5 Questions About: Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination


We’ve asked authors of books that were recently reviewed in the Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read them. In our latest installment of the series, Melissa Cooper discusses her Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination

Read the review by Robin M. Morris in OHR

What’s it about and why does it matter?

Making Gullah is a history that uncovers and follows the intellectual and cultural trends that inspired, and continue to inspire, fascination with low country blacks and the African roots of their culture. Using Sapelo Island, Georgia, as a case study, and examining the production of foundational published works featuring coastal Georgia blacks, Making Gullah turns the observational lens from low country blacks and fixes it on the researchers, writers and collectors who studied and imagined them. Making Gullah situates Gullah folks’ allure within historical context—from the re-introduction and explosion of interest in Gullah folk during the 1920s and 1930s, to the Gullah revival of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. I used a wide variety of sources to unmask the connections among modernist thought, the rise of the social sciences, the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migration, the voodoo craze, Jim Crow, the Black Studies Movement, land struggles, evolving theories about race, and various ideas about Gullah people’s heritage. Ultimately, Making Gullah unveils the complexity of an identity famous for its simplicity and timelessness.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

Oral history interviews helped me unearth dimensions of black life on Sapelo Island that are absent from interwar era researchers’ writings. Much of what was written about Sapelo Islanders—and other low country blacks—during the 1930s focused on their dialect, cultural traditions, crafts, and folklore. The researchers and writers who wrote about black low country communities during these years often proclaimed that they were documenting their subjects’ “way of life,” but their emphasis on “culture” and folk traditions obscured and overshadowed the impact of Jim Crow racism and economic oppression in the Islanders’ daily lives. I collected oral history interviews from Sapelo Islanders who were featured in, or whose parents were featured in interwar era studies, in order to help fill in this gap.

Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination by Melissa L Cooper. The University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

The Islanders’ accounts paint a picture of life on Sapelo that made the island seem less like an isolated oasis where time stood still, and more like a community in the Jim Crow South. The Islanders I interviewed talked about racism and the succession of powerful and wealthy white men (automobile tycoon Howard Coffin and tobacco heir “R.J.” Reynolds) who ruled the island like it was their own private paradise and regarded the Islanders as their subjects. They described tensions between Coffin, Reynolds, their white workers, and the black community on the island. They talked about Jim Crow and revealed strategies that blacks used to navigate oppression. They also explained why their family members and friends joined the sea of black rural migrants who left the island and took refuge in cities in the North and South. Their memories provide a stark contrast to the stories that researchers told about them. For example, the Islanders’ generations old fight for land entered a new phase at the very moment when researchers began visiting their communities and asking questions about African survivals and folk traditions. Reynolds had begun his notorious land swap campaign—which ultimately forced all of the Islanders into one section of the island during the years when Sapelo Islanders began to appear in published works. But land swaps and the closing of black settlements do not appear in the publications that featured the Islanders during the interwar years.

Talking to the Islanders was the only way that I could learn how they navigated these realities and contended with outsiders whose curiosities and fantasies about their culture and heritage determined how they were presented to the world in the pages of books and periodicals. The time that the Islanders were featured in National Geographic Magazine is a good example of the tension between how the Islanders’ saw themselves and how outsiders imagined them. Recently, National Geographic Magazine acknowledged its racist history—a legacy that includes W. Robert Moore’s depiction of Sapelo Islanders in an article published in 1934. Moore, a photographer and writer who regularly went on assignment for the magazine, visited coastal Georgia, researched the region’s history, toured its sites, visited its communities, took photographs, and published an article on the region titled “The Golden Isles of Guale.”  Moore’s descriptions of the Islanders in the article’s narrative, and in the captions that accompanied their pictures, depicted the Islanders in terms that reduced them to relics of the past and caricatures who add a distinct quality to a bucolic landscape. Moore featured the Johnson family of Sapelo, including photographs of the family and his brief description of his encounter with them.  I interviewed two of the Johnson children who appeared in the article. I also interviewed Cornelia Walker Bailey, author of God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man (2000) and daughter of a Sapelo woman whose photo appears in the article. Together, these conversations exposed instances in which Moore staged photographs and misrepresented the Islanders in the text to enhance the perception of the region’s uniqueness by presenting them as oddities and relics of long gone plantation days. My discussion of the National Geographic Magazine article in the book was largely shaped by the oral history interviews that I collected from Sapelo Islanders

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

Oral history is a powerful tool that historians can use to make the voices of marginalized peoples—groups who tend to be silenced in “traditional” archival texts and collections—audible. For all that had been written and recorded about Sapelo Islanders’ culture, these written records exclude many of the realities that significantly impacted their lives. The memories that Sapelo Islanders’ shared with me during interviews broke through this silence. And, even though I have familial connections to several of the people I interviewed, oral history methodology encouraged me to conduct each interview employing strategies and techniques that elicited biographical details and perspectives that revealed so much more than I previously knew about them.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

There are two reasons why oral historians will be interested in Making Gullah. The most obvious reason is that the interviews I collected provide an important counter-narrative that is the basis of a rich history which includes a serious treatment of how Sapelo Islanders understand their past, their heritage, and the challenges that they face—including the survival of their community. Oral historians will also find my book useful because most of the publications that feature Sapelo Islanders’ interviews that I investigate serve as warnings against the pitfalls and problems derived from poorly conceived and deeply biased efforts to collect people’s memories. 

What is the one thing you most want people to remember about the book?

The history of Sapelo Islanders and the construction of the Gullah identity is not simply a regional history, it is a case study on race in America. This history exemplifies the complexity of our nation’s struggles with questions of race and identity. By detailing how competing stories about “Africa” became enmeshed in battles among white and black scholars, writers, and activists with wildly differing political agendas, Making Gullah shows the creation of American ideas about “race.”