A groundbreaking exhibit tracing the cultural links between Gullah Geechee communities in the Southeastern United States and West African countries from which slaves were transported is currently enjoying its exclusive Florida engagement at the Ritz Theatre and Museum in Jacksonville.
The traveling exhibition – “Word, Shout, Song: Lorenzo Dow Turner Connecting Communities through Language” – includes rare audio recordings, photographs and artifacts and runs until Dec. 31.
Brilliant and colorful quilts, illustrated folk tales and remarkable artwork complement the exhibit’s framed black and white photographs of slaves demonstrating “Ring Shout,” a religious ritual.
There’s also “The Song that Made the Roundtrip,’’ the audio story of a Sierra Leone song that survived ancestral passage.
The collection, originally organized by the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C., pays tribute to the work of Turner, the first African-American linguist.
Turner’s work in the 1930s established that, despite slavery, people of African heritage retained and passed on their cultural identity through words, music and story wherever they landed. His research focused on the Gullah/Geechee community members of South Carolina and Georgia, and validated that their speech wasn’t just poor English, but a complex mix of Creole language that still possessed parts of their ancestral language.
The vanguard scholar, who traveled extensively to Africa and Brazil, dedicated his life to cracking the linguistic code of “Geechie speak” and its misunderstood dialects.
The exhibit is relevant to Florida because since 2012 the congressionally sanctioned Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor (GGCHC) now extends from North Carolina’s eastern coast to as far south as Jacksonville and St. Augustine.
The exhibit’s journey begins in 1906-1917 with Howard and Harvard universities, where Turner earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees respectively. His illustrious, 53-year career as a professor is explored, including posts at Howard and Fisk universities. In 1946, he became the first African-American professor to be hired by an all-white university: Roosevelt College in Chicago, where he earned his doctorate from Chicago University.
A summer stint teaching at the now-South Carolina State University is where Turner first heard and was captivated by the Gullah dialect. Convinced that the speech pattern was not illiterate English, but instead a distinct language incorporating words and structure from African languages, Turner focused his interest into a lifelong project, traveling to South Carolina and Georgia and abroad to London, Paris and, finally, Africa to record and compare the speech of hundreds of subjects.
A major linguistic achievement occurred when Turner determined the possibility that the “Ring Shout,” a Gullah religious dance, was directly inherited from enslaved Muslims – the name “shout” derived from the Arabic word Sha’wt, which had to do with movement around a sacred object rather than sound.
Resulting from Turner’s early Georgia recordings is a later major discovery that a song passed down through generations connected the Mende people of Sierra Leone to their American descendents in Georgia.
Highlights of “Word, Shout, Song” include:
- The Bilali Diary written by a Muslim slave
- Turner’s recording device and special-character typewriter
- The vestment of a Candomblé initiate
- Rare recordings of Gullah speech and songs and rare photographs of informants produced by Turner
- Audio and written comparisons of words that are similar and from languages spoken in the Americas and Africa
- The section “The Black Seminole: The Gullah that Got Away,” which recounts the history of fugitive slaves from Georgia and South Carolina whose descendents are now found in Florida, Mexico and Texas and speak an ancient form of Gullah
Among Turner’s most famous students is folklorist, anthropologist, and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, whose life’s work continues to be annually celebrated in January with a namesake festival in her historic Florida hometown of Eatonville.
Even the exhibit location has historic significance: The Ritz Theatre and Museum, 829 N. Davis St., was constructed in 1999 on the site of the 1929 Ritz Theater movie house in Jacksonville’s historic African-American community of La Villa. During La Villa’s height of activity from the 1920s to the 1960s, it was known as the “Harlem of the South.”
Info: 904-632-5555; www.ritzjacksonville.com.