There is a place where descendants of African slaves and indigenous Americans live in cooperative rural communities inextricably linked by the bond of language, ancestry and their human right to self-determination. The Gullah/Geechee Nation exists between Jacksonville, NC, and Jacksonville, FL. It hems the southeastern coastline about thirty-five miles inland to St. John’s River and includes each of the nearly one hundred Sea Islands since early 1600s. Their national language is a quick and melodic amalgamation of English, native, west, and central African languages. Gentrification and luxury land development throughout the Sea Islands, including Hilton Head, threaten to disrupt the cultural and environmental ecosystems that have been maintained for centuries.
The Gullah/Geechee Nation became internationally recognized on July 2, 2000. Upon receiving their formal declaration of nationhood, Marquetta Goodwine, also known as Queen Quet, was elected the nation’s official Head-of-State, spokesperson and Queen Mother. The foremost advocate for the continuation of culture for Gullah/Geechee people. She is also an environmental activist, international advisor, computer scientist, historian, and film consultant. Queen Quet describes the imperative differences between cultural preservation and cultural continuation as the determination of life or death for the Gullah/Geechee Nation. She explains, “Preserve is something you do to vegetables in jars. You remove the air and take away life in order to preserve the contents of the jar.” When discussing traditions and cultures, Quet prefers the term continue.
“When you really value something that is living, you don’t try to preserve it. You live it!”- Queen Quet
Gullah/Geechee culture, or any culture for that matter, does not easily lend itself to subjective observation, consumption or replication. The strong sense of discernment required to separate cultural presentations, intended to inform the world about Gullah/Geechee heritage from those who live it, is often difficult to ascertain. Tourist economies and mainstream media outlets attempt to bottle the magic through festival performances, tours, television, film, and theater. The Gullah/Geechee Wisdom Circle Council of Elders is committed to “promote in an accurate and positive manner all aspects of Gullah/Geechee culture by emanating knowledge and healing souls.” Subsequently, Queen Quet agreed to an interview with Griots Republic to inform readers about one of her people’s most sacred rituals, which serve as a method of communion, celebration, and transformation for Gullah/Geechee natives or, binyas, The Ring Shout.
Upon visiting St. Helena or Hilton Head Islands, you may attend a festival or performance wherein men and women wear costumes of denim overalls, cotton frocks, straw hats, and headscarves while they clap hands, stomp feet, pound sticks and sing or pray in throaty and guttural harmonies. A choreographed circle is formed as performers shuffle their feet and rotate counter-clockwise in time with staggered staccato hand claps. The result is an uproarious presentation reminiscent of Southern Baptist revival tent worship played out on stage as entertainment for audience members. Queen Quet chides that this type of recital is, “…not a Ring Shout. That is Ring Play.”
A Ring Shout is ritual with spiritual healing qualities as prominent as transcendental vision quests, astral projection, or nirvana. “In order for a Ring Shout to occur, the participants must step aside from their cerebral presence and allow Spirit to enter and govern the Ring,” she says. “It’s not about your individual decision. You’re talking about a spiritual process of engagement. Everybody cannot engage in shouting. Everybody doesn’t engage in shouting. If it’s actually a Ring Shout, it is spiritually lead. It is not about us deciding how to maintain or preserve it. There is no human logic, consideration, and dialogue happening,” Queen Quet explained.
Ring Shouts begin with an ancient ceremony which follows the circular pattern of the (Ba)Kongo Cosmogram.
The Cosmogram symbol depicts the pattern of energy flow connecting the spiritual and physical worlds. During a Ring Shout, the counter-clockwise motion is meant to invoke The Spirit while participants sing, pray and chant. Participants never lift their feet from the earth as they travel The Ring. Their motion and meditation draws a static connection of electricity up from the earth, or Praise House floors. Ring Shouts are not governed by location, occasion, or linear time. Participants may be pulled into the center of the Ring for reasons known only to them and The Spirit. When asked what qualifies someone to step into the center of the Ring, Queen Quet replied, “The folks that end up inside the ring don’t step into it. It’s almost as if they are pushed or called into the ring. People who maintain the outer ring will clap and hold the rhythm.”
Tourists visit the Sea Islands of The Gullah/Geechee Nation seeking coastal cuisine, picturesque views, historical education or spiritual healing. The inherent southern hospitality of Gullah people is unparalleled, however; respect is required with regard to the continuity of Gullah/Geechee culture. With Hollywood’s lenses keenly focused on the Black experience, one might imagine Ring Shouts as circus-like tantrums costumed in white cotton dresses. Queen Quet is eager to assure your disappointment unless your visit is rooted in investigative knowledge of the land and its people, spiritual discernment, and an open heart. After hosting thousands of guests throughout her lifetime and reign, Queen Quet welcomes visitors with motherly wisdom:
“Come with your spirit open, not with pre-conceived notions, and God will give you the answers you seek. You want the experience you saw in a movie? That’s not what you get from The Gullah/Geechee Nation. Seek the healing, the connection, and the upliftment. Oh, trust me! I have seen many people be healed by coming to the Gullah Geechee Nation and taking a walk on Sea Island Sand. It don’t take no ring shout. That’s not where the answer is.”