My historical vampire trilogy, starting with The Bad Death, has many Gullah characters (including the heroine) and is set in the Gullah environment. So, what is Gullah? The twin question to that is, who is Gullah? I have been reading as research for The Bad Death for so long that I can explain off-the-cuff. But I include links in this post so you can go straight to the source to learn more.
It isn’t known for sure where the word ‘Gullah’ came from, but many people think the word is derived from ‘Gola’ as in ‘Angola’ (in West Africa) or ‘Gola Jack’ (a legendary Gullah from Angola). Gullah is the term for Americans of West African descent who live in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, and some of coastal North Carolina and Florida. In the strictest terms, Gullah refers to people actually on the waterline or on the sea islands, while Geechee refers to those who live farther inland.
The original Gullahs were slaves specifically chosen by rice plantation owners because they already grew rice in West Africa. Their expertise helped make South Carolina’s Lowcountry the wealthiest region in Colonial and antebellum America. To give you some idea how ubiquitious Gullah rice was, Asian royalty ate “Carolina Gold”. King George ate Carolina Gold. Down by the River: A South Carolina Slave Community by Charles Joyner was an oft-visited reference for me. Here’s an interview with Charles Joyner. After the Civil War, Lincoln deeded the sea islands to the freed Gullah slaves. Over time, developers bought them up and turned them into resorts (Hilton Head’s the most obvious example). But for hundreds of years there were no bridges between the mainland and the sea islands. That is one big reason Gullah culture, language, and cuisine remained distinct.
The language is a mix of African languages with English. Forget understanding Gullah if you hear it in its entirety. You’re best just treating it like music and listening to its rhythm, which sounds Carribean. When writing The Bad Death, my biggest challenge using Gullah in dialogue was keeping it readable. I decided to take a handful of words and leave the rest of the dialogue English. For instance, my Gullah characters say unnah (you) and dayclean (dawn). My best reference was Lorenzo Dow Turner’s book Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. Most of us speak a little Gullah now and then and don’t know it. Ever sing Kumbaya? That’s Gullah for ‘Come by Here’. Ever eat a goober? That’s the Gullah word for peanut. This youtube clip is a little blurry but explains Gullah’s influence on English.
The most common receptical/carrier on rice plantations was a basket woven by Gullah slaves. For instance, winnowing rice to separate it from the chaff was done using a fanning basket. In The Bad Death, Anika kills vampires with stakes stored in a specially made basket she wears on her back. They wove the baskets from indiginous plants, most notably sweetgrass. Today, Gullah sweetgrass baskets are a recognized art form. They’re very strong and have beautiful patterns. You can buy a sweetgrass basket in Charleston in such places as the intersection of Meeting and Broad streets, in stores like Gullah Gourmet (example pictured here), or along the seven-mile stretch of US highway 17 known as the Sweetgrass Basket Makers’ Highway.
Gullah food is a reflection on the abundance of fish, game, and plants found in what is known today as the Gullah Geechee Corridor. To make The Bad Death authentic, I wrote the characters cooking and eating Lowcountry and Gullah food such as crab-stuffed flounder, hoppin’ John, and benne wafers. They washed it down with rice wine, scuppernong wine, etc (it’s a wine lover’s paradise there). I referenced cookbooks such as Sallie Ann Robinson’s, Cooking the Gullah Way.
Gullah folklore has some great monsters, which drive the plot in The Bad Death trilogy. An excerpt explains the Gullah’s hag: “A hag was as human as anyone, but she had the ability to slip out of her skin and into yours while you slept. She did this to devil you with nightmares. She left when you woke, donning her skin like a discarded dress to go about her daily business.” A plat-eye is a shapeshifting creature that in its human form has one eye in the middle of its forehead. Here’s a cool plat-eye story via The Moonlit Road. A droll is the uneasy spirit of a child that died an unnatural death. The most famous droll is the Shrieking Droll of Brookgreen Gardens. I added vampire qualities to the plat-eyes and drolls in my books.
In the second book in my trilogy, House of the Apparently Dead (to be published summer 2014), Anika fights plat-eyes in Charleston. Though I exercise a little anachronism to set black businesses and neighborhoods there circa 1789, I found Alphonso Brown’s A Gullah Guide to Charleston an extremely useful reference.
Gullah is a thriving community today. There’s a Gullah festival. There’s a Gullah tour. Gullah’s a recognized nation with a flag and a queen. I’m even drinking Gullah tea right now. It’s all pretty great!