Harvard introduces Gullah language class taught by a Charleston-born artist

The native Lowcountry language is now one of 45 taught at the African Language Program


Charleston native Sunn m'Cheaux is the latest addition to the roster of instructors at Harvard's African Language Program. He began teaching Gullah at the university in 2017. - COURTESY OF SUNN M'CHEAUX
  • Courtesy of Sunn m'Cheaux
  • Charleston native Sunn m'Cheaux is the latest addition to the roster of instructors at Harvard's African Language Program. He began teaching Gullah at the university in 2017.
A renewed interest in Gullah has propelled the language to one of the highest rungs in academia.

Charleston native and performance artist Sunn m'Cheaux spent the fall semester at Harvard teaching an introductory version of a course on Gullah: A language indigenous to the Lowcountry region often described as a combination of English and Central and West African languages.

The pidgin language originally allowed enslaved African people from various tribes to communicate with each other and with their overseers, and is still spoken by African-American communities across coastal regions of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

The Gullah class is the first of its kind at the Ivy League school. It's part of the African Language Program within the Department of African and African American Studies.

The class came to fruition after a graduate student requested a Gullah course. The student phoned him and asked if he would be willing to meet with the head of the program, Dr. John Mugane. M'Cheaux, who graduated from Goose Creek High School and didn't go to college, found that Dr. Mugane was impressed with how quickly m'Cheaux was able to teach him some Gullah basics.

"He starts talking about getting my information and taking a picture for the website, and I’m thinking to myself, 'Wait a minute — did I just get hired?'" m'Cheaux said in a phone interview with CP.

Mugane argues that offering Gullah, along with the 44 other languages taught in the program, increases students' chances of accurately portraying different communities.

"To engage in intellectual and professional work in the Gullah community, we deem it necessary even critical that scholars be literate in Gullah whose basic demonstration is an ability to hold non-trivial conversations with the people they write about, including (and especially) in Gullah, the language of the people they write about," Dr. Mugane said in an e-mail to CP.

M'Cheaux says that his time bouncing between Charleston, Los Angeles, and New York as an artist and activist influenced his teaching methods.

"Ultimately, my arts and entertainment career kind of dovetailed into social activism and commentary, and in a sense, I feel like this is an extension of that as well," m'Cheaux said. "How to use literal and figurative language to communicate with people and teach people how to make it their own."

This kind of approach is especially necessary with Gullah — a language that is passed down orally without established standards for grammar and spelling. Aspects of the language may be familiar to English speakers, such as "han' baby," which means small infant, and "knee baby," which can be interpreted as toddler in English.

"I want to build these students' intuition in order to know when to apply something literally and figuratively, because that will help bring the language to life," m'Cheaux said. "Those are figurative terms, not necessarily literal terms, but once you look at them literally, it makes total sense."

M'Cheaux uses the few Gullah reference books and literature available as course materials, but has largely stuck to developing his own curriculum throughout the semester, which includes video chats between students and native speakers.

Alphonso Brown has been teaching Charleston's tourists and locals about Gullah since he first got his touring license in 1985. He operates Gullah Tours from an office downtown.

Brown has noticed a recent surge of interest in Gullah, and he finds the continuing legitimization of Gullah to be of utmost importance, especially at a place like Harvard. Brown struggled with English as a young student in Charleston district schools, where Gullah was not recognized within curricula.

Earlier this year, the Charleston County School District announced plans to train teachers to recognize Gullah and Geechee speech patterns, according to The Post & Courier.

When it comes to m'Cheaux's pronunciation in a video posted to his Harvard faculty page, Brown is not exactly won over.

"It sounded, in other words, he speaks a lot of English," Brown said. "English takes way, it doesn’t sound Gullah."

"It was OK," he continued. "Since it’s a spoken language and not written, people may tell it differently."

M'Cheaux maintains that there are variations in accents within Gullah speakers. He also points out that his pronunciation in the video was adapted for the purpose of encouraging English-speaking college students to take the course.

"I fully expect criticism and skepticism of that nature," m'Cheaux said. "Any time I hear anything about Gullah being done, I'm immediately skeptical, because we’re all protective of our culture."

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