A Critical Review of Gullah Geechee Midlife Women and Heirs' Property Challenges Along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

A Critical Review of Gullah Geechee Midlife Women and Heirs' Property Challenges Along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

H. Shellae Versey (Fordham University, USA) and Robin Throne (University of the Cumberlands, USA)
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4372-6.ch003
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Abstract

This critical review explored the current scholarship of the experiences and challenges faced by Gullah Geechee midlife women heirs' property owners along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Past researchers have noted these women often experience invisibility due to the concurrent burdens of management of jointly owned property along the corridor in addition to legacy experiences of cultural isolation, land dispossession, voice dispossession, and ancestry enslavement. Past researchers have called for ongoing collaborative research by both non-indigenous and indigenous researchers as a gap continues for gendered perspectives for current corridor heirs' property challenges and land dispossession with respect to power, trauma, economic impact, Gullah Geechee ways of knowing, land-based cultural values, heritage tourism, governmental dispossession, and the legacy of enslavement for critical inquiry from the transformative paradigm.
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Introduction

This critical review explores experiences and challenges faced by Gullah Geechee (GG) midlife women heirs’ property owners along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor (GGCHC). Previously, the authors and other researchers have noted that these women often carry the burden of management of jointly-owned property, referred to as heirs’ property, along the Corridor, as well as legacy experiences of cultural isolation, land dispossession, voice dispossession, and ancestry enslavement (Boley & Gaither, 2016; Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation [CHPP], 2019; Derickson, 2016; Throne, 2020).

The GG people are descendants of enslaved Africans on the rice, indigo, and cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic coast. Many came from the rice-growing regions of West Africa. The nature of their enslavement on isolated islands and coastal plantations created a unique Black American culture fused with African customs that survives today throughout the coastal areas of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The GGHC communities in the Southeast region of the United States have farmed, cultivated, and depended on the land for the past four hundred years. However, their ability to protect their communities and cultural heritage through land ownership and retention has been an ongoing challenge. This review centers the experiences of GG women using an intersectional lens. Historical experiences of land usage (e.g., sharecropping), land transfer, and heirs’ property specifically (also commonly referred to heir or heir’s property) are examined as a contextual lens to current research, which has contributed to cumulative disadvantage for the GG community broadly, and for women in particular.

Other researchers have called the marginalization of midlife women in the GG community a “silent demographic” who bears great family and community responsibility (Botwick, 2018; Troutman & Johnson, 2018; Wright, 2008). Women heirs’ property owners often experience invisibility amidst immense responsibility for family property, elder care, childcare, discrimination, and preservation of their land-based cultural heritage. The GGCHC research consortium has noted the need to better understand indigenous ways of knowing (Auslander, 2017; Dickens, 2019; Gould, 2017; Rosengarten, 2018; Rosengarten & Wigfall, 2019; Throne, 2016) and an annual conference has been established at the Charles Joyner Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies Coastal Carolina University focused on the advancement and dissemination of GG research (Coastal Carolina University, 2020).

In addition, the authors noted declarations of positionality by non-indigenous researchers have been shown to improve transparency and reduce researcher bias and reflexivity as an ongoing practice to examine gender and cultural power dynamics (Throne, 2018). This chapter was intended to view the complexities of the GG land culture for relational aspects of earth, land as agency, and coastal access as well as to examine the scholarship surrounding voice and land dispossession specifically for GG midlife women.

The chapter proceeds in four parts. First, a background of the historical and current scholarship for GG land dispossession and constructs specific to GG women are presented. Second, the intersectionality framework is reviewed as a basis for exploring gender and land loss within the GGCHC. Third, a historical context for GG as a subset of larger Black agricultural community in the southeastern United States and the literature is discussed alongside the contemporary wave of large-scale land loss related to heirs’ property, including its challenges and difficulties. Within this context, an overview of GG women represents the challenges of land retention within this community.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor (GGCHC): The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor (GGCHC) is a federal national heritage center. It extends along the southeastern Atlantic coast to include North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and the Gullah Geechee people. Gullah has been identified with those living along the Carolina segment of the corridor and Geechee with those along the Georgia and Florida segment of the corridor. Boley and Gaither (2016) noted the formation of the GGCHC brought together the GG reference, which may obscure distinctions among people with cultural or community alliances than the federally-defined GGCHC.

Voice Dispossession: Voice dispossession involves the filtered, silencing, or reduction of vocality of opinions, ideas, and innovation among specific groups due to oppressive hierarchies, gendered obstacles or barriers, or other societal power domains. Fear or threat of consequences may also impede vocality of individuals amid these societal structures, which can result in decreased wellbeing, unfair or imbalanced dialogue, repressed innovation, barriers to social justice, and land dispossession (Stewart et al., 2020; Throne, 2018).

Heirs’ Property: Heirs’ property is a form of tenancy in common and the term is commonly used along the GGCHC to refer to common land owned by multiple heirs whereby the original owner often died intestate and the land is typically passed down generation to generation outside of probate. Some report heirs’ property as a leading cause of land loss along the Corridor.

Land-Based Culture: The terms land culture or land-based culture are often used in reference to indigenous cultures that view their responsibility as land curators versus landowners. As such, land is also often connected to the identity and spirituality of individuals within the culture (Throne, 2020).

Invisibility: Invisibility has been used to address marginalized identities, underrepresented individuals who experience voice dispossession and/or are silent, and those who experience oppression and/or discrimination.

Lowcountry: The Lowcountry has been traditionally referred to as the 200-mile (322-kilometer) stretch of coastal South Carolina and Georgia.

Intersectionality: Originally founded within Black feminist and critical race theories, intersectionality has been defined as the intersection of oppressive forces that lead to marginalization and contribute to explicit bias and discrimination. The term is often used within social justice research and may carry various contextual denotations and connotations in contemporary research.

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