The gentrification of Geechee 

Proper grammar isn't solely reserved for people of European descent

I've been praised for being well-spoken my entire life, and I've hated it each and every time. There was the time in elementary school when I forgot to bring the Dr. Seuss book I was supposed to use to narrate our class play and ended up reciting the whole book from memory and without assistance from my teacher. And it happened again in high school when I freestyled a monologue during the Mr. Stall High School competition. Since then it has happened after I've given acceptance speeches, presentations, or participated in panel discussions. In each situation, when the words "well-spoken" fluttered from the lips of some well-meaning person of non-color, I flashed a toothy grin through clenched jaws and graciously accepted.

At these times, my mandible becomes perma-fixed with a disingenuous smile for two reasons. First, I don't believe that those words have ever been directed towards me with intended malice, so I try not to take it personal, and secondly, I've done so in order to keep my inner-self from responding with "Well-spoken? Well how the hell did you expect me to sound?" I imagine that the honest answer for such a question would probably reside within the realm of "not as smart as you did," which is both disconcerting and slightly racist because never in the history of white people has one white person ever complimented another white person using the phrase "well-spoken." Because, ya know, it's presupposed that all white people can "speak good," so why would that point need to be raised.

I try to avoid pulling a Rev. Al Sharpton when at all possible because I think that attempting to speak for all black people is both a dangerous and an impossible task. But I'm pretty confident that I can say that the black delegation would have no problem with me letting y'all know that we hate the phrase "well-spoken." It's on par with telling a black person that they "talk white," as if proper grammar is reserved for only those of European descent.

Because of this I've always been extremely proud of my ability to float between a native Geechee dialect and the Queen's English, especially since as my beloved hometown has grown, I'm finding that the Gullah/Geechee dialect that I hold so dear is becoming gentrified right along with the land. What you gain in property value when a much-maligned part of town is scrubbed clean and made good enough for condos and boutique bakeries, you lose in authentic culture.

Make no mistake, the economic boom that has swept across Charleston the last two decades is great for business. Routinely the Holy City is touted as a "Best City" for things like food, travel, and weddings, which in turn, makes Charleston such a desirable place to visit. Add the weather, beaches, and cost-of-living compared to cities in the North, and it's plain to see why anyone would prefer to live here versus, say, Ohio. (No disrespect to the great state of Ohio. I'm just saying, there are a lot of Ohioans around here these days and I don't blame them one bit). This influx of people, business, and money has certainly changed the aesthetics of the city, but it has also had a dramatic impact on its ethnic and cultural composition as well.

The Gullah/Geechee culture and dialect is being eroded with the times. So much so that Charleston's mayor, Joe Riley, is putting his 40 years of power and influence behind fundraising efforts to build the International African-American Museum. This endeavor is so important to him that he is on record saying that even after he has retired from office, he is still going to champion this cause. I think this is beautiful and hope that it comes to pass, but I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the mixed feelings I have about this project.

For one, I find it ironic that Mayor Riley would be leading the charge on preserving Charleston's black history when it is under his reign that the majority of the gentrification has taken place. If we are to salute him for putting Charleston on the global stage, we must also acknowledge the near destruction of Gullah/Geechee culture that has simultaneously taken place under his watch.

Secondly, it feels a bit sketchy that this is only becoming a big deal for Riley on his way out the door. Where was this foresight 20 years ago? It's possible the mayor has been pushing for this to happen all along, but the idea that preserving the culture of my ancestors — the very people whose blood, sweat, and tears helped build this city over 345 years ago — only became an actionable item three or four years ago doesn't sit well with me.

Because of the displacement of Charleston peninsula natives and the increased arrival of people who are not intimately familiar with the city's true culture, speaking with a Geechee dialect has morphed from a part of the city's charm to an incorrect marker that denotes someone's social status and level of intelligence. I also personally believe that being Geechee is frowned upon because it would force people into the uncomfortable position of having to speak about Charleston's nefarious history. The diamond of a culture and language that is Geechee was formed through the "unpleasantness" of slavery. As such, "being Geechee" is a living reminder of the brutal and inhuman treatment my ancestors suffered and that Charleston's leadership fought to preserve in the Civil War.

I don't believe that Charleston's growth as a municipality should have an inverse relationship on Gullah/Geechee culture. While efforts like Mayor Riley's should be applauded, I worry that by having a designated place to display our culture for a paying public, we will stop treating Geechee culture as a living, breathing entity and more like a permanent exhibition item.


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