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In Gullah: Things to Remember When Touring a Troubled Paradise

The Gullah districts are a popular summer vacation destination, but the history behind these places are troubling.

Vacation season is here and many Americans will begin searching for scenic locales for their annual escape.

Travelers seeking a southern sojourn who stumble on Conde Nast’s 2016 readers’ ranking of southern resorts will find that sixteen of the twenty best destinations in the South are located in Gullah districts on South Carolina’s and Georgia’s coast.

Although these resorts don’t feature the Gullah's famous African derived black folk-culture in their colorful descriptions, visitors who venture beyond the grounds of resorts searching for local flavor won’t have to look far to discover Gullah crafts, food, and tours, for sale. Sweetgrass baskets made by black residents are abundantly available.

Highway 17 is speckled with weather beaten lean-tos once used to shelter black basket sellers who hawked their crafts on the roadside. Handmade dolls, paintings depicting local scenes, and black low country cuisine are available for tourists to marvel over and sample.

Melissa L. Cooper is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Rutgers University-Newark.Grace Brown

Travelers who encountered “the Gullah” before their visit in patronizing works like Pat Conroy’s book The Water is Wide (1972), which was transformed into the film Conrack (1974), may strain to hear what remains of the legendary Gullah dialect.

Visitors who discovered the Gullah through more complicated fictional works like Julie Dash’s ground breaking film Daughters of the Dust (1991) and Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1988), or popular television programs like the children’s show Gullah Gullah Island, and WGN’s slavery drama Underground, may take special interest in the black residents who descended from enslaved Africans and their American born children—populations who have been studied and celebrated because they held on to fragments of their ancestors’ traditions. Observing ring-shouts and other beautiful folk traditions described in fictional works and folklore studies are sure to entice this type visitor.

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But more than African-styled arts, crafts, folklore and a unique dialect have been preserved in Gullah districts. Slavery and the travails of Jim Crow have left a mark on these communities too. A troubled past and uncertain future are palpable in these black communities nestled underneath canopies of haunting trees covered with Spanish moss, rooted in the shadow of antebellum plantations.

In my book, Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race and the American Imagination, I examine the origins of researchers’ and writers’ interest in Sapelo Islanders’ folk-culture and unearth a complicated history of race and the imagination, entangled in academic debates and popular fantasies about black Americans’ African heritage.

Most of the researchers who descended on coastal Georgia black communities during the 1920s and 1930s were preoccupied with what they believed to be picturesque and quasi-primitive cultural practices. This focus overshadowed other aspects of black life.

They didn’t see, and in some cases refused to see, the tentacles of Jim Crow—racism, segregation, economic oppression and political disenfranchisement— and its ever-tightening grip on the communities they studied.

Cover of "Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race and the American Imagination"The University of North Carolina Press

If contemporary visitors fascinated by Gullah folk are not careful, they too will miss the struggles that Gullah communities are entrenched in.

Historic black communities in the region are fighting to retain family properties passed down across generations since the Civil War. News reports published in recent years document these fights, and however journalists characterize or mischaracterize Gullah people, their culture, and their history, the stories they tell paint a distressing picture of black life along the coast.

Reports about developers, black land loss and the heir’s property crisis on Warsaw Island; the tax hike on Sapelo Island and Plantersville; questions about the fate of the black community on Hilton Head; and the decades long battle led by Harris Neck blacks pushed off their ancestral estates by the federal government in 1942, are just a few reports highlighting trouble in the region.

Related: ‘Runaway Island’ Premieres at American Black Film Festival

The Vice News documentary examining development and black land loss in Gullah districts has made its rounds on the internet. So has the report about how a grassroots organization helped save one family’s property on St. Helena Island.

The most captivating headline among recent reports is the one that features a quote that describes land loss, tax hikes, encroaching resorts and racism in Gullah districts as “cultural genocide.”

Those who find themselves vacationing on South Carolina’s and Georgia’s coast this summer should consider the conflicts and community challenges erupting beyond the grounds of resorts, golf courses, and the billowy sand dunes that border dreamy beaches.

The enchanted landscape that attracts vacationers is also contested territory. And the black people who live there—folk who too frequently have been simply regarded as essential elements in the mythology of the quaint American South—are facing obstacles and navigating struggles akin to those their ancestors experienced.

Surely, bearing witness to upsetting trends does not rank high on most vacationers’ to-do list, but it is the least one can do when touring a troubled paradise.

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