Evidence of African culture in the Americas is often a somber memory of the slave trade and its devastating impact on millions of human beings. It is also a reminder of the tenacity and rich cultural identity of Africans in the Americas. Years and years of history came barreling through the voice of Quiana Parler, lead vocalist of Ranky Tanky, the Gullah music group from South Carolina, as she sang a riveting rendition of “I Been In the Storm So Long” during the set at globalFEST 2017 at Webster Hall. The lyrics are “I been in the storm so long / Lord so long hmmm / I’ve been in the storm so long / Lord so long / Lord please give me a little more time / I need a little more time to pray.”
Black History Month is a time to acknowledge the enormous contributions those of African descent have made in America’s infrastructure and culture. With the rise of Afrocentrism in pop culture (e.g., African prints in Beyoncé’s album Lemonade, One Africa Music Fest sweeping the nation, Lupita Nyong’o) the ownership of African culture is just now becoming a more popular thing to not only acknowledge but celebrate by black people in America. But one aspect that can be afforded more space for celebration is evidence of African culture embedded in American history from slavery in the 17th century to present day.
One example of that is Gullah music, as played by the eclectic Ranky Tanky band that performed at globalFEST 2017. “Ranky tanky” is a Gullah phrase for “get down” and is a wonderful descriptor of the jazz, gospel, Gullah-infused music the group is known for. Listening to the rhythms, melodies, and verbal sound effects used by Ranky Tanky is like hearing a familiar African song but in the accent of a new world. The Gullah (Geechee) people are from the lowlands of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coast, also known as the Sea Islands, and are a people who have maintained Sierra Leonean Krio words in their language. They are the descendants of slaves from West Africa, primarily Sierra Leone. With their expertise and technologies for growing and harvesting rice and resistance to diseases prevalent in swampy areas like malaria, they were able to cultivate rice and their culture with little oversight from their white oppressors. Although the rice plantations were abandoned after the Civil War, the Gullah culture survived and the language and practices were passed on from generation to generation. In this video below by National Geographic, a Gullah storyteller recounts the painful past of the Gullah and their efforts to maintain the culture.
The similarities between the Gullah and Sierra Leoneans feels like a miracle, considering that, in parts of the Americas, speaking a language different from the colonizers’ and even drumming was forbidden. The Gullah’s swampy environment and expertise in harvesting rice not only allowed them to cultivate a distinct language but also continue the practice of basket weaving to aid in removing the husks from the rice. These baskets are called fannah baskets by the Gullah and shukublay in Sierra Leone. In this moving documentary, Sierra Leoneans and Gullahs are made aware of their similarities despite being an ocean away:
With a history this rich, it is more important than ever to preserve it, especially with the older Gullah generation with first-hand accounts and knowledge passing away. Efforts are being made to acknowledge this history and culture at the Annual Original Gullah Festival in Beaufort, South Carolina. The events of the festival include sweetgrass basket making, an educational segment entitled “Lest We Forget,” the art of quilting and authentic cuisine to sample. There is also the Gullah/Geechee Nation International Music and Movement Festival 2017 in St. Helena Island, South Carolina.
This Black History Month, we acknowledge the resilient history of the Gullah Geechee people of the Sea Islands. Their story is American history: a reminder that not all of those on this land began as immigrants seeking a new life but rather as a people taken by force from their own land to work and generate wealth for others. Yet the DNA of their old ways of life remain, evolve, and move through musicians in a group by the name of Ranky Tanky, and are recognized by those lucky enough to see them.