The Gullah, sometimes known as the Gullah Geechee, are a group of African-American people who populate the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia, speak a distinctive creole language and retain a culture rich in African influences. Queen Quet Marquetta L. Goodwine is an author, lecturer and preservationist who founded the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition to advocate for the continuation of the Gullah Geechee culture. The following was written as she and her community prepared to ride out Hurricane Florence on St. Helena Island in South Carolina.
As we entered the peak of the fifth season that we have in the Gullah/Geechee Nation annually ― hurricane season ― I wondered why these folks on TV kept talking about Florence, and wondered what had taken place in that city. I quickly realized that it was The Weather Channel reporting, so I listened closely and found they were definitely talking about South Carolina! Disya whey de Gullah/Geechee be!
As I tuned in, I realized that they had named a hurricane for one of our South Carolina towns and I immediately said to my family, “This is gonna confuse people if they are from our coast for sure.” Florence, S.C., is part of our Lowcountry. (We won’t even get into how many women are named Florence here! When you are calling that name, you better know which one you are talking about too before you catch the wrath!)
As I listened, they spoke of the wrath that this massive storm could potentially bring and that it could potentially last for days. Florence kept spinning faster and widening to show a commanding presence. Yet, for her, that wasn’t enough. The next things we knew, she was bringing other storms along with her too! I posted on Facebook, “We hafa end this stormy family reunion fa tru!” Then folks that had never been in the storm wondered, “What will y’all do?” In response, my soul sang as my ancestors did:
“I been een de storm so long!”
Then I reflected on the fact that there hasn’t been one hurricane or tropical storm that I’ve lived through that had spared me getting asked that question. My answer unto this day remains the same, “Pray and stay.” I’ve stayed on my beloved St. Helena Island through many storms along with my family, but as I have always told folks, “We watch as well as pray. We prepare and then we stay. However, the day that GOD tells me to go, I am out of here fa sho!”
Florence has embodied the statements that are often made: “A woman has a right to change her mind,” and, “Women are unpredictable.” Gullah/Geechee see the indecisive as confused. So, all the chatter as folks check on each other by phone and meet up under the oak tree is about how the weathermen are confused and how they are not GOD so they truly don’t know what the storm will do. So, the storm and everyone needs to “Be still. Calm down. Get yourself together.”
While staying over the years, we’ve sat and read and prayed and eaten awaiting that shift in the wind that brings in a clean pure smell just before the rain. In the daytime, the sky starts to darken and we pray some more and await what GOD has in store.
During the night, we lay there and pray in our respective rooms and listen to the ancestors blowing against the building and around the corners. The sound is unforgettable. I find myself saying to Florence what I said to all the other storms before her: “Peace. Be still.”
The stillness is what lulls many folks who have survived storms right back to sleep. There is a storm amnesia that sets in to erase the trauma after the days of preparation and the passing of the storm are over. It is similar to how mothers quickly recover from the pain of delivery that we’ve gone through in order to care for our children. This time, the children have to care for the mother ― Mother Nature. She continues to speak in various ways through the wind and with the water. Oh, the water!
The sea levels have risen along the Gullah/Geechee Nation’s coasts in an unprecedented way, and so if we have several feet of storm surge on top of a high or a king tide, the water inundation would devastate the Gullah/Geechee Nation! While real estate brokers, insurance companies, and county tax and assessment departments calculate the coast of the loss of homes, historic sites, and the rest of the built environment, the logical mathematician in me cannot help but point out that their calculations are drastically off due to the fact that there is no way to calculate that which is priceless ― the cultural heritage of the people and the people themselves.
Gullah/Geechee culture contributes millions of dollars to the economies of the Carolinas. Tourists come to eat our food, hear our language and enjoy our coast. Without a healthy Sea Island and Lowcountry environment, our food security and human health are in jeopardy. The inundation of farmland in salt water has negative impacts on our agriculture, while too much fresh water from rain in rivers and creeks creates ecological imbalances in our fisheries. So, another cost that I never hear calculated in reference to our community is the threat to Gullah/Geechee food security.
“Security” is one word that definitely is not in the discussions about Florence! She has done just what I said she would do ― “Cause confusion.” The forecasters truly have no clue in what direction she intends to go and cannot predict what she is going to do.
I would like to give her some help with her decision and let her know that no one here wants to see her or her cousins on this coast. So, she should decide to spin out on the ocean and not come and pummel the land. I know for sure that whatever she does, we’ll never forget Flo. Flo, e time fa hunnuh go fa sho! Blow away from we and leave de Gullah/Geechee folks be!