Anchored in Darien, Georgia, the Gullah Geechee Ring Shouters are a critically-acclaimed collective of African-Americans who are preserving cultural aspects of their ancestral heritage via performance and education.
Professionally formed in 1980, they have revived “the ring shout”, connecting their present with their past. A ring shout, as defined in “Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters Event Sold Out” by St. Clair Donaghy for the Index-Journal site, is an “ecstatic, transcendent religious ritual, first practiced by African slaves in the West Indies and the United States, in which worshipers move in a circle while shuffling and stomping their feet and clapping their hands.”
In the more than three-hundred years of its existence, the ring shout has been traced to have first been practiced in West Africa. With the development of trafficking humans from Central and West Africa in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade for several centuries, the ring shout has been modified. One of these modification includes the use of a stick to set and keep the rhythm. A stick was permitted instead of drums, which Whites felt were both sacrilegious and inciting as an instrument of unsanctioned communication and rebellion.
These Africans and their descendants who were forced to live in America were made to conform to the ways of their new home. Their enslavement to develop the cotton, indigo and rice industries was supported in order to build, for practically free, what would become the United States. Those enslaved were essential in this country’s development. Mandatory in this conformation was the almost complete removal of any Africanisms that kept these captives tied to their own indigenous cultures. Thankfully, there were a number of these isms, such as the ring shout, that survived.
One of the reasons that the ring shout was able to be preserved, even if amended, was because of the people’s location. These West Africans had been relocated among the Sea Islands of Florida, North Carolina and especially of Georgia and South Carolina. Those who resided on those islands in South Carolina would be commonly known as “Gullah” and those who dwelled on the islands of Georgia would be referenced as “Geechee”.
Their relative isolation led to more relaxed restrictions on their forced assimilation to Euro-American culture. This lax was discussed in the Donaghy article by entrepreneur Griffin Lotson, who manages the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters and serves as a federal commissioner on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission. Lotson who also is a councilman and mayor pro-tem of Darien, shared, “On the plantations, they had time to worship and to celebrate … Out of all of that, they started singing some of their master’s songs and composed their own. The outsiders, Whites and others, described it as a ring shout — going in a circle and making a lot of noise. But, now, those of us from the Gullah-Geechee culture embrace the term.”
The preservation of the ring shout, most notably by the Geechee and Gullah cultures, has led for it to be considered the oldest vestige of Black performance in North America. Spiritual in purpose, the ring shout, as detailed in the stub, “McIntosh Country Shouters: Gullah-Geechee Ring Shout from Georgia” featured on the Library of Congress website, is “a compelling fusion of counterclockwise dance-like movement, call-and-response singing, and percussion consisting of hand claps and a stick beating the rhythm on a wooden floor. African in its origins, the ring shout affirms oneness with the Spirit and ancestors as well as community cohesiveness.”
The ring shout had been vividly, as per the Library of Congress stub, “described in detail during the Civil War by outside observers in coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia. Its practice continued well into the 20th Century, even as its influence was resounding in later forms like spiritual, jubilee, gospel and jazz.”
Over time, it had become less common as many African-Americans sought to distance themselves from ties that connected them to the dark and painful past of slavery. Thankfully, the ring shout was revived by the Gullah Geechee Ring Shouters, who sought to use it as a means of entertainment, but also education and healing.
This group has toured throughout the United States and even performed with a contingency in Sierra Leone in a cross-cultural ceremony. Lotson emphasized that “the visit was hugely significant because it marks the first time that West Africa and America have come together to celebrate the shout, which was ‘birthed on the plantations’ by enslaved Africans from West African tribes. Songs of the shout were created by the Geechee Gullah but the shout’s rhythmic hand claps ‘come from West Africa.’”
Members in the Gullah Geechee Ring Shouters often share familial connections and fictive kin relationships with each other. Although many in the group range from being fifty to ninety years old, there is hope that younger people of new generations will carry on this rich and vibrant tradition. Ensuring the passing down of the grand legacy are Lotson and 6th generation Ring Shouter and stickman, Brentan Jordan, whose mother, Carla Jordan, and grandmother, Carletha Sullivan, have long been Ring Shouters.
One of the songs practically guaranteed to always be sung and praised is “Kumbaya”. Its first known recording was performed near Darien, Georgia by Henry Wylie and is housed at the Archive of Folk Song in the Library of Congress. “Kumbaya” is a Gullah Geechee translation of “Come by ya”, which means “Come by here”. This song is often performed in many Black churches of America, especially during Watch Night services of New Year’s Eve going into New Year’s Day. It is a song of redemption, forgiveness, hope and love.
Also critical in retaining, restoring and rejuvenating the relevance of the ring shout are institutions such as Emory University; organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA); and celebrations such as the National Black Arts Festival and Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The Gullah Geechee Ring Shouters have been awarded prestigious honors, such as the NEA Heritage Fellowship in 1993 and, as per the Library of Congress stub, “selected as Producers of Distinction and Founding Members of the ‘Georgia Made Georgia Grown Program’, in 2009”.
These and being profiled in the media, including the documentaries, HBO’s Unchained Memories (2003) and Smithsonian Folkways’ Spirituals and Shout Songs (2017), will more greatly guarantee that the ring shout and Gullah Geechee traditions will thrive in the 21st century!