The Gullah Geechee, American Islam and Stilton Spread

Apr 11, 2022 by SOFIA ALI-KHAN
One great irony of the Muslim Ban* was that Muslims have been in America for four hundred years. They were stolen and held captive, enslaved for generations. Perhaps the clearest record we have of those early Muslims is in the culture of the Gullah Geechee, who were descended from those captured in West Africa and enslaved in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.

Because those islands were ideal for growing sugar, cotton, indigo and especially rice, slavers ordered massive plantations carved out of live oak forests, which were then worked by the people they enslaved under brutal conditions.

As was true for the enslaved throughout the United States, those in the Sea Islands were forced into submission to slavers, forced to assimilate to slavers’ version of Christianity, and subjected to systematic family separation. These conditions would seem, over generations, to have made it impossible for the Gullah Geechee to maintain Islamic faith traditions (or really any independent faith tradition), especially visible worship rituals. Remarkably, in oral histories still alive in Gullah Geechee families and in the contemporary film Daughters of the Dust, which aimed to record the culture of the Gullah Geechee, traditional Muslim prayer with recitation of Qur’an is plainly recognizable.

The misery of the islands was perhaps what saved Gullah Geechee culture from oblivion. As ideal as the islands were for growing, they were not seen by slavers as an ideal place to live. They were difficult to access by sea and impossible to access by land, and mosquito borne diseases proliferated. Slavers frequently preferred to live inland during the spring and fall months, leaving a large and fairly isolated enslaved Black majority on the islands for long stretches of time with less oversight than they might have experienced on other plantations.

Astoundingly, the Gullah Geechee created and maintained an amalgam of their cultures, striving to retain their collective humanity in monstrously inhumane circumstances. They developed a creole language that identifies them as a distinct linguistic group in America to this day, and they practiced Christian, traditional West African, and Muslim faith traditions that ultimately became formalized in an unique institution called the praise house.

After the Civil War, substantial groups of Gullah Geechee remained in the islands off of Georgia and South Carolina. Sometimes communities managed to purchase the land on which their families had been enslaved for generations when slavers abandoned their plantations. Others among the Gullah Geechee were displaced when their homes and the land they had labored on were sold away. Today, the corridor stretching between Florida and the Sea Islands is designated a National Heritage Area in recognition of the broader territory to which the Gullah Geechee were forced. Before the diaspora, three of the Sea Islands (St. Helena Island, St. Simons Island, and Sapelo Island) were home to perhaps thousands of West African Muslims and their descendants. Today, Gullah Geechee residents of the Sea Islands find themselves battling the sale of their homelands for the construction of resorts, golf courses and tourist destinations (yes, the one that rhyms with "stilton spread" is on traditional Gullah Geechee land).

* The executive order that it took Trump and the GOP three tries to enact. It first sought to limit the immigration and entry of those from five Muslim majority countries, and ultimately added several more to dilute the charge of religious animus. President Biden reversed the ban when he took office.