It’s unlikely that many of his grade-school classmates would have predicted that Sunn m’Cheaux would grow up to be a Harvard instructor.
“I remember being humiliated in elementary school, because I sounded different from the other kids. I was a Gullah-speaking kid in an English-speaking class. I was a fish out of water,” the artist, activist, and social commentator told a roomful of Cambridge seventh-graders recently.
“That memory has always stuck with me. Like that song [‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”], ‘You say tomato’? Well, I said ‘demayda,’ not ‘tomahto,’ but I was corrected, disrespected, while the latter was accepted. Which is why I now teach Gullah at Harvard University, to see that Gullah is accepted and Gullah/Geechee people respected.”
“The Gullah language is a creole, the result of essentially taking multiple existing languages and mashing them all up into one,” he said. “Mix in some other elements indigenous to the Sea Islands and surrounding areas, and you have a whole new language. That in a nutshell is Gullah.”
Gullah, or Geechee, was created by enslaved people brought from West Africa to Charleston, S.C., who needed a common language to communicate. It allowed them to speak freely, by way of encoded speech, in the presence of those holding them in bondage. That code-speak evolved into a language of its own, indigenous to the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which extends along the coast of the southeastern U.S.
M’Cheaux was working with the students through Harvard’s Project Teach program, which helps local seventh-graders see themselves as college-bound, showing them that college can be an affordable, accessible, and attainable opportunity. (Research out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education has shown that middle school is when students begin to envision themselves going — or not going — to college.) The program works to expose students to examples of some typical and some atypical courses, and acknowledges that college can be different things to different people.
For m’Cheaux, this has been a lifelong journey. Born into a rural, impoverished family in Charleston, m’Cheaux didn’t learn to speak English until he was bused to another town midway through elementary school. Although he became fluent in his second language, he says he never strayed far from his Geechee roots.
M’Cheaux is the first and so far only instructor of Gullah at Harvard. He says he’s honored and humbled to be here, but knows he carries the responsibility of sharing the language and history of his people to a broader audience. His lessons build upon the groundbreaking work that Harvard graduate Lorenzo Dow Turner, M.A. 1917, started decades ago.
“We really want to encourage a student’s innate curiosity,” said Joan Matsalia, associate director of Public School Partnerships at Harvard. “We want to show them that the subjects many people end up studying in college aren’t necessarily the things they imagined they’d study. College has something for everyone. Sunn, and his course on Gullah, is a perfect example of how important it is to follow your area of interest. Get excited about what you’re curious about, and the rest will come.”
According to m’Cheaux, “Gullah is an oratory language passed down by people who were not academics. The language came into existence from people who did not go to school. They were literally banned from going to school — and threatened with death if they were educated. But ultimately what ended up happening to get Gullah recognized was that an academic [Turner] did the research and broke it down to show its connections to African languages.”
What Turner discovered about Gullah was that it wasn’t just broken English, nor a sign of unintelligence. “There is something quite intelligent happening here. Something complex happening here,” m’Cheaux said in summarizing Turner’s research.
The origin may indeed be complex, but evidence of the language is far more prevalent than many realize. Students were surprised to learn that many common words or phrases are actually rooted in the Gullah language: yam (sweet potato), bubba (brother), gumbo (okra). Georgia, home of the Sapelo Island Geechees, is nicknamed the Goober State for its mass production of peanuts — and guba (goober) is the Gullah/Geechee word for peanut.