“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Wait a minute — did I just get hired?'”
This is how artist, Sunn m’Cheaux, described his reaction to The Charleston City Paper after learning he would be teaching at one of the more prestigious universities in the world. For the first time in the school’s history, Harvard University will give students the opportunity to learn the Gullah language.
The Gullah language can be described as a combination of English and Central/West African dialects and was originally used to as a way for slaves from different tribes to communicate with each other. Eventually, Gullah became indigenous within the regions of coastal South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, breeding with it unique enclaves known as “Geechee” or “Gullah” communities.
The unprecedented process of including Gullah at an Ivy League school began when a Harvard graduate student called m’Cheaux to ask if he would be interested in speaking to the head of the program, Dr. John Mugane, with regards to creating the course. This meeting resulted in m’Cheaux freestyling an on-the-spot lesson in Gullah for the department head. Amazed at m’Cheaux’s teaching abilities, Mugane hired the entertainer as a professor, giving him reign to craft an introductory course in Gullah.
For m’Cheaux—the native Gullah speaker did not attend college—this position is an opportunity to employ his background in activism, paired with his creativity as an artist, to use the language to usher in a new understanding of communication.
“My arts and entertainment career kind of dovetailed into social activism and commentary,” m’Cheaux told The Charleston City Paper. “I feel like this is an extension of that as well. How to use literal and figurative language to communicate with people and teach people how to make it their own.” That unorthodox approach to teaching solidified Mugane’s decision to include Gullah as one of the 45 languages offered by Harvard.
With a resurgence of studies on the impact of Gullah-centered media—particularly the popular late-90s children’s show, Gullah Gullah Island—and school districts of cities (such as m’Cheaux’s native Charleston) starting to recognize Geechee/Gullah speech pattern, there has been an increased interest in the Gullah culture. However, the Gullah have historically been leery of this attention. This is a skepticism that characterizes the community, and something that m’Cheaux knows even his course at Harvard is not safe from.
“I fully expect criticism and skepticism of that nature,” m’Cheaux said in acceptance of the inevitable response from people with similar family history. “Anytime I hear anything about Gullah being done, I’m immediately skeptical because we’re all protective of our culture.”
Yet, Harvard insists that by including the Gullah course into their curriculum they are attempting to immerse themselves in the Gullah culture out of interest and preservation, rather than exploitation. It’s a sincerity that Dr. Mugane projects in his email to The Charleston City Paper.
“To engage in intellectual and professional work in the Gullah community, we deem it necessary even critical that scholars be literate in Gullah whose basic demonstration is an ability to hold non-trivial conversations with the people they write about,” Mugane wrote. “Including (and especially) in Gullah.”