"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: February 2016

Sunday, February 28, 2016

African Words in the American English Gullah Dialect (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Last week, I highlighted many African-derived words in the Gullah dialect that Dr. Lorenzo Turner identified in his book. Several of my Nigerian readers were intrigued by the retention of Fulfulde numerals (from one to 19) in Gullah, which Turner recorded near the town of Darien, in the state of Georgia, in the 1930s.
Dr. Lorenzo D. Turner
Another surprise for me is the Gullah people’s retention of some uniquely African exclamatory expressions. For instance, Turner recorded the interjectory expression “kai!” among the Gullah. Like in many West African, particularly Nigerian, languages, “kai!” is used in Gullah to express great surprise. The exclamation “bismilai!” to express shock or great surprise also survives in Gullah—at least up to the time Turner observed and recorded the language in Georgia and South Carolina. It was most certainly bequeathed to them by their Senegambian Muslim ancestors. As any Muslim knows, Bismillah is the first phrase of the Qur’an, which means “in the name of Allah.” But it’s also often used as an exclamatory expression.

Contemporary (northern) Nigerian Muslims tend to prefer “A’uzu billahi!” which is the shortened form a’uzu billah min ash shaitan rajim (I seek protection from Allah against Satan), often said before bismillah. Or they may say “subhallah!” (Glory be to Allah).

It is also worth noting that the ubiquitous “una” (plural form of you) in African-inflected English pidgins and creoles is also present in Gullah. It is derived from the Igbo “unu,” which is also the plural form of “you” in the language, the singular being “ya” or “gi.” While “una” is the preferred form of the pronoun in Gullah, other variants exist, such as “huna,” “wuna,” and “unu” (preserved from the original form in Igbo). In Gullah, “mi na una” means “me and you,” where “na” means “and,” as it does in Igbo.

Similarities in syntax
Turner also identified several fascinating syntactic similarities between Gullah and West African languages. For example, he said, “In a great many of the West African languages, as in Gullah, there is no distinction of voice” (209). He gave an example to illustrate this: “instead of saying He was beaten, the Gullah speaker says, dem bit am, ‘They beat him’.” That is exactly how it would be said in Nigerian (or West African) Pidgin English.

But what interests me more than the striking syntactic and semantic congruence between the Gullah dem bit am and the Nigerian (or West African) Pidgin English dem beat am is the retention in Gullah of what I once called the “singular they” in both Nigerian Pidgin English and conversational Nigerian English, which is derived from the structure of various Nigerian languages. In a September 2, 2012 article titled “The English Nigerian Children Speak I,” I wrote:

“In Standard English, ‘they’ is the plural of ‘he,’ ‘she,’ and ‘it.’ In Nigerian English, however, ‘they’ can refer to a single person or entity. For instance, if a parent sends a child to call another child, the child could say something like: ‘Abdul, they are calling you,’ where ‘they’ … refers to the parent. When there is a power cut from the Power Holding Company of Nigeria…children routinely say ‘they have taken light,’ where ‘they’ refers to the electricity company. 

“This is evidently mother-tongue interference. Most Nigerian languages I know have the singular ‘they’…. The irony, though, is that even Nigerian children whose only language is English ‘suffer’ from this ‘mother tongue interference.’”

In Gullah, as in West African Pidgin English, “dem” is the lexical equivalent of the English “they,” and its use as a singular signifier even though it is lexically plural owes sociolinguistic debt to the structure of West African languages where “they” can signify "singularness."

Another syntactic feature of Gullah worth calling attention to is what Turner called the dialect’s “word order in interrogative sentences” where the subject often comes before the verb. In other words, interrogative sentences and declarative sentences are different only by tone, not by word order. This point recalls a humorous Facebook status update I read recently that went something like this: “Pidgin English is the only language where question and answer can be the same thing. Question: Light dey? Answer: Light dey.”

The person who composed the status update is obviously not a linguist. If he was, he would have been familiar with the fact that it isn’t only in Pidgin English that interrogative and declarative sentences have the same syntactic arrangement. He would have known that this is also true of many African-inflected English-based creoles in the historic Western black diaspora, and that this feature is derived from West African languages.

Most Influential African Languages in Gullah?
People who have been following my series on the Gullah have asked if I can give them a sense of which African languages have had the most influence on Gullah. That is a difficult question to answer, but I will give it a shot.

According to Elizabeth Donnan’s Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America vol. 4, which was published in 1935, between 1716 and 1744, 51 percent of slaves brought to Charleston, South Carolina (from where they were later taken to Georgia) came from Angola (which includes present-day Angola and the Congo); 7.4 percent came from Senegambia; 4.7 percent came from the Bight of Biafra, which encompasses most of present-day (coastal) southern Nigeria; 2.8 percent came from the Gold Coast, which is now Ghana; 0.2 came percent from the Windward Coast, which is now Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire; and the geographic and ethnic origins of 33.9 percent are unknown, perhaps because they came from the Caribbean Islands.

From 1749 to 1787, 25.2 percent of the slaves taken to the Sea Islands came from Senegambia; 16.7 percent came from Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire; 14.6 percent came from what is now Angola and Congo; 13.1 percent came from present-day Ghana; 6.6 percent came from Sierra Leone; 2.2 percent came from the Bight of Benin, in what is now Benin Republic and Togo; 0.8 percent came from the Bight of Biafra or southern Nigeria; and 20.7 percent came from the Caribbean Islands.

From 1804 to 1807, 52 percent of the Africans who became Gullah came from Angola and the Congo; 17.9 percent from Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire; 11.4 percent from Ghana; 4.7 percent from Sierra Leone; 1.7 percent from Senegambia; 2.5 percent from (coastal) southern Nigeria; 1.6 percent from Madagascar and Mozambique; and 8.2 percent from the Caribbean Islands.

It is obvious from this record that the majority of Gullah people who came directly from Africa are descended from Angola and the Congo. It also means that the Nigerian (Yoruba, Igbo, Efik, Ibibio, Annang, Bini, etc.) influence in the language and culture of the Gullah people is disproportionate to their number, given that comparatively few Gullah people are descended from what is now Nigeria. (I am certain that the Fulani influence in Gullah numerals is from Senegambia, not from Nigeria.)

What has become apparent to me from reading various books on the Gullah people is that they inherited various things from several different ancestors. Most of their quotidian cultural performances have heavy Sierra Leonean and Liberian imprints, to use the modern identifiers for their places of origin. In terms of lexical influences in their language, Senegambia (Mandingo, Fulani, Wolof, etc.) and Angola tend to predominate, although there are tinctures of lexical influences from almost all of the ethnicities from which they trace their ancestral provenance.

In personal names, Yoruba is disproportionately dominant, especially given that slave records from the Port of Charleston in South Carolina show that less than 1 percent of the ancestors of the Gullah are Yoruba. Of the nearly 4,000 personal names Turner recorded, I identified 775 names that are unmistakably Yoruba, including names like Oduduwa (the mythological Yoruba progenitor), and even names of Yoruba sub-groups like Ijesa and Ogbomosho.

Nonetheless, as the records I quoted above show, merely looking at the percentage distribution of Africans brought to the Sea Islands to determine the Nigerian origins of Gullah people may be misleading since a large number of their ancestors came to their present location by way of the Caribbean Islands. My sense is that the Nigerian (particularly Yoruba and Igbo) influence in Gullah culture and language emerged from their ancestors who came from the Caribbean Islands.

Decreolization of Gullah
Gullah, unfortunately, is dying in Georgia and South Carolina. Many young people no longer speak it, and those who speak it either consciously or involuntarily purge the African influences in it, making it sound increasingly close to mainstream American English. This process is called “decreolization.” So Gullah is on its way to becoming what linguists call a “vestigial post-creole,” that is, a former lingual admixture of indigenous languages and a foreign (often European) language that has now taken both the structure and vocabulary of the foreign language and dismantled all or most elements of the indigenous languages that constituted the substrate of the admixture.


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Saturday, February 27, 2016

America's Unknown Black Presidents Before Obama? (III)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

President Warren Harding
The rumors surfaced again with renewed vigor when Barack Obama emerged on the American political scene. In fact, the New York Times commissioned Beverly Gage, a well-regarded professor of modern American history from Yale University, to write a piece on Harding’s alleged hidden black heritage.

Writing in the New York Times of April 6, 2008 under the title “Our first black president?” Gage concluded that: “[…] many biographers have dismissed the rumors of Harding’s mixed-race family as little more than a political scandal and Chancellor himself as a Democratic mudslinger and racist ideologue. But as with the long-denied and now all-but-proved allegations of Thomas Jefferson’s affair with his slave Sally Hemings, there is reason to question the denials. From the perspective of 2008, when interracial sex is seen as a historical fact of life instead of an abomination, the circumstantial case for Harding’s mixed-race ancestry is intriguing though not definitive.”
 This cautious admission of President Harding’s “black” parentage says a lot, especially coming from a white historian from an Ivy League university.

Calvin Coolidge
President Calvin Coolidge was elected vice president and succeeded as the 30th President of the United States when President Harding died in 1923 while on a speaking tour in California. If Harding is the most probable past American president with a black African ancestry, Coolidge is perhaps the least probable.

 However, many African-American historians think otherwise. Auset Bakhufu, author of Six Black Presidents: Black Blood: White Masks USA, claims that Coolidge was, in fact, proud of his African ancestry, a highly implausible proposition given the dishonor in which blackness was held in 1930s America. Bakhufu claims that Coolidge’s mother was “dark” but that he explained away the darkness of his mother’s skin by attributing it to the fact of her mixed Indian heritage.

Bakhufu then relies on this alleged explanation to assert that at the time Coolidge’s mother was born in New England, the American Indians there had all been intermarried with black people. This interpretive leap stretches my credulity to the limit. It is not clear to me how a person can simultaneously be proud of his ancestry and strain hard to explain it away, thereby denying it outright.

 Black American conspiracy theorists also claim that Coolidge’s mother’s maiden name was “Moor” and that Moor used to be the generic name for all black people, especially in Europe. That is wholly inaccurate. The only people Europeans called Moors were North Africans, who aren’t black. Well, even if, for the sake of argument, we agree that Moor referred to black, then white people whose last name is Black (and they are many) must be part African too!

Dwight David Eisenhower
The evidence proffered to support claims of the African ancestry of Dwight David Eisenhower, America’s 34th president who served between 1953 and 1961, is also weak and speculative. Black American historians allege that Eisenhower’s mother, Ida Elizabeth Stover, was part black and part white, which makes her— and all her descendants— “black,” according to America’s unique racial typology.

But what is the evidence that Eisenhower, whose official biography says he was an American of German descent, was “black”? According to one conspiracy theorist, “Interviews made during the 50s uncovered some very old people who long remembered referring to Eisenhower's mother as ‘that black Links gal’.”

Another piece of “evidence” is the picture of Eisenhower’s mother on her wedding day published in his autobiography. Someone claimed the woman “would not have been able to eat in restaurants anywhere in the South before the end of segregation.” Well, I saw the picture myself and the woman looked lily-white, as Americans like to say.

Of course, in my studies of American presidential rhetoric, I discovered that Eisenhower was more obliging to African-Americans than many past American presidents. He was, for instance, the first president to deploy federal force to desegregate schools in the South. He was also the first president to invite African-American leaders to the White House, and the first to appoint a black person into an executive position in the White House.

But it’s not a persuasive argument to assert that a president’s complaisance to a historically oppressed people is an outward manifestation of his suppressed genetic relationship to the group.

Concluding Thoughts
But why should it matter if any past American president was part African? Why should this interest us in an age when scientists, scholars, and DNA analyses continue to explode the myth of racial exclusivity? Well, it is partly because while these progressive developments are taking place, we are also witnessing what appears like the recrudescence of nineteenth-century scientific racism on the fringes. But that’s a topic for another day.

Another reason why this is important is that America is a nation that is heavily invested in racial symbolisms. It will elevate the sense of self-worth of African-Americans if they can convince themselves (even if they can’t convince others) that some past American presidents share an ancestral linkage with them.

 I also think it’s a creative inversion of the logic of one-drop rule. Most so-called black Americans are not simply African; they are an embodiment of a multiplicity of racial identities. They are “black” only because a racist power structure pronounced them so. As Langston Hughes, the eminent “African” American poet, once wrote, "You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word 'Negro' is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore, black. I am brown."

However, even though in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court unequivocally invalidated the one-drop rule, it continues to be employed in self-definition and the definition of others.

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Sunday, February 21, 2016

African Words in the American English Gullah Dialect

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Last week I identified some notable African onomastic (onomastics is the science of personal names) influences among the Gullah people. This week I highlight a few African lexical influences in the Gullah English dialect. But before I do that, I’d like to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that Clarence Thomas, the only black person in the US Supreme Court and the second black person to ever be appointed to the US Supreme Court after Thurgood Marshall, spoke Gullah as a child—and still speaks it whenever he so desires.
US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks Gullah
In 2000, according to the New York Times of December 14, 2000, he told a 16-year-old high school student that his remarkable reticence in the Supreme Court and elsewhere has roots that go back to his childhood. As a child, he said, he was taunted by his peers and teachers for speaking his Gullah English dialect (which he said was more popularly known as Geechee in Savanah, Georgia, where he grew up) or for allowing Gullah influences to creep into his standard spoken English.

“When I was 16, I was sitting as the only black kid in my class, and I had grown up speaking a kind of a dialect. It's called Geechee. Some people call it Gullah now, and people praise it now,” he said. “But they used to make fun of us back then. It's not standard English. When I transferred to an all-white school at your age, I was self-conscious, like we all are…. And the problem was that I would correct myself midsentence. I was trying to speak standard English. I was thinking in standard English but speaking another language. So I learned that — I just started developing the habit of listening…. I didn't ask questions in college or law school. And I found that I could learn better just listening.”

Perhaps he meant to say he thought in Gullah and tried to translate his thoughts into Standard English and couldn’t help the episodic, involuntary intrusions of Gullah.

Michelle Obama is also said to be descended from Gullah ancestors on her paternal side, although neither she nor her parents speak, or ever spoke, Gullah because their forebears left the Sea Islands many generations ago. It was her great-great-grandfather, Jim Robinson, according to some accounts, who spoke Gullah.
First Lady Michelle Obama has Gullah roots
I can’t possibly write about the hundreds of African words that have survived in the Gullah language when Dr. Lorenzo Turner recorded them in the 1930s and 1940s, so I list only a sample here.

1. “Agogo.” Many Yoruba speakers recognize this word as the name for a bell or a bell-shaped metal musical instrument in their language. In Gullah, it means a cowbell, that is, a bell hung around the neck of a cow to make finding it easy. In modern times agogo is also used in Yoruba and other languages, such as Baatonu, to mean a clock, which is decidedly a semantic extension that derives from the notion of a bell as a time marker.

2. “Amin.” Gullah people intersperse their supplications with “amin” instead of the English “amen.” Amin is, of course, the Arabic version of the Hebrew “amen,” which has been exported to and domesticated in English. It means “so be it” in both Hebrew and Arabic. The Gullah use the Arabic version of the word during their (Christian) prayers because that was the version passed on to them by their West African Muslim ancestors.

3. “Bakra.” This Gullah word for “white man” is derived from “mbakara,” the Annang/Efik/Ibibio word for white man. (Annang, Efik, and Ibibio are mutually intelligible dialects of the same language in Nigeria’s deep south.) Turner said Igbo people also use “mbakara” to mean “white man.” That’s not entirely accurate. The Igbo word for white man is “ocha,” but it is conceivable that because Igbo, Annang, Efik, and Ibibio people are geographic and cultural cousins, Igbos understood—and even used—mbakara to mean white people in the 1930s when Turner conducted research for his book. Interestingly, many black people in the Caribbean Islands also use some version of “mbakara”—such as buckra, bacra, and buckaroo—to refer to white people. In some Texas and California communities in the United States, buckaroo and bucheroo are also used to mean a “cowboy.”

4. “Be the groun.” This is an agricultural register in the Gullah dialect. It means to get the ground ready for farming, where “be” means “to clean, to remove debris.” Turner discovered that in Wolof, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Senegal, the Gambia, and parts of Mauritania, “bei” means to “cultivate, to prepare ground for planting.”

Because of the phonetic and orthographic similarities between the Wolof “bei,” which is rendered as “be” in Gullah, and the English “be,” the expression “be the groun” used to be thought of as an incompetent attempt to speak Standard English. Thanks to Turner, we now know that the expression has its own Wolof-inflected syntactic and sematic logic independent of Standard English.

5. “Bidibidi.” This means “small bird” or “small chicken” in Gullah. It is derived, according to Turner, from Kongo, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Angola (from where about 39 percent of Gullah people came, as I pointed out two weeks ago) and the Congo, where it also means small bird or small chicken. White linguists who studied Gullah had dismissed this word as “baby talk” for “small bird” because of the phonetic—and accidental semantic—affinities between “biddy” (the informal English word for small bird or fowl) and bidibidi.

6. “Da” or “dada.” In Gullah, “da” and “dada” are used interchangeably to mean “mother, nurse, an elderly woman.” Turner found parallels for these words in Ewe (spoken in Togo, Ghana, and Benin Republic) where “da” and “dada” mean mother or elder sister. Notice that in Igbo “ada” means “eldest daughter.”

7. “Done for fat.” Earlier researchers had thought that this Gullah expression meant “excessively fat.” They thought the “done for” in the expression was an intensifier for “fat,” which they said merely suggested that the Gullah people meant fat people were “done for,” that is, doomed to die. But Lorenzo Turner’s painstaking research shows us that “done for” is actually the phonetic Anglicization of “danfa,” which is the Vai word for fat. Vai is a Niger-Congo language of the Mande branch spoken by a little over 100,000 people in what is now Liberia and Sierra Leone. So, basically, the Gullah people combined the Vai and the English words for the same condition— for emphasis. It should actually have been correctly written as “danfa fat.”

8. “Dede.” This means “correct, exact, exactly” in Gullah. Turner compared it with the Yoruba “dede” and the Hausa daidai (which he wrote as “deidei”), which also mean “correct, exact, exactly.” In Kongo, dedede also means “similarity, correspondence.” In my language, Baatonu, like in Yoruba, dede means “correct, exact, exactly.”

9. Fulfulde counting system. One of the discoveries that pleasantly shocked me is the realization that the Gullah people still retain several Fulani numerals in their English dialect. In Gullah (as in Fulfulde with only slight variations in accent and spelling), one is go, two is didi, five is je, six is jego, seven is jedidi, eight is jetati, nine is jenai, ten is sapo, eleven is sapo go, twelve is sapo didi, thirteen is sapo tati, fourteen is sapo nai, fifteen is sapo je, sixteen is sapo jego, seventeen is sapo jedidi, eighteen is sapo jetati, nineteen is sapo jenai, etc.

The Gullah people who shared this counting system with Turner in the 1930s had no clue from which African language they inherited this counting system. My sense is that it was passed down to them from some of their Senegambian Fulani ancestors. Note that I wrote these words exactly as Turner wrote them. When I searched online Fulfulde dictionaries, I found slight variations in the modern spellings of these numerals, but it’s remarkable, nonetheless, that the Fulfulde counting system has survived among the Gullah after more than 300 years of separation from its original source.

10. A reverse influence: In a chapter of my book, Glocal English: The Changing Face and Forms of Nigerian English in a Global World, I discussed the African heritage of common English words and expressions, which entered the language through so-called African American Vernacular English (AMVE). I pointed out that some expressions/words started out as African-derived Gullah dialectal expressions, made their way to demotic African-American speech, and then to global conversational English through what I called "pop-cultured-induced linguistic osmosis." At other times, certain conventional colloquial (American English) expressions (such as "my bad," "to bad-mouth someone," "do your own thing," etc.) began life as calque formations from West African languages in African-American English before mutating to mainstream English. This is also true of many everyday words like "tote," "jitters," "phony," etc.

From reading Turner’s book, I’ve discovered African-derived English words like “yam” (from the Mandingo yam or yambi, the Ga (Ghana) yamu), tote (meaning to carry), etc. entered English by way of Gullah.

To be concluded next week

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Saturday, February 20, 2016

America’s Unknown Black Presidents Before Obama? (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

2. President Andrew Jackson
President Andrew Jackson, fondly called Old Hickory, was America’s seventh president. African-American historian J. A. Rogers who wrote The Five Negro Presidents: According to what White People Said They Were claimed that President Jackson’s putative father, Andrew Jackson Sr., actually died over a year before President Jackson was born and therefore couldn’t be his biological father. He further claimed that upon the death of Jackson Sr., the president’s mother moved to a farm where there were African slaves. One of the slaves, Rogers claims, sired President Andrew Jackson.
This story stretches my credulity to the limit. Apart from the fact that the story is of questionable authenticity, there is nothing in President Jackson’s physical features to suggest an immediate African stemma, although appearances can be deceiving.

In Black People and Their Place in History, Leroy Vaughn takes claims of the alleged part-African parentage of Andrew Jackson even higher. He cites what he says was an article written in the 29th volume of The Virginia Magazine of History which allegedly stated that Jackson was the son of an Irish woman who married a black man. The magazine also allegedly said Jackson’s oldest brother had been sold as a slave because of his more obvious African features.

Other Black American authors cite David Coyle's 1960 book titled Ordeal of the Presidency as having provided evidence that Jackson’s brother was sold into slavery.

3. President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th president, served between 1861 and 1865. He is most remembered for saving the Union during the American Civil War and for emancipating African slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation.

J. A. Rogers cites Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks, as having once allegedly confessed that Abraham Lincoln was the love child from her affairs with an African man. No independent documentary evidence has been adduced to authenticate the alleged quotation from President Lincoln’s mother.

But other Black American authors eager to prove that Lincoln was “black” reference another book titled The Hidden Lincoln written by a certain William Herndon, Lincoln's alleged law partner, which purportedly averred that Lincoln had a darker than normal white skin, thick negroid hair, and that his mother was Ethiopian. The author is also alleged to have argued that Thomas Lincoln could not have been Abraham Lincoln's father because he was barren from childhood mumps and was later emasculated.

Another indication of the acknowledgement of his “blackness,” according to the authors, was that Lincoln’s political opponents allegedly made newspaper drawings that caricatured him as an African American, and derisively labeled him “Abraham Africanus the First.” That might have been because he was seen as sympathetic to African Americans during the Civil War.

4. President Warren Harding
Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States who served between 1921 and 1923, is probably the only truly previous “black” president of the United States, if the white historian William Estabrook Chancellor was correct. And he probably was, given the unusually heightened frenzy and flurries of denials—and endorsements—that his 1920 book about the hidden black African ancestry of President Harding generated.

Note that I am using the word “black” in its peculiarly American context, which is scandalously hidebound, hopelessly essentialist and, yes, notoriously out of step with commonsense notions of “blackness” worldwide. The American notion of blackness—encapsulated in the so-called one-drop rule, which I briefly discussed in the first part of this article—conceives of blackness as an inerasable genetic stain, so that the remotest ancestral connection with Black Africa defines one as black. This preposterous logic would make many Europeans “black” since recent DNA evidence suggests that many Western and Southern Europeans have vestiges of African blood in them.

 Well, Chancellor’s book, which was published while Harding was alive, declared that Harding’s great grandmother was an African-American. Several historical sources said all but five copies of the book were bought and burned by Harding’s supporters and by agents of the U.S. Justice Department. Chancellor also lost his job as a professor of politics and economics at Worcester College in the state of Ohio, where Harding hailed from.

Although the book was decidedly a politically motivated screed designed to lower Harding’s standing in White America (in 1920s America, to be called black was a political death sentence), it contained treasure troves of circumstantial evidence that were, and still are, difficult to dismiss with a shrug.
Chancellor, for instance, proved that Harding was educated at Iberia College, a school specifically designed to train runaway slaves. It is also said that Harding’s in-law strongly disapproved of his daughter’s marriage to Harding because the in-law reportedly didn’t want his bloodline to be blemished with what he considered baseborn black African ancestry.

 Similarly, aged residents of President Harding’s hometown of Marion, Ohio, had sworn affidavits that Elizabeth Madison, Harding’s great grandmother, was African American. And African-American historians claim that Harding himself was never forceful and categorical in his denials of his black African ancestry.

According to African-American historian J.A. Rogers, when leaders of the Republican Party, Harding’s party, called on him to refute allegations that he was a closet "Negro," he reportedly said, "How should I know whether or not one of my ancestors might have jumped the fence?"

Significantly, unlike the previous American presidents mentioned here, there is demonstrable proof that Harding and his immediate ancestors actually had to confront and live with rumors of their alleged suppressed African ancestry. In fact, President Harding’s official biographer, Francis Russell, devoted several pages to this issue in his 1968 book titled The Shadow of Blooming Grove.

He said the official explanation by the Harding family of the whispering campaign alleging that his family members were “passing” for white when they were actually black was this: Harding’s great-great-grandfather, Amos Harding, once caught and exposed a man who was cutting down his neighbor’s apple trees, and that the man initiated the gossip in retribution. Interestingly, Russell himself dismissed this explanation as rather wishy-washy and improbable.

 To be concluded next week

Related Article:
America's Unknown Black Presidents Before Obama? I

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Nigerian and African Muslim Personal Names Among the Gullah of Georgia and South Carolina

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

In last week’s column, I promised to share with the reader some of the noticeable African influences in the Gullah language. These influences are so vast, varied, and deep that I cannot do justice to them in a single newspaper column. So I decided to write it in two installments.

In his groundbreaking book titled Africanismsin the Gullah Dialect, which I made reference to in last week’s column, the late African-American linguist Dr. Lorenzo D. Turner identified more than 4,000 words in the Gullah English dialect that trace lexical descent from several languages in west and central Africa. He found these African influences in Gullah people’s personal names, in their quotidian conversational vocabularies, and in their folk songs, stories, hymns, and invocations. I will explore Gullah personal names this week and conclude with the African lexical influences in the everyday speech and songs of the Gullah people next week.

In what follows, I identify the African origins of many Gullah personal names. Given that the research for the book from which material for this column was drawn was done in the 1930s, I have updated several of the author’s data and extended and enriched his conclusions based on my own experiential and epistemological location in relation to his data.

Thousands of personal names the Gullah people bear are similar to many names people in west and central Africa still bear. It is impossible to mention all of them in this piece; Turner identified more than 4,000 personal names among the Gullah in Georgia and South Carolina. So I am only going to isolate a few, mostly Nigerian, names that stood out for me.

I am particularly surprised by the large number of Yoruba names the Gullah people bear. As Turner pointed out, the Gullah people had not the slightest awareness of the Yoruba origin and meaning of their names. Among the hundreds of Yoruba names Turner recorded among the Gullah people in the 1930s are names like Ade, Adebisi, Adebiyi, Adekule [Adekunle], Adeniyi, Adewale, Adu, Adosu, Aganju, Akaraje [i.e., eat bean cake], Akawo [Akanwo], Alafia [ “Alafia” is an Arabic-derived word; see Arabized African names below], Alabo, Alade, Alawo, Baba, Bankole, Erelu, Idowu, Iyaoba, Kehinde, Oduduwa, Otunla, Ogboni, Oluwa, Okuta, Ola, Oriki, Olubiyi, Olugbodi, Oyebisi, Sango, Yeye.

There are hundreds more in the book, but I was struck, just like Turner was, that the Gullah people have retained the difficult “gb” sound in their names. Most people, including Africans who don’t speak a Niger-Congo language, usually have a hard time articulating the “gb” sound, which Turner called “the voiced labio-velar plosive,” including the “kp” sound that begins my last name, which Turner characterized as the “gb” sound’s “voiced counterpart” (p. 25). This, for me, is nothing short of extraordinary. Even my first daughter, to whom my native Baatonu language isn’t a mother tongue, has a hard time pronouncing her last name and has pleaded with me to dispense with the “K” in our last name. I told her that would be a mutilation of the name because “kp” is an independent sound unit like “ch” is in “chair” in English.

Well, the Gullah people also bear many Africanized Muslim names they obviously inherited from their Fulani, Mandingo, Yoruba, Hausa, Bambara, Wolof, and Mende Muslim ancestors. As Ipointed out last week, the extensive second-hand Arabic influence Turner found in many African-derived Gullah words, which he discovered after speaking with West Africans in London and Paris in the 1930s, caused him to learn Arabic so that he could make sense of his data.

Turner recorded names like Aburika, which is probably a corruption of Abubakar; Adamu, incidentally my father’s first name, which is the West African Muslim rendering of Adam; Aduwa, an Africanization of du’a, the Arabic word for prayer; Ayisa and Ayisata, Mandingo and Bambara Muslim approximations of Aisha, the name of one of the wives of the Prophet of Islam; Ayuba, the Muslim version of Job, which is rendered as Ayub in Arabic; Baraka, which is Arabic for blessing that shares etymological and semantic affinities with Barack, the first name of President Obama; Dirisu, which is how the Mandingo and Bambara people call the Muslim name Idris—Yoruba Muslims call it Disu; Fatuma, Fatu, Fatimata (all Mandingo, Wolof, and Bamabara versions of “Fatima,” the name of the daughter of the Prophet of Islam); Fitina (derived from the Arabic word for trouble); Ibrahima, the West African Muslim rendering of Ibrahim, which Christians and Jews call Abraham.

He also recorded names like Jumare, now regarded as a Fulani name but which is actually derived from (al)jumea, the Arabic name for Friday— Yoruba, Ebira, Baatonu Muslims, etc. bear the name as Jimoh; Gibril (which Nigerian Muslims bear as Jibril or Jibrin or Jibo and which Christians and Jews know as Gabriel; Imale (the Yoruba word for Muslim, presumably because Islam came to Yoruba land from Mali); Haruna, which is the West African version of Harun, which Christians and Jews know as Aaron; Lafiya ( derived from the Arabic word for good health, which is borne as a royal name among the Borgu people in Nigeria and Benin Republic, and as an everyday personal name in Senegambia and other historically Muslim polities in West Africa; Madina, the name of the second holiest city in Islam known to Westerners as Medina, which West African Muslims bear as a female personal name; Laila; Laraba, a Hausa name given to a girl born on Wednesday, derived from al-arbi'aa', the Arabic word for Wednesday; Woli, (the Yoruba Muslim domestication of the Arabic wali, which means patron saint);  Salihu; Salamu; etc.

The Gullah even bear puzzling names like Kafiri (a derogatory name for a non-Muslim, which Yoruba Muslims call keferi, which is an African approximation of the Arabic kafir) and Saitan, which is the Muslim rendering of Satan!

They also bear the names of West African ethnic groups as personal names, perhaps indicating the ethnic origins of some of the Gullah people. They bear names like Fulani, Fulbe, Fula (which refer to the same people), Ibibio, Ijesa, Ogbomosho, according to Turner’s records. The name Yoruba didn’t exist as a collective name for people in what is now southwest Nigeria. “Yoruba” in its current form is a 19th-century creation by Samuel Ajayi Crowther—following a 16th century Songhai Islamic scholar by the name of Ahmed Baba who first used the name to refer to people in the old Oyo Empire. That is why only names like Ijesa (a Yoruba sub-group found in present-day Osun State) and Ogbomosho, rather than “Yoruba,” appear in the records of people enslaved in the West from West Africa.

The Gullah people also bear Kwora, the name for River Niger in many West African languages, including Hausa, Baatonu, and Fulani from where it was probably passed down to the Gullah. Interestingly, among the Baatonu people, Kwora is a name reserved exclusively for members of royal families in both Nigeria and Benin Republic.

 While the gendering of many Gullah names corresponds with their gendering in West African names (for instance, many of the Yoruba names among the Gullah are unisex, like they are among the Yoruba), there is a discordance in others. For example, a name like Aba, which is a male name in Gullah, is the name of a girl born on Thursday among the Fante people of present-day Ghana.

Turner found out that most of the personal names that the Gullah bear can be traced to Arabic (by way of members of several Islamized West African ethnic groups who were enslaved to rice plantations in Georgia and South Carolina); Bambara ( who are now found primarily in Mali, but also in Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Senegal); Bini in southern Nigeria; Bobangi in the Congo; Zarma who now live mainly in what is now Niger Republic; Ewe who can be found in Togo and Benin Republic; Efik in southern Nigeria; Fante in Ghana; Fon in Benin Republic; Fulani; Hausa; Igbo; Ibibio in southern Nigeria; Kongo in Angola; Kikongo in the Congo; Kimbundu in Angola; Kpelle in Liberia; Mende in Sierra Leone; Malinke, Mandinka, and Mandingo in Senegambia, Mali, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, etc., Nupe and Gwari in central Nigeria; Susu in Guinea; Songhai in present-day Niger, Mali, Benin Republic; Twi in Ghana; Temne in Sierra Leone; Tshiluba in the Congo; Umbundu in Angola; Vai in Liberia and Sierra Leone; Wolof in Senegambia; and Yoruba in southwestern Nigeria.

Keep a date next week for an analysis of African words in the Gullah English dialect.

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Saturday, February 13, 2016

America’s Unknown Black Presidents Before Obama? (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

In continuation of my Black History Month articles, I bring you a condensed and updated version of a series of articles I wrote in 2008 on the putative African ancestry of 6 past American presidents before President Barack Obama.

 Talk of the “suppressed” African racial identities of past American presidents has been grist in the rumor mills of fringe elements in America, especially among “black nationalist groups.” Who are these past American presidents who are allegedly “black”? And what kinds of evidence have been proffered to justify the claims?

 Although discussion about America’s closet “black” presidents became more manifest in the black American community after Barack Obama became a serious contender for the American presidency in 2008, it actually began to gain currency about four years earlier. In February of 2004, a certain C. Stone Brown wrote a widely circulated article for the New Jersey-based DiversityInc magazine titled, “Who were the 5 Black Presidents?”

Brown’s article was inspired by three books written on the subject by fringe African American historians: Dr. Leroy Vaughn’s Black People and Their Place in History (Vaughn was actually an eye doctor), Joel A. Rogers’s The Five Negro Presidents: According to what White People Said They Were, and Dr. Auset Bakhufu’s Six Black Presidents: Black Blood: White Masks USA. These books claim that at least six former presidents of the United States trace parts of their ancestry to West Africans enslaved to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries, and are therefore “black.”

The past American presidents often said to have had tints of African blood in their Caucasian veins are former presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight David Eisenhower. I discuss each of them in what follows:

Thomas Jefferson
Black American conspiracy theorists claim that Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president and chief drafter of its Declaration of Independence, who served two terms between 1801 and 1809, was black—that is, in the bizarre way “blackness” is defined in America, which I will discuss in some detail later.

The principal evidence that the Black American authors invoke in the service of their claim is an 1867 book on him by a certain Thomas Hazard titled The Johnny Cake Papers. I have not read the book myself, so I can neither independently vouch for the facticity of the claims in the book nor the accuracy of the information quoted from it.

Well, the authors said Hazard interviewed some man named Paris Gardiner who reportedly said he was present during a 1796 presidential campaign rally when one speaker publicly declared that Thomas Jefferson was “a mean-spirited son of a half-breed Indian squaw and a Virginia mulatto father.” (Note that “Indian” refers here not to the people in India in the Asian continent but to the native peoples in the Americas before the European conquest of the territory, and “squaw” is the generic term for all American Indian women).

If we believe this chain of apocryphal testimonies, then Jefferson’s father was half white and half black while his mother was half Native American and half white. By the perverted logic of the “one-drop rule,” which holds that a person with even the vaguest scintilla of African blood in his/her pedigree cannot be considered white, President Jefferson was “black”—or at least non-white.

As Madison Grant wrote in his racist book, The Passing of the Great Race, “The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a negro is a negro; the cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu; and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew.”

Another book that the authors reference to support their case that Jefferson was “black,” which I have also not read, is Samuel Sloan’s The Slave Children of Thomas Jefferson. In the book, Sloan is quoted to have said that Jefferson destroyed all of the papers, portraits, and personal effects of his mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, who died on March 31, 1776. "There is something strange and even psychopathic,” Sloan is quoted to have written, “about the lengths to which Thomas Jefferson went to destroy all remembrances of his mother, while saving over 18,000 copies of his own letters and other documents for posterity."

However, I thought Jefferson should have been more concerned with destroying all records of his father rather than of his mother’s since it was his father who was allegedly a “mulatto.” In any case, historically, the notion of invariable membership in a "racial" group on account of remote genetic connection with the group has scarcely been applied to people of Native American ancestry. The concept has been largely applied to people of black African ancestry. That is why the story doesn’t strike me as credible.

Again, President Jefferson looked as typically Caucasian as any white American I know. Of course, this is not necessarily a guarantee that he doesn’t have a tincture of African blood in his ancestry. But I would have been more persuaded to believe this rumor if its evidentiary proofs were derived from authentic archival records, although, again, archives can be destroyed and/or manipulated. The only relationship Jefferson had with a black person, which has been confirmed by historical records and even acknowledged by his own descendants, is that he had affairs with a slave girl named Sally Hemmings on his plantation and had up five children with her.

By America’s convoluted racial classification, those children are “black.” So the best or worst thing (depending on where you stand) that can be said about Jefferson, according to extant records, is that he was the “white” father of illegitimate “black” children—in addition to his legitimate “white” children.

To be continued next week

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Gullah: The Fascinating African-Inflected Black American English Dialect

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In line with my tradition to highlight aspects of the linguistic culture of Black America in February, which is celebrated as “Black History Month” in the United States, I want to introduce the reader to a truly charming African-inflected Black American English creole called Gullah (pronounced something like gah-lah) or Geechee. It is spoken by people who live in the sea islands of the southern coast of the United States in such southern US states as Georgia (where I live), South Carolina, North Carolina, and Florida.

The Gullah were, for more than 300 years after being enslaved in the United States, insulated from the dominant cultural and linguistic currents of the rest of the country principally because the sea islands in which they were forced to work on rice plantations by their enslavers were malaria-infested, and white people didn’t have the genetic immunity that the Gullahs had to survive the devastation of malaria on the islands. This insulation enabled them to retain some of their African cultures and to develop a distinct form of the English language that creatively combines the syntactic and lexical features of various African languages and English.

In William Pollitzer’ absorbingly informative book titled Gullah People and Their African Heritage, we learn that slave records of the Port of Charleston in South Carolina show that most Gullah people are descended from west and southwestern Africa. About 39 percent of them, records show, were enslaved from what is now Angola (from where some scholars say the term Gullah is derived), 23 percent from what is now Sierra Leone, 20 percent from what is now Senegal and the Gambia, 13 percent from what is now Ghana, and 5 percent from what is now (coastal) Nigeria, Madagascar, and Mozambique.

When these divergent African ethnicities converged in the sea islands of southern United States, they lost their linguistic singularities but forged a new collective linguistic identity that combines a substrate of their various African languages and a superstrate of early modern English to form a unique English creole that has captured the imagination of researchers of varying disciplinary orientations.

 However, it is only relatively recently that the African linguistic heritage of the Gullah dialect has come to light. For several decades, Gullah was described as nothing more than a fusion of the surviving remnant of archaic British English dialects and “baby talk.” Others simply called it “broken English” or a “debased form of Elizabethan English.” It wasn’t until 1949 when African-American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner’s magisterially game-changing book titled Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect was published that the world learned of the enormous phonemic, lexical, and syntactic similarities between Gullah and several west and southwestern African languages.

Turner caused the world to see Gullah not as an incompetent mimicry of Standard English, but as a complex, well-ordered, grammatically self-sufficient language that blends features of several African languages and English. As Katherine Wyly Mille and Michael B. Montgomery noted in their Introduction to the 2002 edition of Turner’s Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, the book “provided, for the first time, concrete, comparable, and measurable correspondences between Gullah and African languages, tangible objects for those wanting to substantiate speculations about the history of this unusual variety of language, which H.L. Mencken characterized as the only type of American speech not intelligible to outsiders” (xii).

In researching the African heritage of the Gullah language in the 1930s, Turner first recorded the folk stories, chants, songs, speech patterns, etc. of the people, then went to the University of London to study with scholars of West African languages and cultures, where he learned and gained working mastery of Sierra Leonean Krio, Twi (spoken mostly in Ghana), Kimbundu (spoken in Angola), Efik (spoken in the southern Nigerian state of Cross River), Fante (spoken in Ghana), Ewe (spoken in Ghana, Togo, and parts of Benin), Yoruba, Mandingo, and other African languages.

 He also studied Arabic at Yale University because, after interviewing scores of (French) West Africans in Paris in 1937, he realized that languages such as Mandingo and Yoruba were heavily influenced by Arabic, an influence that was transferred to Gullah, which I will discuss next week.

In addition, Turner visited and lived in Africa, notably in Sierra Leone and in Nigeria, where he was a Visiting Fulbright Lecturer between 1950 and 1951 at the then University College in Lagos, which later became University of Lagos. That means he came to Nigeria a year after his book was published.

Anyway, in Turner’s book, from where I will draw examples of African influences in the Gullah language next week, we read of the fascinating story of a family in coastal Georgia that had preserved and handed down a folk song called “A waka” relatively unchanged for more than 200 years. It was later discovered that, that song is in Mende, a Niger-Congo language spoken Sierra Leone.

More than 40 years after the publication of the book and 20 years after Turner’s death, three researchers by the names of Joseph Opala, Cynthia Schmidt, and Tazieff Koroma found a rural Mende community in Sierra Leone where people still sing that very song—with the same diction, rhythm, and cadence. The story of the uncanny congruence between the centuries-old “A waka” folk song in the Gullah language in the United States and in the Mende language in modern Sierra Leone inspired the compellingly enthralling documentary film titled The Language You Cry In. (Click on the link to watch the 57-minute documentary for free).

From the 1990s, the Mende people in Sierra Leone and the Gullah people in the US have established formal linkages. They send representatives to each other’s’ cultural festivals. In 2007, I ran into a man,who later told me his name was Suleiman, at the International Your Delkab Farmers’ Market here in Atlanta. I was looking for Nigerian food and found someone who struck me as distinctly Nigerian, so I stopped him to ask for help. He told me he was Sierra Leonean, not Nigerian. Of course, from his accent I could tell that he was Sierra Leonean because I was around Sierra Leoneans a lot during my undergraduate days in Kano.

But I was intrigued when Suleiman told me he was in the US to represent a Mende community at a Gullah cultural festival in Savanah, Georgia. He said it wasn’t the first time he represented the king of some Mende community, and that Gullah people also send representatives to Mende cultural festivals in Sierra Leone. It was through him I first learned about the Gullah people and their cultural and linguistic affinities with the Mende of Sierra Leone.

Seven years later, in 2013, I took my family to Savannah, Georgia, for a conference. While we were having dinner at a hotel, we overheard a barely audible conversation that struck us as distinctly and unmistakably West African, although we couldn't tell what West African language it was. I decided to go ask the people what West African language they were speaking. The closer I got to them, the more it sounded to me like they were speaking some dialect of what linguists broadly call West African Pidgin English. I concluded that they were probably Sierra Leonean (Krios). I was wrong. They were Gullah!

That encounter reminded me not just of Suleiman from Sierra Leone who told me of the connections between the Gullah people of Savannah, Georgia, and the Mende of Sierra Leone (who also speak Krio, an English-based creole); it also reminded me of my then 6-year-old daughter's teacher in 2010 who taught her students that "Kumbaya" (the title of a popular campfire spiritual song here in the US that has origins in Gullah) was an "African word." My daughter came home to ask me what the word meant in "African." LOL! Although the word does sound West African, it is actually the Gullah idiosyncratic phonetic approximation of the English "come by here."

I brought this anecdote to make the point that Gullah definitely does sound West African. Today in American English, the expression “sing kumbaya” is used, often with a sarcastic undertone, to mean “engage in a show of unity and harmony with one's opponents or enemies,” as in, “Don’t think you can undermine and insult me and I’ll ignore all that and sit in a campfire with you singing Kumbaya. No, I will pay you back in your own coin.”

Next week I will explore in more depth African linguistic influences in the Gullah language. Keep a date.

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