Melissa L. Cooper
A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination
University of North Carolina Press 2017
New Books in African American StudiesNew Books in American StudiesNew Books in AnthropologyNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in SociologyNew Books Network May 19, 2017 James Stancil
Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) is a wide-ranging history that upends a long tradition of scrutinizing the Low Country blacks of Sapelo Island by outsiders. The book promotes a refocusing, and the observational lens is instead focused on those white and black scholars who the Gullah of Sapelo Island during the early 20th Century. The author uses a wide variety of sources to unmask the connections between the rise of the social sciences, the voodoo craze during the interwar years, the black studies movement, and black land loss and land struggles in coastal black communities in the Low Country. What emerges is a fascinating examination of Gullah people’s heritage, and how it was reimagined and transformed to serve vastly divergent ends over the decades.
During the 1920s and 1930s, anthropologists and folklorists became obsessed with uncovering connections between African Americans and their African roots. At the same time, popular print media and artistic productions tapped the new appeal of black folk life, highlighting African-styled voodoo as an essential element of black folk culture. A number of researchers converged on one site in particular, Sapelo Island, Georgia, to seek support for their theories about “African survivals,” bringing with them a curious mix of both influences. The legacy of that body of research is the area’s contemporary identification as a Gullah community.
Melissa L. Cooper is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark. She specializes in African American cultural and intellectual history, and the history of the African Diaspora. In addition to Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination Cooper is also the author of Instructor’s Resource Manual Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans with Documents and a contributing writer to Race and Retail: Consumption Across the Color Line. Her current research concerns the connections between Afrocentricism and its portrayals in mass media and popular culture.
James Stancil is an independent scholar, freelance journalist, and the President and CEO of Intellect U Well, Inc. a Houston-area non-profit dedicated to increasing the joy of reading and media literacy in young people.