Patrick J. Holladay, Ph.D. - Tourism RESET Research Fellow
Associate Professor - School of Hospitality, Sport and Tourism Management - Troy University - Brunswick
Sensitive communities can be defined in a number of different ways. The idea of ‘sensitive’ can have a vast array of connotations from race, ethnicity, economic position, gender, sexuality, religion and so forth. In this case, I am going to write about the Gullah Geechee communities of the Southeast coast and barrier islands. The Gullah Geechee people are a distinct group of African American people, originally from West Africa with a unique culture, foodways, and heritage. Of particular importance is the fact that the Gullah Geechee developed their own creole language.
Much of what I have written here comes from conversations with elders and community leaders in the Gullah Geechee community. For instance, several of the first points come from Queen Quet’s book WEBE Gullah/Geechee Cultural Capital & Collaboration Anthology, which is an anthology of rights and justice writings. Other ideas came from Heather Hodges, Executive Director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission and from Amy Roberts, Executive Director of the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition. The rest are mine from 20-some years of field research and some lessons learned, while the others should (I hope) simply be common sense.
I would like to start with respect. Respect should underpin everything I will outline. Respect that Gullah Geechee is a living culture. In essence, this is about remembering that this is not a group in some distant history to be studied. They are a living, breathing community with feelings, families and day-to-day lives like everyone else. It’s important to keep in mind that people do not want to feel like they are being placed in a jar to be looked at and examined.
Another important aspect is to respect Gullah Geechee language. It is not okay for any community visitor to ask someone to ‘speak Gullah for me’. Further, it is also insensitive to attempt to speak Gullah Geechee to Gullah Geechee people. I suppose in some cases if the work is around linguistics and you are invited to try to speak some words then that would be fine. In all other cases, just don’t do it.
Gullah Geechee communities are both insular and private. It is very important to gain permission before coming into communities. Do not simply show up. Permission can be gained by speaking with elders and community groups ahead of time. Explain what you would like to do, its potential benefits, who you are and where you come from.
There are a number of films, books and other accounts of Gullah Geechee people and communities. Do not, however, use fictional films or books as primary references. Gullah Gullah Island, for example, was a popular kid’s show on Nickelodeon in the 1990’s. But Gullah Gullah Island and its characters are not real. The funny thing is that you would be surprised by how many tourists come to the Southeast coast and ask how to find Gullah Gullah Island!
Next, follow through with your word with people assisting you. This is absolutely critical. Be a person of your word. You should seek to build trust and relationships. In my own work, I found it important—for years in some cases—to sit with elders and members of the community to listen, become someone who is familiar and not to be a “know-it-all” researcher.
Another piece of this idea is to not “parachute in”. What I mean by that is to do a data grab and leave because you are too focused on your research, paper you want to write and/or grant you received. Coming into a community simply to take data, leave and never come back or share what you have learned is the ultimate in selfish research.
Speaking of research, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission has a Research Consortium that facilitates research and communication about research. It was during one of these meetings that the point was made to be specific to communities – Gullah Geechee is not monolithic. The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, for example, stretches from North Carolina to Florida. As you can see on this interactive map of the Corridor, there a myriad of communities and places. Each has its own unique character.
Another thing for a researcher to consider is that it may be hard to get Institutional Review Board forms signed. Be aware that there is a great deal of caution among Gullah Geechee when dealing with the government, outsiders and giving out private information. This stems for generation after generation of battles over land, rights, justice, privacy, educational and economic opportunities and more. There are ongoing conflicts over heirs property and development of coastal and island lands that are being hard fought by Gullah Geechee communities. Again, this returns to the need to build trust, relationships and to do what you say you are going to do.
Continuing that thought (and to reinforce this concept), the Gullah Geechee are private. There are some incredibly sensitive and sacred practices and places like the ringshout and praise/prayer houses. Any research into these areas needs to be carried out with deep respect, full permission and complete transparency.
Next, there are historic taxonomy/classification issues across research. A researcher should be aware that work with Gullah Geechee communities and individuals goes back into the 1800’s. Language and terms vary from Negro, to Colored, to African American and there are even differences in characterizations of Gullah and Geechee with the published literature and research.
Finally, it is not necessary to always enter into Gullah Geechee communities. It is a good idea to use research institution collections, historic societies and festivals. There is a plethora of information in these places. Indeed, the Georgia Sea Islands Festival, held on St. Simons Island, Georgia, where I live is one of these. The Festival was started in the 1970’s by Bessie Jones and Mable Hillery of the Georgia Sea Island Singers and is still going strong over four decades later. Festivals like this can be found all along the Southeast coast and are terrific places to learn about culture, language, food, spirituality, storytelling, community and more.
I will close with these three thoughts to encapsulate what I have written here. Practice mindfulness and be aware of your words and actions. Be reliable and always do what you say you will do. And be consistent, keep showing up to build trust, friendships and a place in the community.