Meet Ron Daise
"How oona do?"
That's Gullah for "How are you?" I'm a fourth-generation Gullahand
proud of it. The youngest of nine children born to Henry "Chansome"
and Kathleen Daise, I grew up in the Cedar Grove community of St.
Helena Island, SC.
Although I grew up in a Gullah community and appreciated my Sea
Island heritage, I had little appreciation or understanding of any
greater cultural significance until adulthood. Gullah heritage began
in West Africa and our culture thrives among the inhabitants of
the coastal communities of South Carolina and Georgiafrom
Jacksonville, Fla. to Jacksonville, N.C. We speak a creole language,
similar to Patois in Jamaica and Krio in Sierra Leone, West Africa.
Because my mother, a school teacher, and my father, a carpenter,
both were 1933 graduates of the Penn
School, one of the first schools in the South for freed slaves,
speaking Gullah at home wasn't allowed. In fact, throughout my childhood,
absolutely no aspect of Gullah heritage was considered positive.
To identify oneself as a Gullah or Geechee meant that you were destined
not to amount to much in life. But I'm glad that that notion has
changed. And I'm glad my wife Natalie and I have been helpful in
changing it. The songs, the stories, the speech, the crafts, the
superstitions and the dietary practices of the Gullah people have
influenced world culture. And the Gullah communities were the gateway
for most Africans who were brought to America during the slave trade.
We're a group of independent, persevering, spiritually-minded people,
and I'm proud of my heritage.
I grew up singing. In church choirs, at school and community eventsanywhere.
My family and the elders in my church and community instilled in
me the belief that I could succeed at whatever I put my mind to.
I never gave in to the sentiment that those who are Gullah or Geechee
would never amount to much, you see, because foremost I never thought
of myself as Gullah. Since I was very young, though, I've always
believed that one day I would be famous. That's right. Now I never
set out to fulfill this vision. You see, being famous is not an
end-all goal of mine. But I did prepare for it to come about by
daily striving to use my God-given gifts and talents to the best
of my ability. A Gullah expression is "Wha fa ya, fa ya!"
If something's going to be, it will. I've learned to put my best
foot forward at all times. For me, it's a way of life.
Some think Gullah people live in shacks only, sing only plantation
ditties, dress only in antebellum or regal West African apparel,
and work only as farmers or craftspersons. Not so! Gullah people
are included among all levels of economic strata and social renown.
My sojourn to shedding shame about my culture began piecemeal. I
never identified myself as Gullah during childhood, and whenever
I spoke the language it was to poke fun at someone else. I didn't
speak that way. I knew better. To be Gullah or Geechee, after all,
was a mark of shame. During my first day of college (at Hampton
Institute in Virginia), however, although I was thousands of miles
away from home, I heard speaking that sounded familiar at the table
behind me while I was sitting in the cafeteria. It was speech that
sounded like it was from home. I turned quickly and approached my
new classmates who I discovered were from the Virgin Islands. We
spoke "cousin" languages. While at Hampton Institute, I also met
West Africans who looked like family members or who resembled people
from St. Helena Island. Many of them told me that they had left
someone who looked like me on the African continent. I was told
I had a different mindset from other Americans. We had "cousin"
cultures and common physical features. My world-view about Gullah
culture began to change.
My growing appreciation of my heritage continued after my graduation
in 1978, with a B.A. in Mass Media Arts. I returned home to St.
Helena Island and became the first African-American reporter hired
by The Beaufort Gazette. I was the first Gazette reporter
to write feature stories about elderly St. Helena Island residents.
Some of these original articles became the core for my first book,
Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage.
It's a montage of oral histories and narratives on Gullah customs,
traditions and superstitions accompanied by historical black-and-white
photographs and a collection of spirituals. The book is now in its
"Meet Ron" continued