Tuesday started with an electrifying performance from Queen Quet, elected chieftess of the Gullah-Geechee Nation. This indigenous culture emerged from the mix of African cultures brought to the low country and barrier islands as slaves, along with the already present indigenous people of the marshy fringe from Jacksonville NC to Jacksonville FL. Quet has played an important role in preserving and promoting the Gullah-Geechee Nation, and she performed for us the story of the people and their challenges, starting in song and heavy dialect with a traditional costume of headscarf and sarong, walking around the stage. As she walked and spoke, her dialect changed but so did her garb, the traditional shed for modern, bare feet for high heels. A student I spoke to said he stopped listening at first, because he couldn’t understand, then realized that was what she was trying to do – show us that just because you don’t understand a people does not mean that they are not there, that you can make decisions for them or their place. She showed us that they are still there, no matter what they look like and sound like today.
They have some very particular challenges to sustain their culture, due to the tendency to have verbal rather than written wills, meaning that heirs inherit land as shareholders. The collective management this calls for is difficult, and shares can be sold out of the family, new ‘heirs’ then able to sue for the land to be sold. Dr. Jennie Stephens spoke with great eloquence and humour about the very important work of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, which is helping the Gullah-Geechee members get clear title to their land without fragmenting it or losing it to developers. In addition, they are helping train those Nation members how to make the land work for them, via forestry initiatives. See details at their YouTube channel.