"Not everything needs to be bought or sold," says Marquetta L. Goodwine, or "Queen Quet," Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. A native of St. Helena Island, South Carolina, Marquetta has given Gullah tours for more than 14 years. "Some things need to remain within," she explains. "We've chosen to be insulated or isolated so we can keep what we have and keep it alive."
What they have is a rich heritage that has seeped into the rest of the South. They are descendants of enslaved West Africans who were brought to the Sea Islands as early as 1670 to cultivate rice, cotton, and indigo and provide labor on plantations. Over the past few centuries, the Gullah people have developed a unique culture in the small, remote communities they have lived in for generations. Pockets of this culture stretch from Georgetown County, South Carolina, to Amelia Island, Florida. The marsh-lined shores of St. Helena Island, still 90% Gullah owned and home to the largest Gullah population, serve as both a haven for the people and a gateway to the outside world. Those who leave often find themselves compelled to return to the land of their origins, the land they love.
"I left here 30 years ago and couldn't wait to come back," says one resident. "I love the place so much. I couldn't stay away from the land. I couldn't stay away from the marsh."
The most obvious blend, however, is seen in the kitchen. "Soul food" such as collard greens, okra, and gumbo originated from African cuisine and forms the basis for many Southern meals. No proper Charleston supper tastes complete without a bowl of fluffy rice, a staple on Gullah tables. Shrimp and grits make for a scrumptious Lowcountry breakfast, and oyster dressing completes Gullah Thanksgiving meals. "We like to think of it as our Charleston style," says one resident of the city, "but, in actuality, it's all Gullah."
Patrons at Gullah Cuisine Restaurant in Mount Pleasant enjoy nothing but the freshest Lowcountry ingredients. "I only use the seasonings that my mom taught me," says owner Charlotte A. Jenkins. "If you went to China, you'd want to find the best Chinese food that country has to offer, right?" she asks, standing near a pitch-black skillet of frying catfish. "Well, when people come to Charleston, they expect to find the best food the South has to offer, and that means Gullah food."
Gullah folklore and beliefs have crossed into surrounding cities. Among Beaufort's streets sit stately homes with strong elements of Gullah influence--particularly painted blue shutters believed to keep evil spirits away.