Posted on December 16, 2011
The Avery Research Center is excited to host “Word, Shout, Song: Lorenzo Dow Turner Connecting Communities through Language”, the world-class exhibition developed by the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum, in January 2012. This exhibition is a beautiful and thought-provoking assemblage of artifacts, photographs, and text that documents the life and work of Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner, whom many scholars consider as the first African-American linguist and the Father of Gullah Studies. It also examines the visceral interconnections between African diasporan cultures on three continents: the Gullah-Geechee communities of South Carolina and Georgia; the Afro-Brazilian community of Bahia, Brazil; and the West African cultures from which the other two were born.
The Turner family had been free for four generations by the time Dow Turner was born in 1890, which helped him pursue a stellar education that included an undergraduate degree from Harvard College and a Ph.D from the University of Chicago. His studies eventually led him to the South Carolina Lowcountry and his introduction to the Gullah language. He immediately began to see similarities between it and various African languages. Turner’s curiosity of a language that sounded much like English, yet was without formal academic study, led him to twenty years of research on the language and its people, including many sojourns to West Africa to expand his research.
Before Dow Turner’s research, the Gullah language was unclassified, unstudied, and considered informal gibberish. Using an inquisitive ear, Turner was able to eventually link Portuguese and English words to their myriad of African roots within Gullah, and “Word, Shout, Song” visually and audibly explains this in a magnificent exhibition
Although born on American soil and free at the time of Dow Turner’s studies, the speakers had retained the past of their enslaved ancestors and beyond to their African heritages. In that vein, the Gullah language is a syncretic fusion of the African, American, and European ties that weave through the speakers’ legacies.
Dow Turner’s research helped bridge the gap between the descendants of the enslaved people on the Lowcountry Sea Islands to the descendants of the enslaved people on the mainland—linguistically as well as culturally. The exhibit chronicles all of the research, trips, recordings, and findings through aural and visual means. To have an exhibit not only of this importance, but also of this stature, come to the College of Charleston is an honor and a landmark.
Various generous donations to the Avery Research Center have made this exhibition possible, including the Office of the President at the College of Charleston, MUSC, the MeadWestvaco Community Development and Land Management Group, the City of Charleston, the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the National Park Service.