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A West African’s Heritage Journey: “What is that Language You Speak?”

(l to r) Linguists Thomas Decker (Sierra Leonean), Lorenzo Dow Turner (African American)

A Journey

A West African’s Heritage Journey: “What is that Language You Speak?”

The first time I came across the term ‘Gullah’, I had just started researching my Grandfather, Thomas Decker.  It was roughly 12 years ago and all I knew then about Grandpa Tommy was that he was a famous writer and playwright, better known for translating Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar into our native language, Krio.  I hadn’t been aware of the extent of Grandpa’s writings.  I grew up with a book of his called “Tales of the Forest”, which were Sierra Leonean folktales but that was just about it.

It was one of the first search results that came up that year in 2005, after I conducted a quick search in google for ‘Thomas Decker + Krio’. The link took me to a pdf article written by Joseph Opala, archived on the website of  Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.  The context of the article was about the connection between Sierra Leone and Gullah and Opala set out to draw linguistic similarities, using a short story written by South Carolina native, Ambrose Gonzales called “De Fox en de Crow”.  I learned there, that Grandpa Tommy had developed a system for writing Krio around the 1930s, which Opala used in the article to translate the Gullah story.

 

After coming across the article, I wanted to know more about the Gullahs.  I was stunned to learn that there was an African American community in the U.S. that had preserved much of their African heritage for over 250 years.  The Gullahs primarily descend from enslaved West and Central Africans of the transatlantic slave trade.  Many of them were brought into the Americas through South Carolina in the 1700s, from the “Rice Coast” of West Africa, including places like Sierra Leone, Angola, Gambia, and Senegal.  The demand for these specifically skilled Africans was inextricably linked to the increase in demand for rice, which like cotton, had become a dominant commodity during the trade, particularly for South Carolina and Georgia.  As the years went by plantation owners and other whites abandoned the lowlands and sea islands but many blacks stayed and continued to live isolated across the lowlands of coastal South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.  During the Civil War, many of these folks were some of the first to be set free in the south, and several free communities were formed.  These communities continued to thrive for centuries and a creole heritage was formed with much of their African language, food, and culture still in tact.

Similarly back across the Atlantic, in Sierra Leone, during the time Gullah communities were being formed, another creole heritage was emerging, known as the Krio (Creole).  While the Gullah was formed from Africans crossing the Atlantic into the Americas, Krios were formed by African Americans who had been freed and chose to go back to West Africa and form their free community there, called Freetown.  They were joined by Jamaican Maroons as well as freed West and Central Africans who were liberated on the ships meant to carry them to slavery in the Americas.  Making it only halfway through the middle-passage as slaves, before taken to Freetown as freemen and women, many of these ‘Liberated Africans’ were also from places like Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, and other areas in the West African region.  Each group brought with them their original languages, food, and culture, ultimately mixing together with the earlier African American and Maroon setlers to form the Sierra Leone Creole people.  Like the Gullah language, the Krio language was largely influenced by the various ancestral tongues of its people.  Language would certainly be a key element for anyone seeking to understanding the origins of these communities.

Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner Interviewing the Gullah People in South Carolina, 1930 (via Blackpast.com)

Around the 1930s, a North Carolina native and African American, Lorenzo Dow Turner had just finished his tenure as Head of the English Department at Howard.  He had set his sights towards developing the African Studies department at Fisk University, where he was also serving as Head of its English Department.  He took a linguistic focus on the Gullah and delved into all aspects of the African connections to the language for the next several decades.  In the mid to late 1930s he traveled to London, then Paris, and in the 1940s to Brazil.  He conducted numerous interviews and learned several African languages all in the effort to uncover African linguistic influences in the Gullah language.  After becoming Professor of English at the Roosevelt College in Chicago in 1946, a predominantly white college, he went on to publish his classic, “Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect”.  This book became one of the most groundbreaking publications in American linguistic studies, changing the ways Academics approached African American speech.  In the early 1950s, Turner decided to travel across West Africa, conducting fieldwork and interviews with some of its inhabitants, including some of its most prolific linguists.

Thomas Decker

By the late 1930s, Sierra Leonean, Thomas Decker, had already developed his own system for writing Krio.  At that time there was no official orthography for the language and it was still regarded as simply an imperfect form of English.  Decker, who was then a Journalist for the Sierra Leone Daily Guardian, began to challenge the idea that Krio was not a unique language, by writing several literary pieces in the language.  Sierra Leone at the time had been colonized by the British since the early 19th Century and much of its elite and intellectual populace had largely conformed to British standards.  He and others with similar objectives, faced a daunting task to not only having Krio recognized as an official language by the colonial British but also in convincing the native speakers themselves that their language was as unique to their identity as their heritage.  In one of his pieces, “Boss Coker befo St. Peter”, written in 1939, he challenged the native speakers of the language who still regarded krio as simply a type of patois or broken English.  Decker was determined to prove that the Krio language, which at this time was now filled with African words brought in by the Liberated Africans, was no longer a broken English but a language in its own right.

Throughout all these years of research, I never really drew any tangible connections between Grandpa and Gullah, beyond the mere reference to his writing system by Opala.  Late last year, during a random search, I wanted to see if there were any records held in the Library of Congress or similar institutions in Maryland, of Grandpa’s writings, especially his articles in old Sierra Leonean newspapers.  I found several archived issues of the Daily Guardian at the Library of Congress, and was excited during my visit there, going through some of his articles, reading his thoughts in his own words.  What became a stunning discovery for me last year however, was another unique search result in Google I came across, this time having both Decker and Turner’s name in the description.  Wondering what it was all about, I was completely surprised to learn that not only had Lorenzo Turner visited Sierra Leone during his fieldwork in West Africa in the 1950s, Grandpa Tommy happened to be one of the individuals he intereviewed.  I sat there totally amazed at the fact that over 60 years ago, Grandpa had also come to know of the Gullahs, and from no other than Turner himself, who many have considered to be the ‘Father of Gullah Studies’.

Part of the description of the record holding at the Smithsonian collection reads:

Turner was not only able to capture the underlining social, political, and economic issues occurring in West Africa but interview one of the most  influential African linguists in Sierra Leone: Thomas Leighton Decker.  In interviewing Decker and other informants, Turner was able to discover and examine the linguistic components of the Krio language, a language that is today spoken by more than 90% of the population of Sierra Leone. In his field notebook, Dr. Turner compiled notes relating to syntax, morphology, and semantic structures as well as the etymology of words and phrases most commonly associated with Krio speaking people.

It was pure affirmation for me, that my interest in the Gullah did not spring from air, but I had found traces of it going back to my Grandfather, who had passed long before I was born.  While I know that Grandpa was very much in tune with the English and Creole languages, as well as the plight of the ‘Negro-at-large’, I had limited his scope of thought to that of Britain and British West Africa.  Little did I know that he had been way more acquainted with the African American culture than I imagined.  His interest, while conversing with Turner about American American speech, must have made him even more inquisitive about not only the nature of Krio but its origins beyond the Atlantic.

Turner returned to the US after his research and continued as Chairman of the African Studies at Roosevelt College until the late 1960s.  Much of his work not only helped to change the view that Gullah was simply a ‘broken English’, but the broader scope of his linguistic studies helped to foster in new insights into African American speech studies and culture for university curriculum.  He later went on to publish “The Krio Language of the Sierra Leone” in 1963 and “Krio Texts: With Grammatical Notes and Translation in English” in 1965.

Thomas Decker’s Translation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (“Juliohs Siza”)

In 1961, Grandpa became the Chief Information Officer during the inaugural year of Sierra Leone’s Independence.  He later went on to serve in the Civil Service as  Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the first Sierra Leonean to serve in the position.  In 1964, Grandpa translated Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar into Krio.  Considered to be his most reputable work, he set out to prove that anything written in English, can be written in Krio.  About 2 years later in 1966, he also translated Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” into Krio.

I don’t imagine Turner and Decker ever crossed paths again.  Certainly their paths were different.  One traveled the world of his literary scope, seeing and hearing in-person the many voices and cultures creolized by the transatlantic trade.  The other, honing in on one of them, directed all of his faculties to defend its authenticity.  Both shared a vision, that seemingly only language could clearly articulate.  They defended uniqueness and originality, where so much of the black cultural identity had been reshuffled by forced migrations, displacements, and the emergence of new cultures. They set out to fill the vacuums of language, that would have been left in limbo, as just another part of us that becomes mis-characterized by others as imperfections.

Before I came across the connection between Decker and Turner last year, I had already developed a personal bond with a few members of the Gullah community over the last 10 years.  I had traveled to the sea islands in South Carolina twice and marched with the Gullahs during their annual festival.  I had come to learn about the story of a Sierra Leonean Mende song that survived in a Gullah family for over 2 centuries, and even had the pleasure of meeting one of the family members a few times.   I purchased Turner’s book a few years ago and learned of connections other than the Krio language between the Gullah and Sierra Leone.  There were Mende songs carried through generations in the Gullah community, such as the one sung by Amelia Dawley, Lavinia Quarterman, and Emma Hall.  Temne names like Alfaba, Kanu, and Kaya survived centuries among native Gullahs.

at the Penn Center, St. Helena Island…Symposium Panel (l to r) Myself, Ron Daise (Gullah Gullah Island TV Show), Amadu Massally (Fambul Tik Heritage Co), Kevin Lowther (Author of John Kizell’s Biography), Mrs. Atkins (Gullah Native), Joseph Opala (Sierra Leonean-Gullah connection & Anthropologist)

The affirmation I received from learning of Grandpa and Turner’s interactions, has certainly increased my level of interest into the Gullah.  It has also left me with questions that I know will continue to hound me until I find the answers.  What did Grandpa think after learning about the Gullah language?  Did he plan to travel to America?  How did finding out about the Gullah and correspondences with Turner, shape his thoughts and further works on Krio?  What would it have been like, if he was still here and we took a trip to St. Helena Island together?  What language would he choose to speak while there; English, Krio, or Gullah?

The journey continues indeed…

Akindele Decker is a Sierra Leonean poet and writer with ancestral links across West Africa and the other side of the Atlantic. He resides in Maryland, USA with his family. www.akindeletmdecker.com

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