Traveling in South Carolina added a new word to my vocabulary: Gullah. The Gullahs, I learned, are people of African ancestry who live in the Low Country region of South Carolina and Georgia, including the coastal area and the Sea Islands.
The annual Gullah Heritage Days at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island were held this past weekend, November 13 and 14. Eager spectators, including David and me, lined Martin Luther King Drive several people deep for the morning parade. My favorite float – Barefoot Farms – won the heritage category. A tractor driven by a barefoot farmer pulled a flatbed wagon teeming with college bound youngsters. Another favorite was a float honoring the community’s senior citizens. The elders riding the float were clearly having a fun morning, smiling and waving at the crowd.
The grounds of the Penn Center, one of the first schools for freed slaves and now a national historic district, burst with activity. Vendors sold shrimp, flounder and other seafood with fries or grits. Mounds of collard greens, sugar cane and other produce filled truck beds. Rows of stands sold items ranging from earrings to Motown CDs. And carnival rides kept the kids grinning.
The best, though, were the performances. Groups related the Gullah heritage through song, stomp and dance. Storytellers kept the audience rapt as they spoke Gullah and taught some basic words, like oonuh (you). And Zulu tribal dancers from South Africa got the wildest response when they invited dozens of people onto the stage to learn how to really dance.
What I loved best was the joy expressed all around us, and how heart-warming and comfortable it felt to share in this celebration.