Welcome to Bahamas Folklore!
According to European history, the Bahamas was the first landfall of the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus on his voyage of discovery on October 1492. The truth was that when he arrived in this part of the world, the islands were already inhabited by Arawak Indians who had originally migrated from the South American mainland. They shared a kinship with the Taino and Lucayan Indians who inhabited Jamaica, Hispaniola and Cuba.
In return for their hospitality, Columbus changed their names, the names of the places they lived, and he, and later Spanish adventurers , wiped these gentle people from the face of the earth.
Although considered part of the Caribbean, the islands that make up the Islands of the Bahamas are well out in the Atlantic, stretching more than 650 miles from the eastern coast of Florida to the south-eastern tip of Cuba. The Tropic of Cancer runs through the island of Exuma, one of the few Taino names still attached to the country.
Over the centuries the country’s history of exploitation, slavery and piracy, post-colonial, predominantly African culture and economic dependence on smuggling, and later tourism and off-shore banking give them much in common with all the islands of the Caribbean.
Like their counterparts in other parts of the region, the Bahamian people over the centuries have created a powerful and unique culture. Like their Caribbean neighbours, Bahamians artists, thinkers, athletes and musicians have had a worldwide influence disproportionate to the country’s small size and population.
Sir Sidney Poitier, the first African-American to receive an Academy Award for acting, hails from Cat Island. Joseph Spence, recognized as one of the most accomplished folk-guitarist of his day, was born in Andros, and
James Weldon Johnson, who penned the African-American nation anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a son of the Bahamas.
Bert Williams of the famous vaudeville act, Williams and Walker, had his roots in San Salvador and
King Curtis, the artist whose soulful saxophone sound underscored many of Aretha Franklin’s greatest hits, has roots in Rolleville, Exuma. Speaking of Rolleville, that small town is also the ancestral home of “Good Times” Esther Rolle and Roxy Roker, both of them on the same show.
In 1829, Exuma was the scene of a revolt when slaves belonging to Lord Denis Rolle fled to the woods for a month and refused to work, setting a precedent that alarmed slave owners throughout the Caribbean. The group, led by Pompey, stole a boat and headed to Nassau to seek a hearing with the governor, but was captured en route. All forty-four slaves were imprisoned. Pompey was brought back to Exuma and flogged with 39 strokes of the cat-o-nine in the school yard in Steventon.
By the time slavery was abolished five years later, Lord Rolles’s Exuma plantations had failed due to pests and soil exhaustion. Lord Rolle received more than four thousand pounds in compensation, and today sixty percent of all Exumians carry the last name Rolle and can acquire land in the village if they can prove that they are descendants of the original slave population.
Without a Dr. Robert Love, who grew up in Grant’s Town, Nassau, the world may not have heard of Marcus Garvey. A physician and minister, Dr. Love was one of the earliest mentors of the budding black leader as he developed his oratorical and journalistic skills that would propel him to leadership of the largest African-American organization the world has seen.
Dr Robert Love
Brigadier David Smith
Smith was born in Jolly Hall, Exuma and went on to become Chief of Staff of the Jamaica Defence Force. In the photograph above he is seen at the welcoming ceremony for His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haille Selassie, on his official visit to Jamaica on April 23, 1966.
The Gullah/ Geechee Connection
BAHAMIAN GULLAH/GEECHEE CONNECTION
In 1492, Christopher Columbus made his first landfall in the Western Hemisphere in the Bahamas. He encountered friendly Arawak Indians and exchanged gifts with them.
Spanish slave traders later captured the Arawaks and their cousins, the Lucayans to work in gold mines in Hispaniola (later called Santo Domingo and later still, Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and within 25 years, the Lucayans and the Arawaks vanished from the face of the earth. Lacking a source of slaves, the Spanish did not bother to colonize the islands. In 1647 during the time of the English Civil War, a group of Puritan religious refugees from the royalist colony of Bermuda, the Eleutheran Adventurers, founded the first permanent European settlement in The Bahamas and gave Eleuthera Island its name. Similar groups of settlers formed governments in The Bahamas, but the isolated cays sheltered pirates and wreckers through the 17th century. Charles 11 granted land in the Bahamas to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas but the islands were left entirely to themselves. After Charles Town was destroyed by a joint French and Spanish fleet in 1703, the local pirates proclaimed an anarchic ‘Privateers’ Republic’ with Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard— for chief magistrate.
In 1718, the islands became a British Crown colony , and the first Royal Governor, a reformed pirate named Woodes Rogers, expelled the buccaneers who had used the islands as hideouts. During the American War of Independence the Bahamas fell briefly to Spanish forces under General Galvez in 1782. After the American Revolutionary War, the British government issued land grants in Jamaica, Canada and the Bahamas to a group of British Loyalists, who chose the wrong side in the war.
The sparse population of The Bahamas tripled in a few years. The planters thought to grow cotton, but the limestone soil, the boll weevil and chenille bug put an end to those dreams. After a few years, the plantations failed and soon both the Black and White settlers turned to the sea for their fortunes.
The new arrivals however brought their food, culture, folkways and most importantly, their language. Although a British colony from 1670 to independence in 1973, culturally and linguistically, the character and personality of the Bahamian people owe much to the Gullah people who live in the coastal Islands offshore South Carolina, and Georgia.
Today, the English spoken by the average working class Bahamian is close to the Gullah dialect, so much so, that Bahamian migrant workers who found their way to the American South as farm workers on “The Contract”, during and after the Second World War, could melt into the local population at the drop of a phrase, because, “they could talk geeche good”. Idioms like ‘day clean” for dawn, and “terectly “for “soon” or “whenever” are still commonly used in both Charleston and Nassau.
The Gullah/Geechee People
The real Gullah/Geeche culture is found in an area that extends for several hundred miles between Cape Fear in North Carolina, and the St. Johns River in North Florida.
It is home to one of America’s most distinctive cultures, the Gullah and Geechee people, and descendants of slaves who have stoutly maintained folkways, crafts, traditions – even a language – whose origins can be traced back over the centuries to their homelands in West Africa. The Gullah people and their traditions are a product of the Atlantic Slave trade. In the seventy-five years from the beginning of the 18th century to the declaration of independence, more than forty percent of the Africans arriving in the British North Americans Colonies were quarantined and processed in coastal islands off Georgia and South Carolina. As they adapted to their new homes in the coastal islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, their culture found expression and expertise in basket weaving, cotton, indigo, and rice cultivation, and the unique cuisine that drew on the rich harvest of the coastal marshlands. She-crab soup, fish and grits, peas and rice, fried mullet and conch are still staples at fine eating establishments in Savannah, Charleston and Beauford, South Carolina.
The Gullahs and their mainland cousins, the Geechees, were first brought from Africa to the isolated Sea Islands off the coast of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia and until fairly recently their communities in the coastal region of islands, marshes, placid rivers and expansive wetlands had seen little change.
The Gullahs (as they are called by others) are direct descendants of Africans coming mostly from the ethnic groups of West Africa and the Bantu of Central Africa. The word, “Gullah,” is believed to be a shortened form or corruption of N’ gola (Angola). There is no difference in the linguistic structure of Gullah and Sea Island Creole than that spoken in the Caribbean and Africa.
The Geechee language and culture is believed to have derived from the plantations along the Ogeechee River that flows through southeast Georgia to the Atlantic, although linguists claim it also has antecedents in another Bantu dialect.
The Gullah/Geechee culture on the coastal islands remained in almost total obscurity for more than 200 years. However, while many African traditions have been retained in the culture, change in the region is now widespread, often overwhelming, and sometimes threatening this unique culture.
New bridges and roads have opened the area to intensive development and tourism, sprawling resorts, residential subdivisions and strip malls are sprouting everywhere. Family cemeteries, archaeological sites and fishing grounds are being paved over or put off-limits by new owners, and familiar landmarks – stores, churches, schools and houses – are being demolished or replaced with new structures. However, many grass roots organizations and community groups are collaborating with preservation societies and the national thrust to educate the public, raise funds and secure technical assistance for protecting and preserving structures, landscapes and archaeological sites.
The cultures of The Bahamas and the Gullah/Geechees also share a great story-telling tradition.
The cultures of the Bahamian and the American South also share a great story-telling tradition, and many of the themes and motifs suggest a common African past.
But what is remarkable is that researchers have found one of the largest collections of folk-tales in the hemisphere in The Bahamas, over three hundred or more, and only in Africa are more folk-tales found and still told today. These stories speak to an African origin, particularly the Anansi stories, and show a commonality wherever Africans were settled in the new world.
Traditionally, parents and grandparents in the Bahamas, drew on B’ Booky and B’Rabby folk tales to put their children to sleep. These folk-tales have much in common with the Uncle Remus stories collected over a hundred years ago by a white Southerner, Joel Chandler Harris. The Bahamas however is recognized as having one of the largest collections of folktales in the African Diaspora in the Americas, and their preservation owes much to the work of Zora Neale Hurston, one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston is credited with documenting a wide collection of Bahamian folktales, songs and chants that still enrich the Bahamian society today.
For example, in one of his stories, “How the Alligator Skin Got Wrinkled,” Harris used the word “Nyam” which means, “to eat.” The word is still common in Jamaican dialect and residents of Cat Island and Andros use it to refer to a shoulder bag used for carrying food when going to work in the fields. Other idioms, which occur in Bahamian dialect, include:
Tell him, say… – Tell him
One man – A man
Me one – Me alone, only me
Mash up – Break, hurt, destroy
The headway I make – The speed I make
He rig a plan – He made a plan
He jook a fish – He speared a fish
Do, for God’s sake – intensification for any verb
One day more than all – One day particularly
He does tief – He steals
In 1807, the British Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill, which made it unlawful for any British subject to transport slaves. British captains who were caught continuing the trade, were fined one hundred pounds for every slave found on board. The British Navy adopted the practice of intercepting slave traders of other European nations and depositing their cargo at the nearest British ports. In the capital city of Nassau, the villages of Gambier, Adelaide, Carmichael and Fox Hill were home to these liberated Africans.
In Andros, there is still a Congo Town, and for years a popular basketball team in Fox Hill went by the name, the Fox Hill Nangoes.
The slaves in the Bahamas and the Caribbean were freed in 1834 by Queen Victoria. By that time, all Bahamians of African descent, whether they arrived with the Loyalists or whether they preceded the loyalists, or whether they arrived by other means, were influenced by the culture and folkways of the Gullah people.
Bahamians like their cousins in Savannah and Charleston, believe that they have one of the most varied cuisines in the world, stimulated to a degree by a thriving tourist trade, but influenced by the indigenous seasoning or native food which can hold its own against any recognized regional cuisine.
Bahamians have a way with fish and in a country with over 100,000 square miles of water, there is a lot of fish and many ways to prepare it. Bahamians prefer their fish fried, baked, steamed (with tomato gravy), stewed or boiled. Popular species include grunts, snappers, groupers, mackerels, porgy, turbots and sometimes barracuda.
Conchs thrive abundantly in Bahamian waters and this gastropod has always been a favourite and versatile food for Bahamians.
Conch is eaten raw, scorched, or diced and mixed with hot pepper, celery, tomatoes and onion in a Salad. It is also fried for cracked conch, or cooked with tomatoes as steamed conch, or with vegetables in chowder. It is deep-tried in flour batter to make conch fritters or “fitters.” When dried for several months, it is soaked and revived to make a conch and okra soup. Dried conch is also Hurricane Ham because it can outlast any preserved meat and is good for any emergency. Restaurants in Charleston and Savannah serve grits with breakfast and at Hyman a popular restaurant on Kings Street in Charleston, one of the most popular items on the menu is stew fish and grits, a Bahamian staple separated by a few hundred miles and about the same number of years.
Today, the most popular expression of Bahamian culture is the Junkanoo, but Goombay is the root.
Today young Bahamians JAM, BOOGIE and SKANK to the disco, rock reggae, and dancehall soca and worldbeat music heard from Capetown to New York to Port of Spain. The traditional music of the Bahamas is GOOMBAY and is also related to that of the American mainland and the Caribbean, combining the musical traditions from Africa with that of the European colonial experience. Goombay is the Bantu word for “rhythm” and the name given to the particular type of drum used in the music. Usually made from a goatskin stretched tightly over a keg, the goatskin drum is the centerpiece of the gentle rolling rhythm of all Bahamian music. The musical form of Junkanoo is derived from the traditions of Goombay, although since the 1960s, the musical form strayed from its more traditional style into a louder, more rapid and cacophonous sound that assumed the name of the festival and parade that celebrates Boxing Day, the Day after Christmas, and again on New Year’s day. Junkanoo is now the most predominate musical form, and the Goombay traditions are preserved in the rake and scrape bands which harkens back to a more simpler time in the islands when there were fewer resources. The typical rake and scrape band had a drum, a saw which was scraped with either a file or some other hard metal, a wash tub with a string through it and tied to a three foot stick which served as a modified bass violin, maracas and rhythm sticks. Today’s rake and scrape bands are modified with electric bass and rhythm guitars, but they cannot respectably call themselves rake and scrape without the saw and drums. From the 1920s to the mid 1970s, the basic rake and scrape bands were modified with a piano, horns, or guitar and even banjos and were simply called Goombay bands. The musical form is also known in Bermuda and the Turks and Caicos islands.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
October 17, 2000
ARTS ABROAD; Guinea-
Bissau’s Music Drives Its
Industry: the Clubs
By DAVID HECHT
The surrounding jungle is slowly engulfing the tiny capital of this former Portuguese colony. More than a year after a devastating war little has been rebuilt. The new president, elected in January, doesn’t even have his own office, and his presidential palace, like many government buildings, is a burned-out shell. The broken streets are mostly empty by day.
But nights are a different matter. At least eight big discotheques with high-tech lighting and sound systems lie hidden in the rubble. Bissau rarely has electricity because its power grid is severely damaged, but the clubs all have private generators. So thousands of impoverished city dwellers emerge from the darkness to dance the night away.
On dance floors men and women show off their passada, a steamy Portuguese-African dance in which pelvises meet and gyrate. The club goers are of all ages and classes. Members of the government fraternize with peasants.
Officially it costs as much as $7 to go dancing in a country where per capita income is $230 a year. But in reality anyone can get into a disco, says the doorman in front of a big, half-destroyed colonial building that houses a fancy, multilevel club called Galaxia. ”If you don’t have money, you get a discount,” he said. Marijuana is readily available, and prostitution is rife, but most people have clearly come to dance. ”Here we feel transformed,” said Orlando Mendoca, 20, as colored lights flashed in his face. A woman pulled him onto the dance floor as the D.J. put on a local hit called ”Don’t Judge Me by My Size.” The singer, Dembo Djassi, is a dwarf who says that everyone used to insult him, even his mother. But now he is a star.
These discotheques wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the popularity of the local music, gumbe, as it is called, which is based on a traditional rhythm. In villages across the country, the women mostly dance it while the men tap the beat on a half of a giant gourd that floats upside down in a basin of water. The drum makes a gurgling sound somewhat like the word gumbe.
While each of Guinea-Bissau’s ethnic groups has its own rhythm, gumbe is the only one traditionally played by all. Like the Portuguese Creole language in which it is sung, the music is seen as a uniting force in a fractured country.
As with the indigenous music of many African countries, pop versions emerged only in the 1980’s, and in gumbe, the transformation meant not only adding electric instruments and a modern pop structure but also a political edge.
Local gumbe stars like Justino Delgado, Rui Sangara and Tino Trimo all take inspiration from Amilcar Cabral, the intellectual leader of Guinea-Bissau’s war for independence from Portugal in the 1960’s and 70’s, and see themselves as following in the footsteps of Cabral’s friend, Jose Carlos Schwarz, whose music sounds like the Portuguese folk-singing known as fado with a Joan Baez sensibility. His lyrics are scathing political commentaries that landed him in trouble with the Portuguese colonial authorities and then, after independence in 1973, with the country’s first government. He died in 1977.
The modern gumbe artists who emerged in the 1980’s and 90’s were all harsh critics of the dictator, President Joao Bernardo Vieira. He jailed Mr. Delgado, the most outspoken of them.
President Vieira was ousted in May 1999, though only after the army uprising against him turned into a war, with the French-speaking neighbors, Senegal and the Republic of Guinea, sending thousands of troops to support him. The invasion, which many people in Guinea-Bissau believe was orchestrated by France, reawakened nationalist sentiments that had been dormant since independence.
Discotheques remained open throughout the 11-month ordeal, with people braving rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire to get to them.
Before the war the modern French cultural center in Bissau was the country’s main hall for local and visiting French performers, but the day the war ended, victorious junta forces destroyed it.
Now discotheques are the only cultural institutions left standing. Many concerts take place a block away from the French ruins at the discotheque Capital. One clubgoer recalled having to sit quietly at Capital as if he were listening to Mozart. ”That’s not the way we show our appreciation for music here,” he said.
The discotheques are loud and chaotic. Business is booming, said Bacai Sanha, the owner of the Cafe D’Rome, who is also an economist and the son of the former interim president, also named Bacai Sanha. ”They’re the only thing worth investing in here,” he said. Guinea-Bissau has no industry and produces few export crops besides cashews, and even that has slowed with the new government’s attempts to tax cashew traders.
”Economically and politically, we don’t know how to move forward,” Mr. Delgado said in an interview. ”With our music many things seem possible.”
Gumbe takes many forms. To an ear used to identifying music by melody rather than rhythm, it often sounds like other African, Caribbean or Latin dance music. Some gumbe musicians borrow heavily from Congolese soukous or French Antillean zouk, and some use elements of rap, reggae and salsa.
Even gumbe’s rhythm came from abroad, said Ousmane Hurchard Sow, a Senegalese musicologist specializing in the music of West Africa. ”It’s like the old rumba found in music from Cuba to Congo,” he said. Yet the gumbe rhythm is distinctive, and a Guinea-Bissau sound shines through. People here identify with it as if it were part of their genetic coding. Intellectuals say it fits the ideal postcolonial culture.
Guinea-Bissau lacks a professional sound studio, so the music is all recorded in Portugal or France. Local sales of imported gumbe CD’s and cassettes have been growing, said Alfredino Tavares, who owns the main music store in the country.
But he doesn’t see that as a sign of an economic upswing. ”All people care about here is food on their table and music to dance to, and not necessarily in that order,” he said.
Goombay dancers in Guinea Bissau
(pictures courtesy of National Ggeographic Society)
Jonkunno, the an annual celebration in honour of an ancient African yam harvest, became known for exotic, colourful costumes and wildly original masks. In the New World, it converged with Christmas festivities. Except for one, all early American accounts place Jonkunoo celebrations in North Carolina.
Junkanoo has an undeniably African heritage and it is said to have begun in the Carolinas when the slave masters gave the slaves two days off at Christmas to celebrate however they felt like. Some say the name comes from the French “L’inconnu”, meaning (the unknown), in reference to the mask worn by the parades; or “junk enoo”, the Scottish settlers’ reference to the parades meaning ‘junk enough”; or “John Canoe”, the name of an African tribal chief who demanded the right to celebrate with his people after being brought to the West Indies as a slave.
Junkanoo is celebrated throughout the Caribbean, in Jamaica, Guyana, the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands, but nowhere to the extent as it is in the Bahamas, where it has taken on Super Bowl proportions.
Junkanoo groups are organized on patterns similar to the New Orleans Mardi Gras “crews. Group members are drawn from neighbourhoods and affinity groupings, trade unions, popular bars, and even churches are getting in and sponsoring groups. The music is provided by goat skin drums, whistles, horns and cowbells. Prizes are awarded for best group costumes, best individual costumes and best music, but the prize monies hardly cover the cost of organizing and outfitting a group, many of whom rely on commercial sponsors. That doesn’t matter. Every Bahamian will tell you Junkanoo is all about fun, it is all about the Bahamian spirit.
God speaks Gullah
published: Saturday | January 28, 2006
A NEW translation of the New Testament designed for persons who speak Gullah was unveiled last November. This translation bears strong resemblance to Jamaican Patois.
Gullah is the language that gave the world the song Kumbaya and words such as ‘yam’ and ‘nanny’. It is spoken by about 250,000 African-Americans who inhabit the coastal areas between South Carolina and Florida.
The Gullah language according to http://www.wikipedia.com “is an English-based Creole, strongly influenced by West and Central African languages such as Vai, Mende, Twi, Ewe, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, and Kikongo.
“It strongly resembles the Krio language of Sierra Leone, a major West African English-based Creole. Some African-derived words attributed to Gullah are: cootuh (turtle), oonuh (pronoun ‘you’), nyam (to eat), and buckruh (white man)”.
The language originated in the slave trade that brought mainly West Africans to the Sea Islands off South Carolina. The slave traders, in an effort to thwart uprisings and escapees mixed slaves who spoke different languages. From this hybrid came Gullah. Some linguists believe that 10,000 African-Americans speak nothing but Gullah.
YEARS OF COLLABORATION
The Gullah New Testament dubbed De Nyew Testament was unveiled during an annual festival celebration in South Carolina. It represented the culmination of 26 years of toil.
De Nyew Testament is the fruition of collaboration between Gullah speakers, and linguists attached to the American Bible Society, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Wycliffe Bible Translators, the United Bible Societies and the Penn Centre in St. Helena Island, South Carolina, and is published by the American Bible Society. The 900-page Gullah New Testament includes the King James Version of each verse next to the Gullah text.
Gullah, also called Geechee, was developed as a way for slaves to communicate with one another without white slave owners knowing what was being said. After the American Civil War, the former slaves were able to retain their culture and language because many remained isolated on coastal islands.
Because the islands were isolated, Gullah never evolved into Standard English.
Many concur that Gullah bears some resemblance to Ebonics, the modern African-American vernacular. But scholars insist it is a distinct language with its own grammar and vocabulary.
Bible translator Pat Sharpe and her husband, Claude, arrived in the Sea Islands all set to retire in the late 1970s. The couple decided to try a translation of the Bible into Gullah, beginning a process that would take nearly 30 years.
By the time the Sharpes had arrived, Gullah speakers had learned to be ashamed of their language. Some locals tried to persuade the Sharpes to drop the project. The couple refused to give up. They noted that Gullah had contributed to the English language such words as ‘tote’ (to carry), ‘chigger’ (flea) and ‘biddy’ (chicken). Other linguists joined the translation team as the project evolved.
NOT A COMMERCIAL MISSION
Dr. Robert Hodgson, of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship at the American Bible Society, says only the American Bible Society could have printed the translation since its main concern is not a commercial one. Instead, the Bible Society’s mission is to provide Scriptures for various language groups that desire to read God’s Word in their heart language.
Dr. Hodgson says the Bible translation is one in which everyone can take pride because of its historical and cultural significance. He points out that this is more than just a Bible translation: “The Gullah New Testament raises the Gullah language and culture to a new level by enshrining the Scriptures in a Creole language once denigrated as a second-class version of English.”
He continues, “African-American churches around the country will celebrate this new translation for its lively tone and musical rhythms, reminiscent of today’s hip-hop vernacular, but also for its recovery of an almost forgotten chapter in the history of African-Americans.”
This sentiment is echoed by Dr. Steve Berneking, a translation officer for the Bible Society, who was involved with the project. He says, “We are delighted to celebrate along with the entire Gullah community in seeing this translation move from merely spoken words to a printed form we can hold in our hands. Our hope is that this New Testament will help keep the Gullah language and culture living and active among future generations.”
Over the years, in cooperation with the United Bible Societies, the American Bible Society has provided accuracy checking for the translation and was able to bring the project to completion by providing support for its production and the actual printing of the New Testament.
One of the translation team members from the beginning was Emory Campbell, executive director emeritus of the Penn Centre, which promotes and preserves the history and culture of the Sea Islands.
Mr. Campbell said, “This New Testament has created much excitement among Gullah speakers and it is a gift to all as we treasure our heritage and work to preserve it.”
Mr. Campbell who grew up speaking Gullah, told a reporter from a Philadelphia newspaper: “We were teased and made fun of, and told to go get some culture, not knowing we had culture all along, it was just a different culture,”
Ardell Greene, another long-time member of the Gullah translation team, calls the Gullah New Testament a ‘treasure’ and emphasises that “this Bible will be read in churches and our youngsters will be encouraged by it to keep the Gullah tradition alive.”
The Sea Islands, along with the seacoast city of Beaufort SC, were the receiving ports of call for slave ships from West Africa. During the Civil War, the Sea Islands, particularly St. Helena Island and its Penn School, provided the first sanctuary for emancipated slaves, offering free education and unrestricted access to the Bible and to religious expression. The Penn Centre provided a home-away-from home for leaders of the Civil Rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who penned his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on its campus.
Vernetta Canteen, a member of the translation team, says she is “excited to actually feel it and touch it.” She believes that the New Testament validates the culture and heritage of the Gullah people. As she puts it, “That’s the first time I heard God talk the way I talk.” After 26 years working on the translation, she says, “I would do it again in a heartbeat!”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Persons may view copies of the Gullah Bible translation at the offices of Wycliffe Caribbean, 20 West Avenue, Kingston 8.Jamaica. Tel: 924-2784.
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The Bahamas is essentially a Christian country with 99 percent of the population professing to some branch of the Christian faith. Every denomination known to modern man is found in The Bahamas. The largest groupings are the Baptists, followed by Anglicans (Episcopal) and then Roman Catholics. The Fundamental and Charismatic sects, historically connected to similar movements in the American South are gaining ground in a number of congregants. Religion is a source of upliftment throughout life.
Most Bahamians are prayed for as babies and churched before burial. Also all Bahamians like a little emotion in their religious service. The non-denominational churches are noted for song services or praise and worship services with lively rhythms and hand-clapping as well as crying when members get the Holy Ghost. Small acts of piety are integral parts of everyday life for many.
When speaking of future plans, even for the next day, Bahamians will add ‘if God Spare My Life’ or “God willing’. Many families would not think of starting a meal before gracing it and before going to bed, children are taught to say the Our Father Prayers.
We is still Bahamians though
Notwithstanding their proximity to the larger, and sometimes overwhelming, North American culture, Bahamians still take pride in their own unique culture and in sharing it with over four million visitors a year who have also come to enjoy the Bahamian way of life. They like the proximity and the benefits. They can fly over to Miami in the morning, go to K-Mart, and be home in the evening, but they also like their separateness and their own identity.
Bahamian historian, and dentist, the late Dr Cleveland Eneas, told a story of a Bahamian who was going to Miami and when he went to the airport , was told by the United States immigration authorities that he needed a visa to visit the United States. The proud and rightfully indignant traveller said:” Man, ain’t going to the States. I just goin’ to Miami- I’se a Bahamian, I ain’t come to stay. “
Bahamians think they own Miami .They were the first real immigrant to Florida, in fact when Miami was incorporated as a city in 1896 authorities sought and obtained the signature of 100 Bahamian migrant workers to complete the incorporation papers. At that time nobody bothered with visas and passports so in a sense Bahamians always thought of themselves as somewhat “Merican.
Miami is often thought of as a new immigrant city- a city that only became the haven of Caribbean and Latin American exiles in the sixties, but the fact is, according to Professor Richard A. Mohl of Florida Atlantic University, Miami and South Florida have always had a magnetic attraction for peoples of the Caribbean. Black immigrants from the Bahamas in particular, gave immigration to Miami its special character in the early years of the twentieth century.
Miami had only a few hundred people when it was incorporated as a city in 1896; in fact the city father’s needed the signatures of one hundred Black Bahamians to meet the legal incorporation requirements. By 1920, Miami had a larger population of black immigrants than any other city in the United States except New York. In that year, Miami’s population stood at 29,571, the foreign born making up one fourth of the population, or just over 4,000 persons.
The story of how Miami became destination for black immigrants from the Bahamas begins early in Florida history. Bahamian Blacks had been familiar with Florida’s east coast, and particular the Florida Cays (or Keys), long before the building of Miami. In the early nineteenth century when Florida was isolated and underdeveloped, the area was commonly frequented by Bahamian fishermen, wreckers, and seamen, as well as traders who dealt with the Seminole Indians near Cape Florida on Biscayne Bay. These Bahamians regarded Florida as much as another island of the Bahamas, and today Cape Florida has been recognized by the National Park Service as the historical connection between Florida and the Bahamas, particularly for the role it played as a jumping off point to freedom in the Bahamas for African Americans and Black Seminoles
By the 1830s, black and white Bahamians were beginning to migrate to the Florida Keys, especially Key West, where they worked in fishing, sponging, and catching turtles. The distance was short, and the work paid cash. By 1892, 8,000 of the people in Key West were Bahamians and sponging was their mainstay.
By the late nineteenth century, a second stream of Bahamian blacks began arriving on Florida’s lower east coast, from Fort Pierce to Florida City for seasonal work in the region’s emerging agricultural industry. The scrubby pine and porous limestone topography of south Florida was similar to that of the islands. The Bahamians knew how to work with this type of land. They brought their commonly used trees, vegetables and fruits and demonstrated to their American counterparts the rich agricultural potential of the area. Today, south Florida, particularly the area around Homestead, Perrine and Cutler Ridge, provide more than a third of the winter vegetables consumed in North America, due in large part to the contribution and know-how of those early Bahamian migrants.
The development of Miami after 1896 created new opportunities for Bahamian immigrants. A building boom was going on and any Bahamian who wanted a job could find one. According to colonial records, ten to twelve thousand Bahamians left the islands for Florida between 1900 and 1920-about one fifth of the entire Bahamian population.
At the turn of the century, thousands of Bahamians migrated to Florida to work on the Florida Flagler Railroad that connected Key West to Miami. Many of them stayed on to play a part in the development of the city of Miami and one of its suburbs, Coconut Grove. This relationship is now celebrated the first weekend of every June at the Coconut Grove Goombay. The contract proved to be the primary occupation for thousands of Bahamian workers and was actually part of a second wave of immigrants to the United States.
Asu (e) a means of pooling money has a direct link to Yoruba, unlike Junkanoo, which is eclectic. Among the Yoruba, the practice was known as esusu, and Samuel Johnson defines it as a “universal custom from clubbing together of a number of persons for monetary aid.” A fixed sum is given by each at a fixed time (usually every week) and placed under a president; the total amount is paid to each member in rotation. This enables a poor man to do something worthwhile where a lump sum of money is required. There are no laws regulating the sum. This practice came in handy in the Bahamas where there was no bank from which money could be borrowed. Moreover, low income workers who probably did not have sufficient credit to get a loan would not have been helped had there been a bank. Asu(e) obviated this. By pooling their resources, ten (10) persons were assured of receiving a payment ten times what they contributed each week, when their hand came. The money could have been used to buy seeds, a farm animal, tools, or cloth to make garments. Asu(e) was also practiced elsewhere in the British West Indies under different names: susu in Trinidad, and Partner in Jamaica. Asu was not practiced however, in the United States where for instance, in Philadelphia, an insurance company was started but failed.
Born August 14, 1938, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida
I grew up a West Indian. There was never any question that I was a black American, but in Florida people would call me “a Nassau” because my grandparents were from the Bahamas and they were the ones with whom I lived.
We had a very big family. My grandmother was one of twenty children. They all had big families so I grew up thinking that every second person I’d meet would be a cousin.
When I went to Oberlin, I took a course on Caribbean cultures and came across a reference to esusu or esu, which are saving associations in Haiti and Jamaica and almost every part of the Caribbean. An article by a student of the Yoruba in Nigeria described esu as a Yoruba credit association. I believe that was the beginning of my determination to study Africa, because I had known about esu from childhood. Instead of using banks or post offices, these Bahamians used esu. I felt thrilled because for the first time I really did concretely understand that there was a cultural link to Africa. I determined that I would go to West Africa to learn more about the history of the area from which we came. That’s how I came to begin this long-term association with the continent that I have had.
[In Africa], I felt for the first time what it meant to be a majority person. What struck me about the small Yoruba town I lived in were the similarities to things I knew as a child .There were postures, the way they did things. For example, the fact that women were the market traders and had a lifestyle that made them very independent. There were no housewives among these women. This was something that I recognized.
I think that being in Nigeria in the early sixties increased my sense of pride in the African heritage. I felt that we were all one people with a destiny that was very much interwoven.
I didn’t come away feeling that home is only in America and Nigeria in another country. I felt definitely and deeply that this was a part of me.
Fort Lauderdale never belonged to me. I was always conscious that this was not mine. There was always the hand above us, people in control who intruded in our lives from time to time. I felt that it was my country but not my land.
But when I went to West Africa, I had the deep sense not only of belonging, but of possession. This was ours! The whole continent was ours!
I wanted to affirm an association with the continent by taking another name. It was a political decision that some black Americans were making. .Sudarkasa came by marriage The word nia in Swahali means purpose. So Niara was an adaptation and the name was given to me to mean a woman of high purpose.
I didn’t change my name because I didn’t like it, or because I wanted to reject it as a slave name. Legally I’m still Gloria Marshall Clarke and Niara Sudarkasa. My passport has both.
Niara Sudarkasa is the first woman president (she has not resigned) of Lincoln University the nation’s oldest black college, a formerly all-male institution. A graduate of Oberlin Collage, She earned her MA and PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. Prior to her appointment at Lincoln in 1987, She was the associate vice –president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbour, where she was the first black woman to receive tenure.
James Weldon Johnson & Bert Walker courtesy Schomblerg Library, New York
Brigadier David Smith & Joseph Love courtesy National Library of Jamaica
farm workers courtesy Department of Labor USA