Book Reviews



Wilbur Cross
Gullah Culture in America
1st ed.
Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. $49.95
270 pp.
ISBN-13 978-0-275-99450-1


by Lisanne C. Norman, Ph.D. Candidate,
African & African-American Studies
Harvard University

Having only been familiar with the Gullah culture through Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust (1991) and the documentary The Language You Cry In (1998), it was a great pleasure to read Wilbur Cross' book Gullah Culture in America and have that knowledge and understanding greatly expanded. Cross, a former editor at Time/Life and the author of quite a few historical books dealing with WWI, and naval submarines, gives us a richly textured book that is successful in examining numerous aspects of the African-American Gullah/Geechee culture. "Gullahs" or "Geechees" is the name given to the African slaves and their descendants that survived and flourished in the islands off the coast of the American South east, extending from North Carolina down to northern Florida. This is often referred to as the "Gullah Corridor." Cross begins his work by describing the continual efforts that have been made over the past three decades by historian & anthropologist Joseph Opala to trace the heritage of the Gullahs back to Africa. As Opala's main research area was Sierra Leone, he had spent much of his time studying Sierra Leone's historical connection to the African slave trade. After decades of hard work and extensive research, and relying on the previous work of African-American linguist and ethnographer Lorenzo Turner, and working closely with Gullah scholar Emory Campbell, Opala was able to trace the heritage of one family directly back to the Mende people of Sierra Leone. This journey was documented in the film, The Language You Cry In.

The book is divided in twelve chapters, which each cover a significant aspect of Gullah history and culture. Cross covers history, food, language, geography, religion, economic difficulties, folk medicine, festivals and celebrations, and music separately in each chapter. The most extensive chapter is the one covering the largely documented history of the establishment of the Penn Center, by a Northern white abolitionist Laura Penn in 1862. Originally a school to teach the newly "freed slaves how to fend for themselves and survive when faced with circumstances far beyond their comprehension or lifetime experience," (25) it is now a center for the preservation and promotion of the Gullah culture. The school became a center for learning and medical assistance for many freed slaves in the South Carolina islands; however, as Cross demonstrates throughout the rest of the book, much of the skills needed for survival in this remote area came from multiple other sources, such as the elders and the natural habitat itself. Cross, and the other scholars upon whose work he relied, attest that the virtual isolation of the Gullah peoples was the strongest contributing factor to their cultural preservation and survival. Prior to 1920 there were no bridges connecting the islands to the mainland. As Cross documents, even the slave masters remained on the mainland because they could not survive in the harsh conditions of the islands. The slaves who were taken from similar climate conditions in Africa were able to thrive in the islands. This left the slaves with significantly less supervision than was commonly found in other slave-holding regions in the South, and thus it was possible for them to preserve and perpetuate the African traditions they had brought with them.

One of the unique features of Cross' work is the inclusion of the stories, songs and speech of the Gullah themselves. Peppered throughout the chapters are interviews, popular spirituals, traditional songs and folk stories written in the Gullah language. Cross talks to Gullah elders who have never left their community as well as to those of the younger generation who only gained a true appreciation for their culture after having left the islands. It is this new awareness of the uniqueness of the culture that has sparked the recent preservation efforts among the Gullahs. Emory Campbell, a long-time historian and cultural preservationist, and former director of the Penn Center has been at the forefront of this preservation effort. These efforts have led to federal protection for these islands and a designation of many of these areas as national parks and monuments, which are specifically intended to celebrate and preserve the contribution of these African-Americans to the history and culture of the American South.

Although Cross' prose can be a bit dry at times, this book is ideal for anyone who is unfamiliar with the Gullah culture and seeks to learn a significant amount in one book. As the culture is so rich, each chapter, especially the ones on food, art, and religion, could easily be turned into a book, as many of the authors that Cross cites in these chapters have already done. The book also serves in many ways as a tour guide to the important historical sites, festivals and celebrations, and local artists and artisans that can be found throughout the "Gullah Corridor." The reader is also provided with great references to further reading on each topic that Cross examines.

The timing of the publication of this book is significant because the Gullah culture is in jeopardy of being overrun by the rapid development efforts taking place throughout the Southeastern coast despite the federal protection. Many Gullahs are in danger of losing their homes, and subsequently their way of life and culture due to the increased cost of living in their hometowns and the pollution of the natural habitats upon which they rely for survival. I believe that anyone looking to gain a fuller picture of the African-American contribution to American history and culture will benefit greatly from reading this book.




Toyin Falola and Matthew M. Heaton, eds.
Health Knowledge and Belief Systems in Africa
Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2008.
564 pp.
ISBN--13: 978-1-59460-243-6

by Araba Dawson-Andoh,
Ohio University

Health and illness is an increasingly crucial issue in Africa today and this book edited by University of Texas Francis Higginbotham Nalle Centennial History professor Toyin Falola and Matthew Heaton, a Patrice Lumumba Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin is a timely contribution to the discourse. The editors have co-edited multiple books on African health and wellbeing. The book offers readers a multidisciplinary analysis of issues related to the role of African belief systems and health knowledge in sub-Saharan African health care. It examines the effects of this on perceptions of health, utilization, dissemination and provision of health services to African populations.

The chapters in the edited volume were papers originally presented at an international conference on African health and illness at the University of Texas, Austin in March 2005. They are grouped within five sections according to a specific effect of health knowledge and belief systems on health care in Africa. Part A deals with religious beliefs and cultural values and their effects on utilization and provision of health services. The eight chapters in this section contain interesting discussions including world view and its effect on peoples' perception of health care and the need for it to be part of the health care dialogue in Africa. J. C. van der Merwe (chapter 2) discusses the importance of world view interpretation to health care in South Africa and concludes that to achieve effective health care the different parties engaged in the health care dialogue would benefit from recognizing this. Felix Augustine (chapter 8) a medical doctor in Ghana discusses the spiritual dimensions of health and illness. He relates the personal experiences of some Christian doctors in Ghana that suggest the existence of a force that transcends biomedical science even though such beliefs are scorned by the medical profession and therefore cannot be discussed openly. His essay could have benefited by widening the group of his interviewees to include medical professionals from other religions.

The sixteen chapters in Part B look at attitudes of African governmental agencies and international organizations towards health care in Africa with some chapters dealing with the importance of historical legacy in shaping the African health knowledge and beliefs. Some of the stimulating essays in this section are that of political scientist Obinna Ihunna (Chapter 18) who sees leadership failures of post colonial African governments and non- governmental organizations as being the main cause of ill health in Africa. Another is Isabelle Leblanc's (chapter 11) essay on the role of international governmental policies on health care in Africa, questioning the ethics of international health care efforts such as in Niger, where a vaccination campaign was carried out without the informed consent of the participants.

Part C, made up of six chapters discusses the impact of health beliefs and knowledge on the responses to HIV/AIDS in Africa. This section also includes essays on popular responses to, as well as clinical and alternative treatments of HIV/AIDS. David Eaton's (chapter 19) engaging case studies of the lives of a musician/composer and a novelist/playwright vividly illustrate popular responses to HIV/AIDS in equatorial Africa. Using their role as social critics these two artists brought HIV/AIDS into public discourse through their own personal battles with the disease and through their music and literally work. The chapters in part D discuss the use of the arts such as literature, theater, film and media in disseminating health knowledge and beliefs in Africa. The two chapters in Part E discuss the potential and new role of information technology namely, the cross dissemination of foreign health knowledge in Africa, and of African health knowledge to the rest of the world.

The chapters are well presented with the use of tables, figures, maps and photos to help articulate the points of view in some of the essays. The grouping of the chapters into topical sections provides a sense of coherence to the multidisciplinary discussions. The preface by the co-editors titled "Overview investigating health knowledge and beliefs" (pages xxi-xxx) summarizes and provides commentary on the chapters. The introduction (pages 3-29) by Susan Rasmussen an anthropologist synthesizes the diverse disciplinary contributions by analyzing and providing a theoretical background to the topics in the sections. The notes on contributors show an impressive list from diverse disciplines with African backgrounds, including sociologists, psychologists, physicians, anthropologists, historians, linguists and scientists. The case studies presented were drawn from different countries making them very representative of most of sub-Saharan Africa. There is however a lack of consistency in the length of the essays as well as the listing and style of references.

Overall the essays offer excellent discussions on the effects of health knowledge and belief systems on sub-Saharan African healthcare, how it affects perceptions, decisions, utilization and delivery. This book is an important contribution to the understanding of African health care issues and a welcome addition to African collections.


Back to Top

Next Page

Back to Table of Contents