The Gullah People and Their African Heritage

By Cody, Cheryll Ann | The Journal of Southern History, August 2001 | Go to article overview

The Gullah People and Their African Heritage


Cody, Cheryll Ann, The Journal of Southern History


The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. By William S. Pollitzer. (Athens, Ga., and London: University of Georgia Press, c. 1999. Pp. xxiv, 298, $40.00, ISBN 0-8203-2054-4.)

In this book William Pollitzer presents a landmark study of South Carolina's Gullah people and their culture. Pollitzer, trained in population genetics, draws upon a wide range of historical, anthropological, and linguistic research in addition to a lifetime of interviews, observations, and medical studies. Although some of the material will be familiar to students of Lowcountry society and specialists in African American history, Pollitzer's singular achievement is the integration of a growing body of published research with some well-placed primary source evidence and his own intense curiosity. He is uniquely qualified, moreover, to interpret the medical and scientific literature for a broader audience. Pollitzer's central hypothesis is that South Carolina's Gullah people can be linked both genetically and culturally to specific African people. Although he acknowledges that identifying these links is complicated both by the communality of many African cultural traits across societies and the process of creolization in the New World, Pollitzer presents the most comprehensive effort to date that identifies African cultural carry-overs among the Gullah.

Pollitzer divides his work into five parts, each designed to build upon his hypothesis. In Part I ("Who They Are") he outlines some of the most widely recognized African cultural elements present in Gullah society and examines Melville Herskovits's ranking of New World African people based on the intensity of African elements in a variety of classes including technology, social organization, art, and language. Pollitzer suggests that the last sixty years of research, including the genetic evidence he presents, require a revision of Herskovits's ranking. Indeed, he argues that evidence of blood types, plasma proteins, and hemoglobin variants among the Gullah are consistent with a predominantly African population with heavy contributions from the West African coast. In Part II ("Where They Came From") Pollitzer provides a brief overview of African history and cultural variations among African people. He focuses on three culture areas of West Africa and notes the variety of economic activities, connections to Indonesia and Malaysia, and the people's expertise in the cultivation of rice. The author's analysis of the Atlantic slave trade to South Carolina reveals a shift from an initial dominance of Angolan people to a tenfold increase in Senegambian people in the mid-eighteenth century paralleling the rise of the rice and indigo economy.

In Parts III ("What They Have Been") and IV ("What They Created") Pollitzer turns to the Gullah in Lowcountry South Carolina. …

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