united shades of america

CNN’s United Shades of America to air episode on Gullah culture

united shades of america

CNN’s W. Kamau Bell talks with Aunt Pearlie Sue at a recent event on St. Helena Island. Image courtesy Charleston City Paper

The experiences of the Gullah Geechee people in South Carolina, including St. Helena Island, will be the topic of Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America, a documentary series on CNN, coming up on May 13th.

According to an article in the Charleston City Paper, Kamau travels to the Gullah Heritage Festival on St. Helena Island where he learns about the unique culture of the Gullah Geechee, including their music, art, food, and language, from local members of the community.

In the episode he also travels to landmarks throughout the Lowcountry including Penn Center, McLeod Plantation, the Angel Oak, the Charleston City Market, Gadsden’s Wharf, which is the future location of the International African-American Museum, and McLeod Plantation Historic Site to learn about the history of Gullah culture and enslaved men and women.

The article notes a particularly powerful moment as Kamau stands in the slave quarters at McLeod Plantation and a historian describes the realities of slavery. The episode remains hopeful, celebrating Gullah culture and talking about preserving that history for future generations.

The popular show, now in its third season, has shed a light on some of our country’s most deep-seated problems. It makes for some powerful television. Fortunately, Bell’s background as a comedian can bring some much needed levity; his affable personality lets him be comforting to those who have faced hardships and allows him to be restrained enough to calmly talk with some of the nation’s worst

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The parts of Gullah culture that Bell uncovers will prove, as he says, “the idea that black people are not a monolith.” The episode celebrates a version of black culture that differs from other regions of the country, and its premiere on a nationwide news channel will allow a wide audience of people to learn about the important history of the Gullah Geechee people.

Slavery has deep roots in Beaufort.  St. Helena Island, the other Sea Islands, and most of the Beaufort area were all agricultural in nature, and with the vast rice and indigo plantations of the area, slaves were first brought to Beaufort in the late 1600’s, and by 1708 South Carolina had a black majority.  

Gullah is a culture unique to the Lowcountry.  The Gullah are African Americans who live in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia, and preserve more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African-American community in the United States. 

The  “Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act” was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2006 for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites relating to Gullah culture, and you can still witness a thriving local Gullah culture in the Beaufort area through arts, historical preservation projects, community groups, and Penn Center. 


Excerpts republished with permission.