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A Dying Language Of Enslaved Africans Lives On At Harvard

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

This week on New Year's Eve, a historic church in downtown Charleston, S.C., will host a special celebration. It's a tradition that dates back more than 150 years. And it commemorates the freedom of the Gullah Geechee people after the Emancipation Proclamation. The Gullah Geechee are descendants of Africans who were enslaved and brought to the Atlantic coast of South Carolina and other Southern states to work on plantations. Over time, they developed their own language, sometimes, referred to as Gullah. It's a Creole that's still spoken in the area but is little understood outside of it.

But two years ago, Harvard University decided to bring the language into its classrooms by recruiting Gullah Geechee instructor Sunn m'Cheaux to teach the Gullah language. We're going to spend a few minutes now hearing m'Cheaux describe what he does and why it's so meaningful to him.

SUNN M'CHEAUX: Teaching Gullah at Harvard - it's an honor and a privilege because of history that academia has had in Gullah Geechee communities. We were not welcome in those spaces. A language that was, at one point in time, thought to be undeserving to be spoken in any classroom is being taught in the classrooms of such an esteemed institution of education.

Today, I want to talk to you about the Gullah word guh (ph), which is used as a verb, a noun, an adjective, sometimes, preposition. (Speaking Gullah). Go down the road there, and tell your brother I said to come here. (Speaking Gullah)? What are they going to do? (Speaking Gullah). You do realize I'm going to tell them what you said, right? Even though guh typically relays going in Gullah, it's important to know...

I have conversations with people, sometimes. And they'll be like, hey, what do you do? I teach the Gullah language. The Gullah language? What country is that? Is that Africa or, you know, where is that? They have no idea that there's a whole community, a whole culture, a whole language system that's indigenous to this country, like, right underneath their noses.

And you ask yourself - what is indigenous to this country? English is not indigenous to this country. English was brought over to this country. Gullah, on the other hand, was not brought over wholly to this country. You have people who speak different languages who created this language here. So while Gullah is uniquely African in a sense that it has preserved much of its Africa-ness (ph) from the many different components - African components that came together, the coming together occurred here.

I don't drink coffee or anything like that to kind of get me up. But what really gets me alert in the morning is music. And one of my favorites, of course, is Ranky Tanky.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD BILL")

RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Old Bill rolling in this morning, old Bill rolling in this morning. Old Bill rolling in up the road and back again, big eyes and double chin this morning.

M'CHEAUX: They take these traditional Gullah songs and poems and, you know, games that kids play - like, these hand jive games that kids play - and they convert them into these really cool spiritual rootsy Gullah jazzy fusion, you know, sort of blend music.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANKY TANKY'S "OLD BILL")

M'CHEAUX: If you cannot get up for this in the morning, you should just stay in bed. Just call in sick, stay in bed if this can't get you up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD BILL")

RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Old Bill rolling pin this morning, old Bill rolling pin this morning. Old Bill rolling pin up the road and back again, big eyes and double chin this morning.

MCCAMMON: That was Sunn m'Cheaux, Harvard's first and only instructor in the Gullah Geechee language. Sunn comes to us by way of "Subtitle," a podcast about languages and the people who speak them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD BILL")

RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Big eyes and double chin this morning, this morning, this morning, this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.