Reclaiming Gullah culture: One woman's fight to keep history alive

ST. HELENA ISLAND, S.C.(WCIV) - It's no secret that the Lowcountry is full of history and culture, but for one group of people, it hasn't been an easy road to keeping alive a past rich with tradition.

Just under two hours of highway driving south of Charleston to Beaufort County, down a winding dirt road on St. Helena Island sits the Gullah Garden. There is a woman, Queen Quet,who is trying to keep the history of the sea islands alive.

"I da Queen Quet head pond a body ting like dey dey," she said.

She is the head of the Gullah Geechee Nation, and most of her life has been spent preserving the heritage of the Gullah Geechee people and the language they speak.

"Knowing the people were brutalized because of their language, realizing that you come from a history and a legacy of people who had the strength, or as the film says 'will to survive,' and then realizing the very land you live on, where this unique culture comes out of, that has its own language is something that you need to hold on to because it is your birthright," said Queen Quet.

Her connection to the past is so strong that Queen Quet recalls a time when she could not bear to walk the historic streets of downtownCharleston.

"I would feel almost every energy, and it was harsh and it was brutal," she said. "It was painful."

But the pain did not stop until she put pen to paper.

"I started writing and when I finished this poem, it was the last time my feet ever burned and that the poem told the story of my ancestors and what they had been through along the coast and especially in Charleston," Queen Quet said.

It was an inhumane struggle she says that today's youth should be reminded of an carry with pride.

"When you find a Gullah Geechee person who wants to suppress their language and their mother tongue, more oft than not, they're in the process of assimilation, which means that if they go too many generations without that kind of interaction, eventually, they won't have that language and many times with the language goes the land that they are living on, too," she said.

But Queen Quet is encouraged.

Through the likes of Twitter and Facebook, the younger generation is gaining a greater appreciation of the legacy they have inherited.

"I see now younger people being glad that they have that bilingual ability where before we were told we were backwards and we would never get anywhere in life if we continued to speak that way," Queen Quet said.


An old soul among elders

You could say Queen Quet Marquetts Goodwine is an old soul. Growing up, she would find herself more times than not in the company of her elders.

"The best of my friends are the elders, the seniors," she said.

At the new St. Helena Senior Center, she connects to her past through laughter. Just next door to the senior center there's another new facility that Queen Quet was instrumental in making a reality.

"My books are here in the library," she said. "The basket was the thing that connected us back to the motherland and into here."

But Queen Quet's work on behalf of her culture stretches beyond her books on the shelves of the library and St. Helena Island. She has received numerous recognitions and awards from around the globe, including the Audobon/Toyota TogetherGreen fellowship for environmental stewardship.

She will also be honored later this month in Washington by ASALH, an organization started by Carter G. Woodson, who is the founder of Black History Month.

It's an award that she's elated to receive.

But in the quiet time yards away from the shore, Queen Quet is left to reflect on the deep-seeded connection she feels to her culture's beginnings.

"The first I think about is serenity and a peace that's here, but as soon as I see water, I start thinking about the motherland because I know when I look in this direction that there's somebody in the motherland looking back at me," Queen Quet said. "I really pray the Gullah Geechee people themselves unify all the more and recognize their human rights and their right to self-determination and that they have a nation like any other in the world. But if they want to make sure that it always exists into the future, it's going to take all of us working together."