The impact and importance of Gullah traditions in the black church

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ARTWORK BY SONJA GRIFFIN EVANS

Religion is a topic that can create stress and debate in any social circle, often because it is so intensely personal to many people. This is especially true for African-Americans because of the role that religion and the black church played during the period of American slavery — and continue to play today. Religion and the church are at the core of African-American life and culture. In fact, in the typical black family, a strong connection to a church, regardless of the denomination, is a vitally important part of the family structure.

Since times of slavery, the black church has provided spiritual and religious sustenance to the black community in so many ways and on so many levels. It has been the source of life-sustaining information, education and grass-roots political activism. And community outreach is — and always has been — one of the defining elements of the black church. For example, during slavery, in addition to being a praise house for religious worship, the church also was a place of safety and the primary place to give and receive information of vital importance to the slave community.

The importance of the church to the black community has been so significant throughout the years that one hate group used cross-burning as a way to instill fear and terror in the minds of black parishioners, and weaken the influence of the church in the community. However, rather than diminish the power of the church in the black community, these terror tactics had the reverse affect, and over the years, the black church has grown in membership and influence. 

One of the most important roles that the black church has played has been as a catalyst for social change. Advocating for civil rights, and taking a stand against inequality often made black churches the targets of racial violence throughout the South. The 1963 church bombings in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four small girls on a Sunday morning is perhaps the most tragic example of this.

Today, as in the past, black churches in America are often recognized as the most independent, stable and dominant institutions in black communities. More than religious centers, they bring the community together to address a variety of issues for the common good and, because of their influence, pastors have traditionally been among the most revered and powerful members of the black community. Politicians have always understood the importance of the “power of the pulpit,” and visiting black churches is a usual campaign stop during election season.

HILTON HEAD ISLAND’S DEEP RELIGIOUS ROOTS

The historic black churches of Hilton Head Islanddate back more than 150 years. One of the first black churches was First African Baptist Church, founded in 1863 on what is now Beach City Road in Mitchelville. Led by the Rev. Abraham Murchison, an escaped slave preacher, the church helped baptize thousands of newly freed slaves and helped recruit Union soldiers. First African Baptist Church eventually split into several other churches to better serve Hilton Head’s native islanders. From First African Baptist were born St. James Baptist Church, founded in 1886; Central Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church, founded in 1887; Queen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which opened its doors in 1892; and Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, founded in 1914. To honor this religious history, the state of South Carolina has erected historic markers recognizing First African, St. James and Queen Chapel.

Collectively, these churches continue to stand as the spiritual core of Hilton Head Island’s religious community.  As the population on the island grew, so did each of the churches. However, their different denominations and worship traditions did not change their interconnectivity or the way they relate to each other. In the beginning, the congregations rotated services between each of the locations every three months.

The practice of the congregations coming together to share services, celebrations and church anniversaries still continues today.        

EARLY AFRICAN INFLUENCES 

When slaves were brought to America, one of the first things they lost were drums. This loss was devastating because drums were central to all forms of African cultural expression, especially religious expression. Drums were part of the language of religion, and without drums, Africans were disconnected from their spiritual center. Drums were also a form of communication, and could be used for coded messaging, not unlike Morse code. The drums were a way to spread information over long distances, as well as amongst the community, without sharing the message with outsiders. Eventually, when slave owners became aware of the practice, they banned slaves from using drums, as demonstrated in Article 36 of the Slave Code of South Carolina, which was passed in 1740 and was widely adopted by other slave states: “It is absolutely necessary to the safety of this Province, that all due care be taken to restrain Negroes from using or keeping of drums, which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes.”

And although, as novelist Zora Neale Hurston noted, Africans were stripped of everything and left “naked and thingless,” Africans found ways to continue playing. Without access to traditional drums, slaves began to use whatever was handy: sticks, logs, spoons and even their own bodies to make a beat. Whenever possible, crude drums were made from whatever raw materials that were available. Through creative adaptation, over time, this traditional form of communication has played an important part in the evolution of music from rap to hip-hop, jazz, blues and pop.  

RING SHOUT

gullahtradition2Although it is no longer widely practiced, one important African tradition is the ring shout. This practice began as a form of resistance to attempts by slave owners to destroy traditional worship patterns, especially the use of body movements and dance as a part of worship. Since they were not permitted to dance, Africans formed a circle while shuffling and stomping their feet and clapping their hands. This was a way to replicate drumming without actual drums. The practice was permitted, and not considered “dancing,” as long as the slaves did not cross their feet. Having been denied access to musical instruments, they used objects found close by or, in most cases, their own bodies rhythmically as a form of worship.

Over time, the practice evolved, and the ring shout was used in different ways. It was sometimes used as a discreet form of communicating messages to one another, and eventually was used as a “grown folks only” form of entertainment.

During the shout, an individual pounds a large tree branch on a hard wood floor to enthusiastically develop a rhythmic beat, accompanied by a chant that involves and motivates the entire group to participate, usually in a call-and-response format. The chant, prayer or song is not dissimilar in style to a modern-day rap that is accompanied by dancing, clapping and shuffling of feet to the beat. There are different versions of the ring shout, and they have different meanings. In some cases, the shout is indicative of a particular family or area.

On Hilton Head, there are popular versions called the “knee bone” and the “buzzard loop.” The knee bone is one of the oldest ring shouts that is still practiced today. Some say it got its name from knees bent in prayer; others associate it with the way people had to bend their knees when travelling by boat.

The buzzard loop was used more for entertainment, but sometimes this shout contained coded messages. If a slave was preparing to run away, the words “move Daniel move eagle fly” were a signal that it was safe to go.

JUMPING THE BROOM

Jumping the broom, one of the earliest African wedding ceremonies, comes from Ghana in West Africa. In Ghana, a broom symbolized the ability to sweep away wrongs from the past and “cleaning” the person’s future. When a bride jumped over the broom, it was symbolic confirmation that she accepted domestication and was willing to keep her future home clean. During the ceremony, waving brooms over the couple’s heads was believed to ward off evil spirits. Over time, the inclusion of a broom became a common wedding ritual. The physical act of jumping the broom evolved from the Ghanaian marriage ritual of placing two large sticks on the ground to represent the structure of the new couple’s home together. The broom’s interwoven fibers represent unity and strength for the new couple, as well as God’s hand in bringing them together.

At a time when slaves were considered property and not worthy of the legalities of marriage or the traditional exchange of rings, the act of jumping the broom was a visual confirmation of the couple’s commitment in marriage. Jumping the broom conferred dignity and legitimacy on slave relationships at a time when slaves struggled daily to assert their humanity. Today, this ritual pays homage to African heritage and establishes a connection to the black community’s African roots.  

SEEKING 

Another African tradition that was common in Gullah religion is called seeking. Considered a rite of passage both spiritually and socially, seeking was evidence of the transition from childhood into adulthood and offered eligibility for membership in the church. Seeking continued to be practiced well into the 21st century.

The ritual of seeking required an adolescent or young adult to prove spiritual maturity through a period of self-reflection and discovery. A seeker could be identified by a string with knots around it that was worn on the forehead. Seeking was often done outside alone, with the seeker spending time praying and sometimes sleeping in the woods. The process could last from a few days up to a month, “till you got through” the rite of passage. Dreams are an important part of this process. It was believed that eventually, the individual, motivated by thoughts or dreams, will identify a spiritual mother, father or guide who could interpret their dream. This dream was never to be shared with anyone except the spiritual guide. In the end, the guide would determine when spiritual maturity had been achieved. The seeker is then allowed to be baptized and is only then made a member of the church.  

FREEDOM’S EVE: THE BIRTH OF RECONSTRUCTION

gullahtradition3During slavery, the anticipation of the end of slavery and oppression generated a great deal of excitement and expectation. When the rumor of impending emancipation was circulating, Freedom’s Eve was created as a symbolic way to celebrate the end of slavery.  In most black churches, Freedom’s Eve became a tradition that still brings congregations together on Jan. 1 to celebrate “how we got over,” beginning each new year on their knees in praise and worship.

Jan. 1, 2017, marked the 154th anniversary of Freedom’s Eve celebrations. The term Freedom’s Eve is not widely used anymore; however, the concept was inspired by celebration services held by the Christian Moravian church in the Czech Republic in the 1700s, the Watch Night Service. The practice of the New Year’s Eve Watch Night celebration was eventually adopted by the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley. The adoption of the practice into the black church is credited to two slaves, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, who attended the first American Watch Night Service. The slaves eventually became the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.). The Watch Night tradition became the inspiration for not only the celebration of Freedom’s Eve for African-Americans, but also a remembrance of slaves’ journey toward freedom. These two traditions merged and became a symbolic historical marker on Dec. 31, 1862, when, at the height of the Civil War, freed and enslaved blacks gathered in churches in prayer and worship to wait for news that President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, granting them their freedom. Today, the Watch Night Service continues in churches nationwide.  

THE CULTURAL IMPORTANCE OF THE BLACK CHURCH

C. Eric Lincoln sums up the multi-dimensional role of religion, and the black Church in the African-American community, when he says religion made “the black man’s pilgrimage in America less onerous. [It was] the organizing principle around which his life was structured. His church was his school, his forum, his political arena, his social club, his art gallery, his conservatory of music. … His religion was his fellowship with man, his audience with God. … It was the particular sustaining force which gave him the strength to endure when endurance gave no promise, and the courage to be creative in the face of his own dehumanization.”

In most black communities in America, on corner after corner, churches are visible and accessible to the masses, continuing to act as the spiritual backbone of the community. The black church’s growth and vibrancy is related to its ability to be engaged in the relevant day-to-day issues that affect the lives of the congregation. Society continues to change, and most churches have evolved in order to remain the vital part of the community that they have always been. The multi-dimensional role that the church played in the past continues today, so in addition to its traditional religious role, it continues to be a social and cultural anchor, and many churches include other quality of life, and life style elements like self-improvement classes, adult education, child care, and in some cases financial support for indigent members.

Black survival looked different 150 years ago, but there is still great urgency and need for the church to provide support for the black community beyond spiritual guidance. The black church has the important responsibility of continuously maintaining an evolutionary role in today’s society as the vehicle for delivering spirituality, culture and empowerment in every aspect of the black experience. If it is to remain relevant and influential, both the church leadership and congregation need to stay connected to the pulse of the community. To some extent, the church has to change as times change to address the spiritual, social, and cultural needs of the black community.