Section: Arts

Author, actor shares Gullah songs, stories at Gund

Author, actor shares Gullah songs, stories at Gund

Elana Spivack | Staff Writer

“Connections are essential.”

So Ron Daise began with his presentation in the Gund Gallery Theater on Monday. As a descendent of the Gullah/Geechee culture, a people rooted in West Africa, Daise firmly believes in the power of connections, be they between family members, community members, or the past and present.

An author of four books depicting Gullah culture and former star of the Nickelodeon show Gullah Gullah Island, Daise has devoted his life to spreading his people’s history, textured with song, artwork and incredible optimism. His contributions to Gullah culture also extend to his time in government as the former chairman of the Federal Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

Daise managed to bring Gullah culture to children’s television with Gullah Gullah Island, which ran from 1994 to 1997 and was the first children’s programming to feature an African-American family. “Somehow — this has been misreported every time — this was not our [intention],” Daise said. He said that, by chance, he lunched with a producer who was visiting a prominent writer on St. Helena Island. For three days after, the producer stayed in Daise’s home, observing him and his family. “That show is our life, but we did not create it,” he said.

Daise’s incredible work stems from his childhood experiences. As in many African communities, music is an integral part of Gullah culture, and music enchanted Daise in particular. “One of the most important things that impacted me was the music,” he said. “Music is not just an external thing, but you feel it inside too, and you want to express it.” He recalled singing in community choruses in his hometown of St. Helena Island, off the coast of South Carolina.

For Daise, external expression of music was just as important as internally experiencing it. “The more European response is to just sit and take [the music] in,” he said, “and when you’re on stage, you can’t always tell how the audience is taking it,” contrasting this more passive, internal experience with the vivacious reaction Gullah culture encourages. He invited the audience to whisper the word “diaspora” in sharp, hushed voices, as Daise, in his resonating baritone, boomed over the crowd in a mournful, rhythmic spoken-word performance.

However, Daise did not always so unabashedly identify with the title “Gullah.” “Gullah and Geechee …they were fighting words. Nobody wanted to identify with either one … [the terms meant] low intelligence, or bad or broken English,” he said, recalling growing up on St. Helena Island, where the natives were then called “sea islanders.” He then discussed Lorenzo Dow Turner, the first African-American linguist, who dug into the Gullah culture and its musical language. Turner found that Gullah language apparently had West African roots, but also closely resembled English. At his Gund Gallery Common Hour talk on Tuesday, Daise entertained the crowd with a brief story in Gullah, his speech turning mellifluous and fluid.

In addition to the language that came from this branch of African culture, Daise shared the wealth of culture that marks Gullah. From the story of the hag — an invisible spirit that sucks blood and breath from sleeping people — to his description of “the golden smile of Ghanaian children,” signifying the undying hope and goodness of African people, Daise instilled seeds of Gullah culture in the minds of his listeners.

“I was always proud [of my culture],” he said, and several trips to Africa strengthened his identity. DNA testing confirmed that his family descended paternally from Ghana and maternally from Sierra Leone.

“In Ghana, every face I saw looked like my father’s people, and in Sierra Leone every face I saw looked like my mother’s people,” Daise said.

Daise’s newest book, Gullah Branches, West African Roots, is available at the Kenyon Bookstore.

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