Comparative Studies in Society and History

Research Article

The Illusion of Isolation: The Gullah/Geechees and the Political Economy of African Culture in the Americas

J. Lorand Matorya1

a1 Anthropology and African and African American Studies, Harvard University

The Gullah/Geechee people are the locus classicus for the study of “African survivals” in North American culture. As such, they have been saddled with the duty to generate universal principles for the explanation of Africans’ acculturation, adaptation, and cultural resistance in the Western hemisphere, and they provide the main North American test case for explanatory principles generated elsewhere in the Americas. Yet, the well-studied Gullah/Geechee case, like the Afro-Atlantic world generally, holds untapped lessons about the historical genesis of cultures and ethnic identities worldwide. Is isolation the normal precondition and conservator of cultural and ethnic distinctiveness? And do the enslaved and their descendants choose their ancestors’ ways and identities mainly when and where isolation from the oppressor has made the oppressor's cultural alternatives unavailable? The existing literature on the Gullah/Geechee people of the southeastern U.S. coast and islands says “yes” to these questions, which also stand at the heart of both black Atlantic and global cultural history.


Acknowledgments: I wish to thank Dale Rosengarten, Henrietta Snype, Theodore Rosengarten, Daniel Littlefield, Salikoko Mufwene, and Enid Schildkrout for their insightful information, challenges, and suggestions. This essay is proof that scholarship is collaborative. Needless to say, any errors in the present interpretation of their impeccable advice are my own.