The Language You Cry In is a documentary film about the Gullahs of Coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Their language, from which proceeds their name, was an amalgam of English and tribal dialects spoken in West African countries such as Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Senegal. The very first slaves brought to America came from these tribes. Isolated from other Africans on island coastal plantations, they kept their history and traditions alive in the patois they invented.
The documentary traces the linguistic history of a five-line song learned from a Gullah woman living in a remote fishing village in 1930s coastal Georgia. She did not know the meaning of the words but passed them onto her daughter, Mary Moran. After intensive research, it turned out that the song was similar to a graveside lament sung in an obscure dialect of Mende spoken by the largest ethnic group in Sierra Leone. In the late 1980s, a Sierra Leonean woman who remembered the song as taught to her by her grandmother prophesied that a long-lost kinsman would return to their isolated village and would be recognized through this song.
In 1997, Mary Moran traveled to the village in Sierra Leone where the song originated. The visit rediscovered and reclaimed a remote part of the Mende and Gullah past, and linked the two peoples as kinsmen. When asked why this song would have been preserved for 200 years across time, despair, and exile, the village chief, quoting a Mende proverb, said, “You know who a person really is by the language they cry in.” A song of lamentation is celebration.
In Savannah where I live, there is still a Gullah presence on nearby Sapelo Island, one of the last, living Gullah communities. To this day the Gullah retain many of their oral traditions, and some practice a kind of folk medicine called “the root.” The Gullahs originally taught their owners how to cultivate rice, build dikes, and grow low-country foods such as okra, root vegetables, and black-eyed peas. Black-eyed peas, or field peas, are the chief ingredient in the low-country dish that we eat on New Year’s Day called Hoppin’ John. While the origin of the name is obscure, Hoppin’ John is supposed to bring luck for the New Year. I like to think of the dish we serve with rice on New Year ’s Day as a Psalm, a cry of both celebration and lament sung from the heart. “For with the Lord there is mercy and with him is plenteous redemption.”
2 lbs. dried black-eyed peas
½ lb. lean slab bacon cubed (2 c.)
1 red or green pepper chopped
½ c onion chopped
½ c celery chopped
1T fresh ginger chopped
2 t red wine vinegar
3 ½ c chicken broth
2 hot chili peppers chopped
6-7 c water
1 jalapeño pepper chopped
Bring dried peas to boil. Remove from heat and soak 1 hr. Drain and rinse. Brown bacon in large sauce pan. Add pepper, onion, celery and cook, stirring till wilted. Add peas, vinegar, ginger, stock, salt, pepper, and hot peppers. Bring to boil and cover; simmer 1 hr. Add 6 c. water and return to boil. Simmer about 1 hr., stirring occasionally from bottom. Add water as needed. Cook 30 minutes. Total cooking time is approximately 2 ½ hrs. During last 2 minutes, add tomato paste to taste and chopped jalapeño.
Optional: Add okra for last 10 minutes of cooking time. Serve over rice. Hoppin’ John is traditionally served to neighbors and friends on New Year’s Day. This recipe serves 16.
Joanne’s Quick Tips: Beans do not need to soak overnight. Simply bring them to a boil, remove from heat, soak I hr., then proceed with the recipe. For a modern twist on the recipe, garnish with cilantro and lime.
Joanne Cutting-Gray, Ph.D., is an author, scholar, and lifelong student of cooking. She lives with her husband in Savannah, Georgia.