The Black church isn’t one-dimensional either: How Gullah-Geechee people subvert Christianity to retain Black history
How can we devalue and discard the Black Church(es) with the knowledge that present Gullah-Geechee peoples integrate into them for survival?
By Ari Colston-Johnson
To many, the Black Church calls to mind horror stories of cisheteropatriarchy and theologies shaped by colonialism, white supremacy, and respectability politics. But coming of age in the Gullah-Geechee African Methodist Episcopal (AME) tradition, the Black Church was a foundation for my radical politics, a space for community and Afrocentric syncretism, and one of the last remaining strongholds of Gullah-Geechee history and culture.
Gullah-Geechee is a Black American subculture with arguably the strongest present connection to West Africa. During the transatlantic slave trade, the need for experienced rice and indigo planters in the low-lying coastal wetlands and Sea Islands led to the concentration of certain West African tribes and ethnic groups in the area, forming a creole cultural corridor. These enslaved people maintained strong ties to their West African language, religion, and culture resulting from their shared cultural characteristics and the Sea Islands’ geographic isolation.
Today, churches are among the most authentic warehouses of Gullah-Geechee culture and historical memory.
Growing up in the lowcountry AME Church, I saw how Black Christianity and Gullah-Geechee heritage and history formed a tightly knit, codependent relationship. I remember our pastor reading out of the newly published Gullah bible translation. I remember church mothers switching seamlessly between the creole dialect and ‘proper’ English.
They sat in front pews wearing handmade talismans against evil spirits as they belted out hymns and Negro spirituals. Regular churchgoers were also root doctors and agriculturalists with special knowledge of herbal medicine and how to work the land. My first lesson on ‘hags’ and ‘haints’ took place at a church fish fry hosted by one of the island’s oldest Black families. I remember the smell of spicy gumbo pervading the yard as the elders spoke in thick accents of spirits and the practice of painting porches blue in the same breath they praised Jesus and scripture.
During high school, my mother entered the ministry and was assigned to two more Geechee congregations. As a ‘preacher’s kid,’ I saw how the ritualistic and connective nature of the AME Church helped keep Gullah-Geechee traditions alive. The entire AME lowcountry became my community. We applied Gullah-Geechee sounds and musical traditions to hymns, singing spirituals accompanied by the ‘lowcountry clap,’ blocks, cowbells, and even washboards.
Hidden within the call and response of worship, the communal ‘laying on of hands’ at the altar, and the Watch Night services at the end of every year were the echoes of ancestors across the Atlantic. Countless times I felt their presence enveloping and empowering me in ways I still struggle to articulate.
I didn’t understand it during my childhood or even my adolescence, but my upbringing in African Methodism and the Gullah-Geechee world radicalized my politics and decolonized my understanding of religion and theology.
In my experience, Gullah-Geechee history and values intermingled with AME tradition and the biblical text to form a liberating theology rooted in the radical Black past. Hymn lines like “by and by when the morning comes and all the saints of God have gathered home, we will tell the story how we’ve overcome” gained new significance in the context of a denomination with deep ties to the Vesey Rebellion and a culture that emphasized storytelling and communication with the ancestors.
The unapologetic way in which Gullah-Geechee matriarchs mixed Christianity, Root, and Conjure didn’t always make sense, but the matriarchs taught me that it didn’t have to—these women were challenging notions of ‘correct’ Christianity and strict religious categorizations imposed by white western thought.
And where else would I receive that learning but from the church? Despite living in the heart of the lowcountry, Gullah-Geechee history, religion, and culture were rarely represented through historical monuments and almost never discussed in my local public school system. A white supremacist school curriculum had neither the knowledge nor the interest to preserve that history. The governing white powers-that-be didn’t care to talk about—much less visibly document or preserve—the first Black free town sitting on prized waterfront land on Hilton Head Island (see Mitchelville, SC), the historic cemeteries filled with the unmarked graves of Gullah-Geechee slaves, or the tales of resistance associated with Mother Emanuel or the Combahee River. They were far too busy pushing Gullah-Geechee people out in order to make room for more resorts, golf courses, and homes going upwards of one million dollars.
In that environment of hypercapitalism, gentrification, and violent erasure, the church was and is one of the only institutional spaces where a dying culture is protected, understood, and practiced as something other than a museum exhibit or a trendy commodity for outside consumption.
I often hear others my age express discontent with the church and wish for its dismantlement. These people hold the opinion that Christianity, as the ‘religion of the colonizer,’ is inherently incompatible with Africana traditions and Black liberation, and that Black church has outlived its usefulness.
But try telling Harriet Tubman, a disabled proto-feminist Black woman who rooted her liberatory work in her Christian theology, that the church is antithetical to Black liberation.
Try arguing for the disconnect between Christianity and African culture to Gullah Jack, who organized a violent struggle for freedom through simultaneous congregation with Mother Emanuel AME and the practice of Hoodoo-Conjure among Sea Island plantations, or to Richard Allen, Henry McNeal Turner, and other African Methodists who advocated for Black nationalism throughout their lives and referred to themselves as ‘free Africans’ even on their tombstones.
Would we be successful in attempting to explain that one-dimensional notion of Black Christianity to the myriad ancestors and present-day Gullah-Geechee peoples who subversively use it as a means of preserving their original religious traditions? And how can we devalue and discard the Black Church(es) with the knowledge that present Gullah-Geechee peoples and countless other Black subcultures integrate into Christianity for survival?
When the power structure controlling governance and education is more invested in erasing than preserving local stories, when dying Black communities don’t have the resources to resist the steady seizure of their land, and when numerous forces weaken the generational transmission of cultural knowledge and historical memory, the church is one of the only institutions where Black people can exert full and free ownership over their voice and identity.
Many progressive Black Americans understandably view the church as a place of trauma and oppression that pushes harmful and even violent theologies. I have seen it in other church settings and heard it all-too-often in my discussions with friends, and I recognize that my experience is not representative of the majority. The negative impact of the church on so many people in our generation cannot be minimized or excused, and I strive to do the work of dismantling oppressive forces perpetuated by Black Christianity.
But besides molding my understanding of the radical Black past, my unique experience with the Gullah-Geechee AME church also allows me to imagine a future in which the church positively shapes others the way it has shaped me: serving as my first introduction to radical Black history, liberation theology, and ‘Black girl magic.’
Ari Colston-Johnson is a graduate in Religious Studies from the University of Miami and currently a JD/MDiv Candidate at Emory University. In a nutshell, I’m a Deep Southern black feminist and history nerd interested in decolonizing Religion and preserving of black places and spaces. Find me on Twitter: @lit_ari_ture.