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United Nations session hears Gullah language, plea


ST. HELENA ISLAND --Marquetta L. Goodwine has long been the center of attention in the Lowcountry.

Performing her plays and giving lectures about the Gullah culture garnered her that.

But this was different.

When she spoke, people from Africa, North America and Europe listened.

Goodwine spoke to the United Nations' 55th Session of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva -- a stop in the Gullah Cunneckshuns' Save the Sea Islands Tour 1999, an outreach mission of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition.

For delegates, Goodwine was one of many scheduled to speak that day -- business as usual until she began to address them in Gullah.

The electronic devices delegates use to translate languages would not work for Gullah, a combination of various African languages and old English developed by Sea Island slaves.

Nevertheless, Goodwine feels the story of how her ancestors were kidnapped from West Africa and forced to work on the islands during the years of slavery made an impact.

"They were stunned and captured when I started speaking in Gullah," the St. Helena Island native said. "That was outstanding, because it was an international arena."

She owes the opportunity to the International Human Rights Association for American Minorities, an organization that helps groups present their issues to the United Nations.

Spreading the word

According to the Gullah/Geechee coalition, the cultures began during the enslavement of Africans in America and are related to the traditional African cultures of the people of Windward or Rice Coast of West Africa.

Many were isolated on the coastal islands, allowing them to maintain their culture, language and traditions, Goodwine said.

A poetess and playwright, Goodwine has been invited to numerous schools and universities to perform her plays and give lectures. This year, the seven-member coalition will visit Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and London.

During her travels, Goodwine realized other people throughout the Sea Islands -- barrier islands off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia and North Florida -- were working to preserve the Gullah culture, but they were not keeping track of each others' efforts.

"That was a problem. If we didn't galvanize something, the resorts would push us out," she said. That's what prompted her to start the coalition.

In Goodwine's eyes, Hilton Head Island is the epitome of development run amok.

"Hilton Head is a prime example of native islander displacement and erosion of Gullah culture," Goodwine said.

She calls it "destructionment."

"When people come to Hilton Head they golf, they play tennis. They don't know the Gullah people exist. If the other islands end up like Hilton Head, no one would know the Gullah culture existed."

The coalition's efforts include signing petitions and raising funds to preserve historic sites.

The group also works to inform Sea Island natives of their rights as landowners.

"They say the people perish for lack of knowledge," she said. "I found people needed to be aware of their rights in order to be able to stay here."

The organization, based in the historic Hunnuh Homes of St. Helena, works to:

  • Promote and participate in the preservation of Gullah and Geechee history, culture and language.

  • Ensure Sea Island land reacquisition and maintenance.

  • Celebrate Gullah and Geechee cultures through artistic and educational means.


    While attending Fordham University in New York City, Goodwine saw a need to educate people about the Gullah culture.

    "People would ask me questions," she said. "A lot of what they heard about Gullah was wrong. They were lies."

    For instance, some thought the Gullah people were backwards and ignorant and don't know how to speak English. Or that black people in the South were all sharecroppers who didn't own land. Or that Gullah people all practiced voodoo.

    A lot of the misinformation came "from movies that Hollywoodized the Gullah culture," she said.

    Goodwine decided to help get people to the Beaufort area to experience the Gullah culture themselves.

    "I took the last $50 I had and put together a flier about the Gullah Excursion."

    As she posted the fliers in various locations throughout New York, Goodwine wondered if people would be interested in taking a bus trip to attend Beaufort's annual Gullah Festival, where they could see participants celebrate Gullah culture through song, dance and stories.

    "When I got back to my house five hours later, the answering machine was loaded," she said.

    Goodwine has been offering the Gullah tour since 1986. It draws people from states including California, Michigan, Louisiana, Tennessee and Georgia.

    "People are more willing to protect the culture if they can understand it."

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