area, Gullah family compounds—designed like African villages—dotted the land. A matriarch or patriarch kept his or her home in the center, while children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren lived around the perimeter. The family grew fruits and vegetables for food, and the children ran free under the protective watch of a relative never too far away. They spoke a Creole language called Gullah—a mixture of Elizabethan English and words and phrases borrowed from West African tribes.

Their ancestors had come from places like Angola and Sierra Leone to the American South as slaves during an agricultural boom. Kidnapped by traders, these slaves were wanted for their knowledge of cultivating rice, a crop that plantation owners thought would thrive in the humid climate of the South's Low Country.

After the Union Army made locations such as Hilton Head Island and St. Helena northern strongholds during the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman granted the slaves freedom and land under Special Field Order No. 15. The proclamation gave each freed slave family a mule and 40 acres of land in an area 30 miles from the Atlantic Ocean that ran along the St. John's River. The orders, which were in effect for only a year, prohibited white people from living there. The descendants of these freed West African slaves came to be known as Geechee in northern Georgia and Gullah in other parts of the Low Country. They lived here in relative isolation for more than 150 years. Their customs, their life along the water and their Gullah language thrived.

Yet real estate development, high taxes and loss of property have made the culture's survival a struggle. For many years after the Civil War, Gullah land "was considered malaria property. Now it has become prime real estate," says Marquetta Goodwine, a St. Helena native also known as Queen Quet, the chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation. "In the 1950s, there started an onslaught of bridges. The bridges then brought the resorts. I call it destruction; other people call it development."

"Bin Yah: there's no place like home" explores the potential loss of important African American / Gullah communities in Mt. Pleasant, SC due to growth and development. Through the testimonies of the residents themselves, the film explores the culture, the history. the importance of land and the concept of home, giving voice to those who seldom have had a chance to be heard.

A proposed highway extension threatens to bisect these close-knit neighborhoods of cousins and kinfolk, established by freed slaves and home to generations of their families for hundreds of years/ Many residents are artisans and craftspeople, practicing traditional skills including sweetgrass basketmaking, brought over from West Africa and handed down from mothers and fathers to sons and daughters. Mt. Pleasant is the primary place in the U.S. where this grass is harvested and "sewn" into this particular type of basket.

Bin Yah will attempt to preserve - at least on film - the memories of the special places that may be lost as the struggle between the real "bin yah's" and "come yahs" escalates.

Link to the Charleston (South Carolina) Documentary Film Festival.


October, 2007 followup...

I see the Bin Yah clip is no longer available.
Here is a link to the You Tube site where I vound the clip, listing other related videos.
And here is a trailer for another documentary about the Gullah people.

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