Gullah Geechee enters the academy

13 min readAug 24, 2020
Photo courtesy of Sunn M’Cheaux

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

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Kavita Pillay: Patrick, I want you to meet Sunn M’Cheaux.

Sunn M’Cheaux video: Today I want to talk to you about the Gullah word ‘guh’, which is used as a verb, a noun, an adjective, sometimes a preposition. [Speaks Gullah.] Go down the road there and tell your brother I said to come here. [Speaks Gullah.]

Patrick Cox: Tell me what we’re hearing.

Kavita Pillay: So Sunn M’Cheaux has been teaching the Gullah Geechee language at Harvard University since 2017, and he also makes these short videos for social media.

Patrick Cox: Because?

Kavita Pillay: Well, not everyone can make it to Harvard to study a language that, as far as anyone I’ve spoken with knows, isn’t being taught anywhere else in the world. But Sunn M’Cheaux’s videos also serve other purposes.

Sunn M’Cheaux: Like, show that it’s a rule-based language, show how it works. Sometimes we know the language but the inability to be able to explain it or describe it to one another is hindering our ability to be able to pass it on.

Patrick Cox: Ah right, so there’s a concern about passing it on?

Kavita Pillay: It’s primarily an oral language. For a long time it wasn’t even considered a language. And Gullah Geechee has a complicated history, so a lot of people outside of the small part of the southeastern coast of the US where it’s spoken don’t know much about it.

Sunn M’Cheaux: I have conversations with people sometimes and they’ll be like, “Hey, what do you do?” “I teach the Gullah language.” “Oh, the Gullah language, what country is that? Is that in Africa, or you know, where is that?” They have no idea that there’s a whole community, a whole culture, a whole language system that’s indigenous to this country right underneath their noses.

Kavita Pillay: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle. Stories about languages, and the people who speak them.

What’s it like to be the first person to teach a language created by enslaved Africans? And what does that mean now, during the 400-year anniversary of the start of slavery?

Today, the story of the Gullah Geechee language as told by native speaker, Sunn M’Cheaux.

Patrick Cox: I know a little about this language but not much. So what is Gullah and why is it sometimes Gullah, and sometimes Gullah Geechee?

Kavita Pillay: So, Gullah and Gullah Geechee, they’re used interchangeably. Gullah is a bit like old English, and like Geechee is kind of like the modern version of it. ut Sunn M’Cheaux has a different way of describing it

Sunn M’Cheaux: Gullah is a language, it is a culture, and a people. Now, of course, as Gullah Geechee are the same people in most instances, it depends on the region of where you’re from as to whether or not you identify as Gullah or Geechee like, say, for example, on Sapelo Island or in Georgia, they may identify as Geechee and speak Gullah, whereas we may identify as Gullah and speak Gullah and speak Geechee.

Kavita Pillay: And the language comes from enslaved West Africans who were brought by force to these insulated islands and coastal areas of what’s now the Carolinas, Georgia, and northern Florida. And that area is now known as the Gullah Geechee National Heritage Corridor. People just call it “The Corridor.”

Patrick Cox: So originally this was a language that was spoken by enslaved people who came speaking different west African languages?

Kavita Pillay: And who came up with this amalgam of those languages plus English, in order to communicate with one another and with white slave owners. And it’s been sustained over the course of hundreds of years by their descendants, people like Sunn, for whom Gullah is his first language, and “tandard English” is his second language.

Sunn M’Cheaux: What we have today is a rule governed language, it is essentially the receipt or the evidence of our lineage.

Kavita Pillay: He’s also a self described word nerd.

Sunn M’Cheaux: My mama would watch her stories or soap operas as they were growing up and I would be home with mama during the day, before starting school, so I would be home watching stories with mama during the day. And I remember this one time watching I believe it was The Young and the Restless, and Miss Chancellor said to Victor Newman, she was like, “Victor, don’t be so gauche.” And in my mind, I was like, oh, that sounds like a really (laughs), “I want that one, mmm!” I would just hear these words and that one sounded like a really good one, especially the way that she used it. It just sounded spicy! And I’m like “Man! Imma use that word. I don’t know how, but I know Imma use it!” And it’s just amazing that sometimes a thing is staring you right in the face the entire time and you don’t know it. You’re teaching before you realize that’s what you’re doing. You’re studying before you realize that that’s what you’re doing.

Sunn M’Cheaux video: Peace, this is Sunn M’Cheaux, Gullah teacher at Harvard University, and today I want to talk to you about intensifiers in the Gullah language. Those intensifiers would be ‘up’, ‘down’, and ‘back’. Intensifiers are words that are used to show emphasis, like ‘really’ or ‘very.’ Say for instance, ‘That boy there fool’ [meaning] ‘that boy is crazy.’ ‘That boy there fool up’, [meaning] ‘that boy is very crazy.’ ‘That boy there fool up down’ [meaning] ‘that boy there is extremely nuts’. These would be examples of utilizing the words ‘up’ and ‘down’ in order to show emphasis but there’s also back. [Speaks Gullah]. What is wrong with that boy right there, he’s pouting a lot and seems very angry. And so there you have it, a few intensifiers in the Gullah Geechee language, ‘up,’ ‘down,’ and ‘back.’ Until the next time, we outchea.

Kavita Pillay: If you’re hearing Gullah Geechee for the first time, you may recognize some of what he’s saying as English. Because Gullah is considered to be an English-based Creole.

Sunn M’Cheaux: Of course, it’s right there in the name, an English base, meaning that you have some foundation of English, that are components into this language. So, yeah, that’s that’s going to be there. But there comes a point when speaking Gullah, you diverge from English altogether and use a different set of grammar rules of how you should present this phrase. You’re no longer playing by standard English rules. There may be some standard English influence, but at the same time, there are many other languages that have things in common, and no one says that the existence of one makes the other illegitimate. No one says that the existence of Portuguese makes Italian or Spanish illegitimate.

Patrick Cox: I feel like I’m getting a sense of this now. But what about a written version. Is there a written version of it?

Kavita Pillay: There’s no standardized way of writing it, and that gets at this whole conundrum. The people who decide what’s a language have long said, “Well, Gullah Geechee is not written so it’s not a real language.” But the very conditions under which people came up with it meant that they could not write it down.

Sunn M’Cheaux: Literacy was was literally criminalized, you know — and for an enslaved person to be punished with brutality on to death for being literate or teaching others to read. The miracle of Gullah Geechee language is that it managed to be created and preserved over the course of generations, largely without the assistance of a literary foundation, without being taught in a structured environment.

You ask yourself, what is indigenous to this country? English is not indigenous to this country. English was brought over to this country. Gullah, on the other hand, was not brought over wholly to this country. You have people who speak different languages who created this language here. So, while Gullah is uniquely African in the sense that it has preserved much of it’s African-ness, from the many different components, African components that came together, the coming together happened here. As African as it is, it is something that’s indigenous to the American land in regards of its, of its identity.

I cannot deny the enslavement and cannot deny the brutality and the things that came along with the, us being forced to create this language, this culture and become this people. But at the same time, we’re not defined by that. That was not our doing. It’s a beautiful thing that it was not born of beauty.

Kavita Pillay: After the break, confronting the shame of Gullah Geechee.

Sunn M’Cheaux: There are many people who are of Gullah cultural heritage. I know that first lady, Michelle Obama, has family from the same region. But then there are people like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, he’s from the corridor. And he’s the most silent justice that’s ever sat, the person who keeps his literal voice to himself more often than not. And it is believed that that is a practice that began earlier in his life as a result of the stigma of his Gullah Geechee way of speaking.

Kavita Pillay: So Sunn is pretty opposite, politically, to Clarence Thomas, but there’s an empathy there when he talks about the stigma that Thomas grew up with and why it would keep him quiet.

Patrick Cox: So is it something that Sunn has had to grapple with as well?

Kavita Pillay: It is.

Sunn M’Cheaux: But I don’t think I wear the stigma like I used to. It just used to feel like this thing that you could feel on your skin, that you would carry with you when you spoke a certain way that you knew would not be accepted by the people around you. And now, not so much. Well, not at all really. I think that I’ve done as much as I can to liberate myself from that feeling. And a part of what I’ve wanted to do probably my whole life is to not make my language about the stigma, to not have my language constantly judged in the proximity of whatever someone thought of it. Instead of dealing with whether or not Gullah is broken English, let’s deal with the broken ideology that came up with that idea in the first place.

Sound of a car

Sunn M’Cheaux: I don’t drink coffee or anything like that to kind of get me up but what really gets me alert in the morning is music, and one of my favorites of course is Ranky Tanky.

A Ranky Tanky song plays on the car’s sound system

Kavita Pillay: Here’s Sunn on his way to his office at Harvard

Sunn M’Cheaux: They take these traditional Gullah songs and poems, and the games that kids play and they convert them into these really cool spiritual, rootsy, Gullah, jazzy, fusion — you know, sort of blend of music. If you cannot get up for this in the morning, you should just stay in bed. Just call in sick. Stay in bed if this can’t get you up.

Here I am going to this place where I’m teaching this language that was considered to be unteachable, that has not been given the recognition that it always deserved. It is now finally beginning to get that recognition.

Patrick Cox: How did Sunn end up at Harvard?

Kavita Pillay: Sunn isn’t a traditional linguist and he didn’t get to Harvard the way most language instructors do. Harvard was already interested in offering Gullah, and just didn’t have a teacher, so there was a grad student who wanted to take the language and who knew Sunn who made the introduction.

Sunn M’Cheaux: Teaching Gullah at Harvard is an honor and a privilege for reasons that sometimes people don’t think of at first. The first thing that comes to people’s mind is usually, “Well, you know, teaching dog-walking at Harvard would be an honor and a privilege.” Because it’s Harvard. But that’s not what I mean. Teaching my language anywhere is an honor and a privilege because of the history that academia has had in Gullah Geechee communities. The history has been that we were not welcome in those spaces. The history is that we were seen as broken, that we were seen as bad, we were vanquished from those spaces. We were thought to be undeserving of being in these classrooms. A language that was at one point in time thought to be undeserving, to be spoken in any classroom, is being taught in the classrooms of such an esteemed institution of education.

Sunn M’Cheaux: Even Gullah Geechee people are sometimes surprised when I say something like, “You know, it’s final exam period and this is what I’m going through during the finals.” And they’ll say, “Wait, a final?” I’m like, “Yeah!”

So, we have homework. We have tests. We have quizzes. We have a midterm. We have a finals period. We do all of that. It’s literally a class. We’re not just sitting around doing drum circles and pouring out libations or whatever. Like, we’re not just, we’re not just doing that. It’s literally a class that’s held to the same standard as any other language class.

Someone asked me, “You don’t think at some point in time the hype is going to wear off and it’s just gonna be normal?” I’m like, “You know what? That would actually be an achievement.” It would be a great achievement if at some point in time people just shrug their shoulders about Gullah being a language class at Harvard. Because normalization is more powerful than exceptionalism.

Sunn M’Cheaux: There is a really academic discussion about the language that fascinates me. I get to really get down into the grammar and the components and you know, explaining which one of these is used for past, present, future tense. Which one is the present progressive. That’s a part of what was missing from the conversation all along about Gullah. It was always thought that this was an unteachable language. It was “broken English” and none of those rules really applied because it was not a rule-governed language. So being able to have that type of intellectual discussion about this language at this this institution that’s regarded as one of the premier educational institutions in the world, to me is very validating. It feels very purposeful for me. And it is also the thing that that made way for me to be able to teach, Project Teach courses for seventh graders, because this came first and opened that door.

Patrick Cox: So, what is that? Project Teach?

Kavita Pillay: Project Teach is this collaboration between Harvard and local schools. And for middle school kids who may not be sure that college is for them, they get a chance to visit Harvard to allow them to envision college as part of their future.

Sunn M’Cheaux during PROJECT TEACH presentation: We typically drop the ‘h.’ The ‘th’ there, it sounded like a ‘d’.

Sunn M’Cheaux: It is definitely a different experience teaching seventh graders than teaching students at university level. The energy is higher. It’s more unpredictable. They’re very invested at seventh grade and they want to know, ‘How do you say this,’ or ‘How do you say that?’ And it’s really, really, really fascinating and rewarding for me because I remember being that age. I remember being that age and not having someone like me in my class to help normalize the way that I sounded.

When I was when I was a kid, I just got into mythology really heavy. I was told the story of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun with wax wings and fell to his demise as a warning for getting out of my place. And I remember thinking that it was not Icarus but Prometheus that was more applicable to where I was. Here’s this character that was warned by the gods, “Do not give mankind fire. It will allow them to do too many things for themselves without being dependent on us.” And he did it anyway. And of course, he was punished for it. He ended up strapped to a stone and perpetually eaten by a vulture for eternity. And he was satisfied in his suffering that it was worth it.

Knowledge — education — was denied the Gullah Geechee people. And so to me, being able to provide that light, a thing that was thought to be something that could be weaponized and used against the oppressor for our own liberation. Yeah, that is absolutely something that I wholeheartedly embrace and accept. Finding that flame, keeping that flame lit and passing the torch from generation to generation. If I can be any small part of that, then I’m all in.

Patrick Cox: What does the future look like for Gullah Geechee? And teaching it at Harvard: what kind of difference does that make?

Kavita Pillay: Well, like so many languages that are spoken by few people, and in this case in an insulated part of the country, it’s kind of precarious. Nowadays you have things like gentrification and because the Corridor is made up of low coastal land and islands, they’re already grappling with climate change, which could eventually displace people, which would then make it even more difficult to sustain the language. But Gullah is culture, a people, and a language, and there’s the hope that because it’s being taught at Harvard, the doors might open for it to be taught elsewhere, like in the Corridor itself. But Sunn has a more poetic take on this. His hope is for speakers of the language “to be free to be.”

Patrick Cox: Listening to Sunn, especially at this time, during the 400-year anniversary of slavery it makes you think of the reckoning of it. Gullah Geechee is part of the story of slavery, part of how we remember it and how we reckon with it. It’s pretty clear Americans don’t agree on the end result of that — whether it’s affirmative action, criminalizing discrimination, or even reparations. Whatever it is, it probably it starts with an apology, an acknowledgment of exploitation and loss. Apologies of course can be small-minded, even manipulative. But they can also be profound. They can open doors to much more.

Kavita Pillay: Maybe we should do an episode on the language and meaning of apologies?

This episode of Subtitle was reported by Kavita Pillay. The podcast version of the story is available here and on Apple podcasts.

Subtitle’s sound designer is Tina Tobey. Thanks to Alina Simone, Tess Rademacher, Carol Zall and our partners at the Linguistic Society of America and the Hub & Spoke audio collective.

Subtitle is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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