Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘african diaspora’

Welcome to Gullah Country!

by Kim Haas

Los Afro-Latino’s mission is to bring our readers closer to the people, places, events and movements that impact the Afro-Latino Diaspora. Periodically, we will enlarge the tent, sharing stories of the Great African Diaspora, whatever the topic, whatever the issue, whatever the cause to inspire and to enlighten.

Hilton Head – The Island and The Gullahs

Our inaugural post covering the Great African Diaspora took me to South Carolina’s Low Country this past August, a pilgrimage to the heart of Gullah Culture. It was a late summer visit to Hilton Head Island – a 12 mile long and 5 mile wide barrier island along the Atlantic Coast.

The Gullahs trace their ancestry to enslaved Africans, forcibly brought to the eastern Atlantic seacoast from present day Angola and Sierra Leone, West Africa. Spreading across nearly 500 miles, from Cape Fear, North Carolina in the north to Jacksonville, Florida in the south, Gullahs were enslaved along the Atlantic coast. They were highly skilled and knowledgeable farmers with an expertise in rice cultivation. It was these competencies that made them ideal labor to toil the rice, cotton, sugar cane and indigo plantations of the Sea Islands.

Today, the Gullah population is concentrated in the coastal region of South Carolina and Georgia. Geographically, the area represents the quintessential old South with Spanish moss draping from centuries old oak trees, picturesque antebellum plantations and homes. All of this is punctuated with the slow sway of the Islanders’ drawls and warmly exchanged salutations.

The tight knit Gullah population, with four centuries of existence on Hilton Head, lived in a spirit of community—taking care of the group and the individual—promoting and supporting self reliance. The Gullahs are the oldest surviving African based culture in the United States. They are credited with being the first freed Africans owning land, establishing free public schools and founding the first African free village.

A combination of factors including Hilton Head’s physical remoteness, low elevation and a malaria outbreak prompted the majority of Europeans to flee the island for more comfortable living on the mainland. For the Gullahs these isolating conditions strengthened their community and preserved their language, traditions, religion, herbal medicine, music, storytelling and cuisine, safeguarding their cultural bond to Africa, their homeland.

James F. Byrnes Bridge

In 1956, a crucial change took place on the Island when the James F. Byrnes Bridge, a two-lane toll swing bridge opened Hilton Head to automobile traffic. Along with the bridge’s opening came housing development and tourism. Twenty-six years later, 1982, a larger highway construction project was completed. This time it was the opening of a 4 lane highway, bringing increased development and tourism.

Reflecting on the bridge and highway construction’s impact on island living, many Gullahs credit these two transportation projects with the profound emigration of the community from Hilton Head Island. Yet, despite these shifts the Gullah community is committed to preserving its heritage and sharing it through island tours, arts and crafts, quilting, music and the annual Gullah Festival in Beaufort, South Carolina.

 Gullah Chef David Young

And of course, sharing Gullah culture would be incomplete without sampling its cuisine which uses rice as a premiere component, one pot meals and an array of seafood dishes at Low Country restaurants on Hilton Head and the mainland, particularly in Charleston, South Carolina.

Nowadays, any conversation about Hilton Head’s Low Country Gullah cuisine includes talk about native son Chef David Young, who graduated with a culinary degree from Madison Area Technical College, Madison, Wisconsin. His popular restaurant, Chef David’s Roastfish and Cornbread is located on the island’s south end at 70 Marshland Road, specializing in revered rice dishes, seafood and vegetarian (vegan) food. Chef David’s  ancestors have been living on the island for 175 years. Now, nearly two centuries later, Chef David is one of the island’s hottest chefs.  His star is steadily rising.

He began his voyage into gastronomy at age six, guided by his Gullah great-grandmother, Mary Cohen, who prepared food by memory. For David, her repertoire for Gullah cooking was built on aromas, flavors and tastes. While Mary Cohen’s recipes were never written, her great- grandson’s 2008 cookbook, Burnin Down South is a compilation of Low Country recipes featuring savory dishes like red rice,  She Crab Soup and collard greens.

Burnin' Down South

A big part of Gullah cuisine means taking advantage of nature’s bounty and the abundant seafood of the nearby waters. Seafood has played an integral role in island life. Shrimp burgers, made of ground shrimp and seasoned with herbs and spices on wheat bread, are one of the restaurant’s most requested offerings.

While he’s not a vegetarian, Chef David is building a reputation on the island as one of the few proprietors to include an extensive variety of vegetarian (vegan) dishes on the menu. Chef David’s riff on the quintessential New Orleans Po-Boy, a sandwich filled with roast beef, dripping with gravy on French bread, is a vegetarian delight.  It’s loaded with lentils, sautéed and chopped baby bella mushrooms, onions, peppers, asparagus, broccoli, topped with acai-pomegranate vinaigrette and served on brown bread. The beautifully presented sandwich is complemented with a riotous explosion of colors and flavors including pineapples, berries and watermelon.

Vegetarian Po Boy

Vegetarian Po Boy

Whether vegan, vegetarian, carnivore or locavore, Chef David proudly speaks to the universality of his restaurant, “There is something for everyone here.” Roastfish and Cornbread is dazzling crowds with its steamed chicken, brisket, shrimp burgers and, one of his signature dishes – sweet potato cornbread.

True to his Gullah island upbringing, Chef David is committed to serving fresh, local food. “When I grew up here, everything was organic. People sprinkled potash to keep bugs away.” So, what is Low Country cuisine? According to Chef David, “If you can grow it here and catch it here, it’s Low Country.” The Gullah shrimped, farmed and hunted using the surrounding waters, lands and forests for sustenance. This was the island way of life. “The food is really simple. Anything from chicken, cows, pigs, corn, tomatoes, beans, peas, watermelon, and okra – this came directly from Africa.”

Living with Gullah culinary heritage which is older than the United States is a valuable legacy for Chef David.  “Our Gullah food is older than this country.  We were here before America was a country. It’s the oldest food in this country. We cooked for everybody.” Gullah cuisine is one of the oldest surviving African based cultures in the United States.

With such a strong, powerful culinary past, how does Chef David envision his culinary future? “Keep doing what I’m doing and just keep doing it better. Do it to the best of my abilities, for as long as I can do it.” 

Culture and Community Bloom at The Festival de Bambulaé

There’s a garden nestled on Palethorpe Street within North Philadelphia’s narrow, twisting roads. It’s called Las Parcelas. There are houses painted in vibrant yellows and blues dotting the landscape. The garden has carefully placed stepping-stones, hanging lights and colorful wall murals. There’s even a pit for pig roasting.

This is no ordinary garden. Formally, the space was occupied by 21 row houses and is now the home of 32 garden plots. It’s a product of the Norris Square Neighborhood Project (Norris Square), which has used its programming and six vast gardens to invigorate and feed the community for four decades. And on June 16, it was the site for Norris Square’s Festival de Bambulaé, a vivid garden celebration and fundraiser.

Rafael Álverez, Norris Square’s Director of Garden Programs.

“It’s an opportunity for the Puerto Rican community to share its culture with people throughout Philadelphia,” says Rafael Álverez, Norris Square’s Director of Garden Programs.

While youth leaders help community elders lay out table clothes, make guacamole and test microphones for the many Philadelphians to come celebrate later that day, it’s difficult to imagine what Norris Square’s gardens looked like 40 years ago.

“All of this area was houses and lots that were dilapidated, torn down and abandoned,” says Reed Davaz McGowan, Executive Director of Norris Square. “Demolition companies would come by and dump their trash here. Community members were depressed. It was a lot of violence, drugs and you’re taking people from this incredible Afro-Caribbean environment of Puerto Rico and all these colors and foliage and you’re putting them in a very urban environment where there’s cement and brick everywhere.”

Something had to be done to counter the violence, the trash dumping and the destruction families were experiencing. And that’s where Iris Brown and Tomasita Romero came in.

They started with some bright paint and a few flowers to bring the magic and beauty of Puerto Rico to Philadelphia. Romero received a fence through a partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to keep the garbage out. And then they started planting trees.

“Now it’s a thriving sanctuary for these birds and butterflies,” say McGowan, adding, “Iris wanted to do what she could do. She had a lot of support, but it shows how one person with an idea can make a big impact on their community.”

Tomasita Romero and Iris Brown are photographed.

For decades, Iris Brown has been instrumental in promoting the African influence in Puerto Rican culture. In a city which is racially and ethnically diverse, just a few blocks away, the community is predominately African American. Norris Square’s goal – aside from youth development, sustainable farming and community engagement – is to bridge the gap between these two communities.

“We’re more connected than we think,” says Álverez, who is Puerto Rican. “It’s very important to look at the African Diaspora within Puerto Rico and talk about how much it influences this entire culture, from the way we eat to the music we listen to.”

In recognition of Africa’s influence , Norris Square has created The Villa Africana Colobó, a small African village in one of its garden spaces. It has brightly colored huts and interior walls are decorated with African masks. During the  the Festival de Bambulaé, instrument making and leaf printing instruction were available to attendees.

Across Palethorpe Street, there is another garden called El Batey with grapes growing above an arbor and an enormous colorful butterfly wall mural. There are Bomba dancers from two troupes. Members are young and old, swishing their colorful skirts, swaying their hips, tapping their feet and rhythmically beating drums. Bomba is a traditional Puerto Rican dance whose origins trace to enslaved Africans on the island.

The chicken coop and other sites at the garden in Las Parcelas.

Maribel Lozada from Philareyto Dance describes the beauty of Bomba saying, “No hay mucho coreografía ; es más de sentido y como tu sientes.” Lozada has been teaching Bomba to neighborhood kids for decades, carefully explaining Bomba’s “influencia Africana.”

Her granddaughter was one of the dancers who performed with her in El Batey at the Festival. And Guillermo — who is only 10 years old, but has been Bomba dancing for nearly four years —  sits with Lozada echoing his love for the dance and the confidence it gives him. He says, “I like that I kind express myself, my movement and just be me.”

Back in Las Parcelas, beyond the guitar player and lessons on composting with worms, people are touring the garden space and feasting upon Napoleon, the pig who was roasted for six hours by McGowan’s husband, Nat, who happens to be a chef.

Two women munching happily at a table across from an oregano garden work at the PHS. They’ve come here every year since the late 1980s. And PHS has had a strong partnership with Norris Square Neighborhood Project for decades.

The Villa Africana Colobó

“PHS was right there at the beginning. And I think it’s one of the things we’re most proud of. This is why we do this,” says Lisa Stephano. She says of Norris Square, “I think the way they engage children, young people, and give them such meaningful skills and a place to really be together and get a sense of community is really special.”

“I think the gardens really did transform this entire community,” adds Maitreyi Roy who says that Las Parcelas is her favorite garden in the entire city. “They gave a sense of community.”

In the five years that McGowan has been Executive Director, the Norris Square Neighborhood Project has developed its youth program, which boasts impressive high school graduation rates in a community where less than 70% of boys graduate. Now they’re turning all their energy to these gardens. This Festival will raise money to help Norris Square develop community stewardship and cultural preservation. And through generous donations – given over the decades to create and maintain this program – Norris Square can throw movie nights and happy hours and plant more fig trees.

Reed Davaz McGowan and her husband Nat

Around 7:00 p.m., the festivities for the Festival were well under way. People are huddled beneath the fig trees and pear trees with plates of mango salsa, chicken and Napoleon the pig in all his delicious glory.

Out on Palethorpe Street, which is blocked off for the event, neighborhood children are seen playing basketball, riding bikes and drawing with sidewalk chalk.  A man named Modesto is here with his two sons. He works for Taller Puertorriqueño, a Philadelphia Latino arts and culture institution, and his wife serves on Norris Square’s Board of Directors. They come here every year to celebrate their culture and to support the work of Norris Square Neighborhood Project.

Modesto and his son drawing with sidewalk chalk.

His son Sebastian is drawing a robot with blue, green and yellow chalk. He’s drawing in the middle of a street in North Philadelphia, which wouldn’t have been possible years ago. It feels safe now.

He begs his father for more colors. And he’s earned them; after all, he spent his morning weeding the gardens of Las Parcelas. It’s already become his second home.

The Festival de Bambulae raises money to help Norris Square Neighborhood Project develop community stewardship and cultural preservation. Visit their site for more information and ways to help.  You can also “Like” them on Facebook.

Kim Haas on WRFG-Atlanta (TODAY)!

Tune in TODAY at 2:30pm to WRFG-Atlanta to hear Kim Haas (President of Haas Media LLC and Founder of Los Afro-Latinos) on “The Tambor” with host Bruno Gaston! Read more