Navigating history, culture and power through travel: Reflections on Intrepid’s Gullah Geechee heritage trip

The history and heritage of the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of West and Central Africans who were enslaved and brought to the lower Atlantic states of North America, are often little explored. Anela Malik finds out more on a new Intrepid Travel trip from Charleston to Savannah.

“It is what it is, but what it is is good to know where you come from.”

The statement seems to reverberate through the small, 100-year-old wooden shack we sit in on St. Helena Island in South Carolina. I huddle on a wooden bench on a chilly winter afternoon, listening to local pastors tell us about the history of praise houses on the island, like the Mary Jenkins Community Praise House where we sit.

Originally segregated places of worship during enslavement in the United States, praise houses eventually took on the role of meeting places, community centers and more for local Black communities on the island. Their existence raises questions about the role of religion, the development of segregated community institutions, the meaning of progress and so much more.

And as we were so deftly reminded that day, one of three days I spent experiencing Intrepid’s new Charleston to Savannah: Exploring Gullah Geechee Culture trip, while the history of praise houses and Gullah Geechee communities is often painful, it’s also vital to the story of the United States.

I don’t say this to suggest that travel forces us to learn about different perspectives and cultures. It’s not a magic balm that allows us to escape from ourselves, our beliefs, our fears or societal pressures. To some extent, I deeply dislike many travel narratives because of that simplistic framing. Travel can be extractive and damaging to local communities, and we, as travelers, can easily replicate our biases and worst behaviors in a new place. Yet, I do think travel can allow us to reframe how we view ourselves.

School lessons that almost skipped over enslavement and its brutal, inhumane underpinnings entirely couldn’t stand the test of touring the Sea Islands and learning about communities where some families are still living on the same land that their ancestors lived and labored on as enslaved people.

Imagery of manicured plantations, both the figurative one I learned about in school and the very real one we passed on our tour in South Carolina, withered next to a large hand-painted wooden sign whose black block letters shone on a white background: “Sacred burial site of our African ancestors”. It marks the grave site of an estimated 300 enslaved people who had once toiled on the grounds of the imposing, white-pillared plantation across the road.

As we toured Helena Island and then Pin Point Heritage Museum outside of Savannah, we learned about Gullah Geechee communities along the coast, founded by formerly enslaved people who used whatever leverage they could access after enslavement to purchase a property. Often only able to purchase land in areas once considered undesirable, those same communities now face pressures that threaten their culture and land rights. Developers, rising taxes, eminent domain and other forces now seem to squeeze them from all sides.

What if this was the history taught in schools? One in which enslaved peoples, who brought immense skills and expertise to the US, helped build its economy and institutions through horrific and inhumane circumstances and then formed an integral part of the national culture. How would that be reconciled with the present-day reality that Black Americans continue to face widespread and systemic discrimination, attacks on our cultural practices and land, and debates about the suitability of our history for classrooms? What would that say about our progress as a nation? How might it shake the foundations of our institutions?

Those are the questions that some school boards, parents and legislators don’t want students asking. They’re questions that don’t have easy answers, whether they’re asked in a classroom or out traveling. They’re questions that likely lead to only more questions. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth asking.

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