For the first ten minutes of her Sustainability keynote speech in the Stern Center, Queen Quet, Chieftess and Head-of-State of the Gullah-Geechie Nation, told a story in Geechie. College of Charleston students turned their faces to her as she demonstrated how to use a catch net to snag shrimp, a traditional form of fishing passed down through several generations. When she finished her story and began to speak in English, she acknowledged that many of the students and faculty in the room had not understood her words; in fact, many in room had ever heard the language before. Her message, however, was not of a culture dying but rather of a culture surviving.
Sustainability Week highlights local problems in Charleston related to the perseveration of land, animal and plant species and culture. In her keynote address, Queen Quet emphasized the importance of cultural preservation as a critical aspect of sustainability. She cracked a joke early on about the use of wooden boxes to plant vegetables in urban gardens: Gullah Geechie farmers, she contested, do not live in a boxed-in culture. They work fields around their property to provide food for their families. She lamented that laws prevented Gullah peoples from practicing fishing methods while the Department of Nature and Recreation allowed trawlers to “derby-fish,” overfishing the sea and depopulating important seafood populations.
The Gullah Geechie people know much about sustainability, both as a people and in terms of farming practices. Their farming practices do not destroy the soil in which they are practiced, and when fishing, Gullah Geechie fisherpersons take only what is necessary. Queen Quet too focused on the fact that Gullah Geechie people live still on the land where plantations once stood, land they purchased from previous owners during the Reconstruction Era. The Gullah Geechie people have sustained their culture for generations for over 400 years.
Today, the Gullah Geechie nation faces serious adversities from outside forces, including developers who seek to take their land. Many developers seek to build grandiose resorts on the fragile coastline, which necessitates rebuilding beaches from sand shipped from other places across the USA. Many developers often propose deals to dying Gullah Geechie people in order to take their land, and this process gives rise to overpriced condos, hotels, and beach restaurants. But the development of the land—even the concrete boxes, as Queen Quet dubbed buildings, of Charleston—were ill-advised.
Development of gated communities too has restricted access to sweet grass, out of which Gullah Geechie workers sew baskets. Queen Quet mentioned in particular that Gullah Geechie people did not “weave,” but rather sewed their baskets. After these baskets became popular, considered works of art across the United States, some Gullah Geechie people found gainful employment, enough to provide small tokens of care to their families, through sewing and selling baskets. As the baskets become more popular, however, persons outside of the Gullah Geechie community appropriated basket-making as a form of commerce, which disenfranchised the local basket-makers and created a commodity out of a culture.
Queen Quet delivered a moving monologue about the sustainability of Gullah Geechie culture and community. She urged the crowd to acknowledge an universal consciousness devoted to the preservation of land and the communities who most support and cultivate the land in a sustainable way.
To learn more about the Gullah Geechie nation or head-of-state Queen Quet, visit http://www.queenquet.com.
Sustainability Week will feature a Campus Waste Audit at 6pm and Social Justice Coffee Hour at 1:45 p.m. on Tuesday, April 5, The Social Side of Contraception at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, April 6, a Bike Maintenance Workshop at 2 p.m. and Words Unspoken at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 7 and Storytelling Through Food at 1 p.m. and Campus Garden Workshop at 3pm on Friday, April 8.
Check out all of the events and find details at http://sustainability.cofc.edu/events/sustainabilityweek.php.