Gullah Geechee people of the Low Country and Sea Islands of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina are a distinctive people. They are the only African American population of the United States with a separate, long-standing name identifying them as a separate people. They are distinct among African American peoples in the development of a tradition that depends as much upon maritime resources as upon land resources. Historically, they are speakers of the only true African American Creole language of the continental United States.

Gullah Geechee people are the most African of African Americans in physical type, language, and culture; yet they are a uniquely American cultural type formed by the fusion of African cultural heritage and American experience. Through the diffusion and expansion of their population, the Gullah Geechee people have become the source of many elements noted in other African American cultures. Of all African American cultures in the United States, the folk customs, oral history and literature, and crafts and arts of the Gullah Geechee people show the strongest continuities with indigenous cultures of Africa. The Gullah Geechee culture also bears strong similarities to Creole and Maroon cultures of the Caribbean. Thus, Gullah Geechee cultural heritage, culinary practices, music, language, and traditions have made significant contributions, not only to the lives of southerners but also to all Americans (Excerpted from Low Country Gullah Culture Special Resource Study and Final Environmental Impact Statement).


 Tales, 1988 – Oil on Masonite, 24” x 36” © Jonathan Green




Cultural background influences of painting:

I was born in the home of my grandparents, Oscar and Eloise Stewart Johnson, which was a small shotgun type house located in the rural Gullah community of Gardens Corners, South Carolina. There was no running water in the home, telephone, or television, but the home was heated by a pot bellied stove and did have a few electrical wires that provided light when necessary. In back of the house there was a huge Live Oak tree. In the evening it was common for family, community members, and youths to sit around the tree to tell and listen to stories and histories of our ancestors, myths, and traditions. I was most fortunate to have had a special relationship with the elders of my community as they knew I was very interested in our history and culture, with specific interest in my great ancestors. Along with their stories they shared with me how they would use particular herbs, teas, and roots to help heal common health conditions.

The painting Tales reflects my recollections of the stories told around the Oak tree. Because this is a recollection stemming from my youth, I purposely did not put facial features on the figures. In Gullah tradition, it was an insult for a child to look an adult in the face until given permission to do so. Always, elders and adults were to be respected.

When I was approximately 11 years old I and other children from the community were climbing and playing in the tree. There was a giant knot hole in the tree and I was not aware someone had poured gasoline into the hole. To see what was in the hole, I lit a match and flames shot out and severely burned my face which resulted in searing pain and I was disfigured for many months. In addition to being burned, the oak tree was destroyed by the fire and I mourned the loss of such a magnificent and magical tree. My grandmother, Eloise, knew the use of herbal and natural medicine and applied ointments and medications on my face and fortunately I was healed, but the memory of the experience has always stayed with me.