Sea Islanders - Orientation

Identification. The name "Sea Islanders" refers to the African American inhabitants of the coastal islands of the southeastern United States. The population is characterized by a distinctive Creole language, Guiiah or Geechee, and by a long history of land ownership and autonomy from mainland authorities. The region is often cited as a repository of African cultural survivals among New World peoples of African descent.

Location. The Sea Islands are a series of over one thousand transgressive barrier islands extending from South Carolina to the northern border of Florida. Although most are small and uninhabited, the largest and most densely populated (including John's, St. Helena, Port Royal, and Hilton Head) lie between the cities of Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. The major islands are today connected to the mainland by bridges, and, on many, the African American population has been displaced by White-owned resort and residential developments. The islands are topographically flat, climatically semitropical, and subject to periodic flooding during hurricanes and other storms. The maze of rivers, estuaries, and tidal marshes separating the islands from the mainland provide a rich wetlands environment for a variety of plant and animal species, some of them endangered.

Demography. The population of the islands has varied considerably through the years, along with economic cycles of prosperity and hardship. The region has, since the beginning of the eighteenth century, been characterized by an African American majority on the islands and in some coastal mainland communities. African slaves were imported into the area as early as 1682 and the trade had reached a peak of over eleven thousand by 1773. This high rate of importation, coupled with a tendency toward large, concentrated land holdings, resulted in a greatly unbalanced population. According to Rose, by 1861 almost 83 percent of the coastal population consisted of slaves. Entire islands and their populations belonged to single landowners and were worked under the supervision of one or two white overseers.

After the Civil War, much of the former plantation land passed into the hands of the freedmen in the form of small parcels (see below). Sea Islanders participated in the general trend of African American migration from rural to urban areas that characterized the early years of this century. St. Helena Island, for example, saw a population decline of approximately 45 percent between 1900 and 1930. Jones-Jackson reports that African Americans constituted more than 50 percent of Charleston County in 1930 but only 31.4 percent in 1970. Since resort development accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s, the White population has been growing rapidly. Hilton Head Island, which was almost entirely inhabited by African Americans in 1950, has undergone a particularly dramatic shift, with Whites now holding an eight-to-one majority.

Linguistic Affiliation. The distinctive Creole language spoken by Sea Islanders has long attracted researchers. The terms Gullah or Geechee are conventionally used to refer to this language (although not to Sea Islanders themselves, by whom they are taken as terms of abuse). Linguists believe that Gullah is the only surviving form of a generalized Plantation Creole which at one time was widespread in the southern United States. Creole undoubtedly originated as a pidgin, or trade language, from the practical necessity for communication between Africans and Europeans engaged in the West African coastal economy. Gullah is a true Creole in that it differs from other African American dialects of English, which do not vary from the standard in phonology, vocabulary, or syntax and are thus intelligible to speakers of the standard dialect. Creole languages, on the other hand, may be similar to the "primary" language in vocabulary but differ significantly in grammar and syntax; while the Gullah lexicon is composed of mostly English words, its grammatical rules are demonstrably closer to West African languages such as Ewe, Mandinka, Igbo, Twi, and Yoruba. It is on the basis of these grammatical features and on the lack of intelligibility to English speakers that Gullah is considered a language in its own right and not a regional dialect of English. Sea Islanders, however, speak a variety of English dialects as well as using Gullah as the first language at home. Choice of language used varies with social context, with "true" or "deep" Gullah reserved for the primary Community. Sea Islanders use various dialects of Black American English in their economic or bureaucratic dealings with non-Islanders. It is important to note that there is considerable ambivalence attached to the use of Gullah in public contexts at which outsiders are present. The use of the language is negatively sanctioned by mainlanders, both African American and White, as denoting backwardness, poverty, and rural lack of sophistication. To be called a "Gullah" or "Geech" is to be insulted, inferring that one can neither "talk right" nor understand what others say. With the recent increase in White tourism has come increasing curiosity about the language, and tourists often express surprise that Sea Islanders can "speak English." Islanders frequently find that visitors speak slowly, loudly, and deliberately to them, as if they were deaf or mentally incompetent, and they quite rightly resent such treatment. Yet Gullah remains the primary language associated with home, family, and an independent life-style, in spite of the obvious impact of mass media, schools, and out-migration. Children are still taught Gullah as a first language, and Jones-Jackson speculates that, for the near future at least, "some version of Gullah will probably continue to exist."

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