The cans first appeared in September, but the controversy over Revelry Brewing Co.’s Gullah Cream Ale hit fever pitch this weekend. “Isn’t appropriation beautiful?” wrote one critic on Instagram. Others took to Facebook to express their fury with the brewery. Musician Benjamin Starr (a.k.a. Fitzgerald Wiggins) posted a photo of the beer with the caption: “Gullah…. to sell beer??? No Sir.”
The cultural appropriation, as many in the Gullah community are calling it, is what former City Paper columnist and democratic candidate for House of Representatives District 15, KJ Kearney calls, “the mascotification of Gullah.”
“You’re gonna turn us into the Washington Redskins,” says Kearney. “Most people don’t think of Native Americans as real people because they’ve been reduced to a mascot. So now you put Gullah on a beer, it’s the beginning of the mascotifcation of our culture. It starts with a beer or grits, next thing you know you’ve got a Gullah Geechee-themed hotel. One day there will be a high school that will be the fighting Gullahs. But it starts off with something as innocuous as a beer or grits.”
For Revelry’s part, brewery spokesperson Sean Fleming says that naming the cream ale Gullah was never intended to hurt people’s feelings. Rather it was in honor of the Gullah community’s deep connection with heirloom grains that the brewery used in the beer. “It was intended for good and not profiteering,” Fleming says.
After the Gullah Cream Ale won the US Open Beer Championships Gold Medal in July and the brewery decided to can it, Revelry met with members of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor — a four-state national heritage space designed to recognize the contributions of African Americans known as Gullah Geechee — to discuss ways in which the brewery could employ its “platform and product to assist the Corridor’s mission.” Fleming says the Corridor backed the beer from the beginning and through those meetings, the brewery decided to make the Gullah Cream Ale can-topper a link to the Corridor’s website. Fleming adds, “Every single person who buys the beer gets a Corridor pamphlet.”
That answer isn’t enough for Giovanni Richardson, A Taste of Gullah Cuisine owner and ambassador for the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor (GGHC). “Excuse my frankness, but you’re giving them a piece a paper?” says Richardson. “I’m not trying to bash Revelry and their product, I’m trying to say don’t utilize the culture I live every day as a mere drink.”
Kearney is equally frustrated. “I appreciate Sean’s sentiment, but there’s a couple things that we need to establish: The Gullah Geechee Corridor doesn’t really have the pulse of everyone who is Gullah or Geechee. Long story short, they don’t speak for us,” he says. “I can understand why Revelry would go to them, it seems logical. But I’ve been Geechee my whole life and I’ve never had any interactions with them. I don’t know what their goals are or what they’re trying to do.” Kearney adds that while the GGHC is a great resource for those studying the connection between the Gullah Geechee community and its African roots, it’s hardly the correct resource for discovering how the community functions today.
Fleming acknowledges that he only began to see how many in the Gullah community felt about the GGHC in recent weeks. “When we started working with the Corridor, we thought that they were speaking on behalf of the community,” Fleming says.
Kearney says that’s exactly the problem. “White people look at them as our Jesse Jackson or MLK, they aren’t,” he says.
For the Corridor’s part — which held a meeting this morning in response to the controversy over the beer — Dr. J. Herman Blake, the executive director of the GGHC, says he is unequivocally behind Revelry.
“I want to be clear, when you say the Corridor’s official position. My commission, the people to whom I report, have not taken an official position because they have not been officially informed,” says Dr. Blake. “First, Sean and Ryan [Coker] approached us somewhere in the early summer and came and met with the staff here. They were totally up front about what they were doing and why they were developing this title for the beer relating to the natural substances they were drawing from the Gullah culture. We talked and the staff — and primarily me — endorsed everything they said and I stand by that unequivocally. We endorsed it because what we saw were two young men whose hearts and souls were committed to making a positive impact on the community from which they retrieved these materials.”
Blake adds that he would have brought the beer to his commission earlier, but the Corridor was on the brink of being shutdown. GGHC’s funding was set to end on Oct. 12 of this year, however, on Sept. 25 federal funds for five more years were approved.
“We got that turned around and were beginning to get our act in order then came Hurricane Matthew,” adds Blake. Now he says, Revelry has to win the trust of the community, but he knows that’s no easy task.
“It takes a long while to build that trust. I don’t know if there could have been any other way to roll that out. They’re not community organizers, they’re brewers. I don’t think they could have done it in a perfect way or not gotten opposition,” says Blake. “I think our world has become a culture where principles and values of trust and respect are harder won.”
There’s no perfect answer to how Revelry could have handled the situation better, but there is one thing Dr. Blake, Kearney, Richardson, and Starr all agree on, Revelry needs to continue the conversation in a meaningful way with the Gullah community.
“They indicated to us that that was their intention from the beginning,” says Blake. “From the beginning they said they’d be making contributions to the Gullah community. But I don’t think they should act as if they’re trying to buy the favor of the community. They shouldn’t try to trade dollars for approval.”
Starr thinks that Revelry should give back both monetarily and with goodwill saying, “They need to go into those communities and going forward bring some awareness with the use of their platform.”
“My thing is, they could still do stuff for the Gullah without calling it Gullah,” says Kearney. “It’s not an accident that they put Gullah on the beer. They could have named it any other beer and still done all this stuff for the culture.”
Fleming says that’s the plan. So far Revelry has given contributions to the GGHC and plans to do more in the future. “This entire experience has been a lesson learned. It’s still with the best of intentions and no good deed goes unpunished,” he says, but he’s hesitant to rename the beer or simply pull it from shelves in order to silence the controversy.
“Then the conversation ends,” Fleming says.
Before our conversation Fleming got an angry call from a Gullah man at the brewery. “He laid into me for quite a long time. I started to make some points to him, and it shifted into a good, positive talk, trying to get a group of people together,” he says. “The more conversations we have, the better our understanding.”
Revelry will continue those conversations by speaking to the Johns Island Progressive Club next week.