SOUTH KINGSTOWN — A tireless preservationist of Gullah culture, Ron Daise next week will bring a little bit of his heritage to Peace Dale.
Born in St. Helena Island, South Carolina—a community steeped in Gullah traditions—Daise has spent decades telling the stories of the Gullah people.
“The majority of Africans who were enslaved and brought to this country, aspects of their cultures are shared within this group of people,” Daise spoke Wednesday about the Gullah, a group of African Americans from coastal communities in South Carolina and Georgia.
With origins that can be traced to enslaved West Africans, Gullah survives today through its language, art forms and foods.
And through the efforts of people like Daise.
“I want people to understand the significance of the language, of the foodways, of the beliefs that connect us with our African past,” Daise said, as he reflected on his drive to preserve his Gullah culture.
Through his original songs, writings and performances, Daise has devoted much of his life to the conservation of his heritage. But he’s perhaps most widely known for “Gullah Gullah Island,” a children’s show that aired on the Nickelodeon network from 1994 to 1998.
“That in itself was an opportunity to share the story of Gullah people, using the culture only as a backdrop,” Daise said.
Daise’s deep appreciation for Gullah was sown more than 40 years ago, after reading “Face of an Island.” Published in 1970, the book chronicles the lives of the post-Civil War freed black community on St. Helena Island.
“It included historical photographs from St. Helena Island,” explained Daise, who was a student at Hampton University in Virginia when he first read “Face of an Island.”
Daise was fascinated by the people in those images.
“My mother was in there, at the age of nine years old,” he recalled of the photographs, taken between the late 1800s and early 1900s. “I would [use the book to] share information with everyone about my culture and my heritage.”
After graduating from college with a degree in mass media arts, Daise became the first black reporter at the Beaufort Gazette.
“And I did a number of feature stories about people whom I’d grown up under,” he said.
Daise continued to write those stories even after leaving his job at the newspaper, later compiling them into “Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage.”
“It included stories of people telling about Gullah traditions and practices,” Daise said of his first book, published in 1987. “It also included old spirituals and songs that I grew up hearing and singing.”
Shortly after the book’s publication, Ron and his wife Natalie Daise began touring, sharing the history of Gullah through the stories and songs of the Gullah people.
And next week, Daise will bring a little bit of that history to Music ‘n More at Lily Pads, as keynote speaker of the 21st annual Funda Fest.
“I’ll be sharing the biblical story of the exodus in Gullah,” he said of the talk he has planned for his visit.
Daise said he hopes the story can serve as inspiration for audience members.
“I hope that they go forth with an understanding of the power of faith and belief in their own abilities,” he said.
Held annually by the Rhode Island Black Storytellers (RIBS) during the week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Funda Fest brings together local writers, artists and guest performers for a celebration of storytelling.
According to its mission, RIBS is dedicated to “promoting the awareness, appreciation, and application of black storytelling in Rhode Island through performance, as well as through educational and cultural experiences.”
Johnette Rodriguez, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County (UUCSC), said Wednesday she looks forward to hosting Funda Fest—especially since a storytelling festival that had been held annually on the Village Green ended several years ago.
“People have been asking me ever since to bring back storytelling,” she said.
And while the festival will reintroduce the art of storytelling to South Kingstown, Rodriguez pointed out that it will also offer audience members a glimpse into cultures perhaps unfamiliar to them.
“We have opportunities here, in South Kingstown, for multicultural events at the university, but we don’t very often have them in the village,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s a good opportunity to experience Gullah culture—not a whole lot of people know what Gullah is.”
Daise will be joined at Lily Pads by storytellers Len Cabral, Raffini, Rochel Coleman and Marlon Carey.
The week-long festival will also bring Daise and the other storytellers to libraries and schools—including Broad Rock Middle School—around the state.
Daise has traveled far and wide over the years to celebrate the accomplishments and traditions of the Gullah people. But this trip will be his first to the Ocean State.
“I know that Rhode Island’s history and Rhode Island’s involvement in the slave trade is very similar to that of South Carolina’s,” Daise said. “It was a major slave port. Many people don’t realize, because it’s a state in the north and the north had nothing to do with slavery, but that was not the case.”
These days, Daise works as vice president for creative education at Brookgreen Garden, a sculpture garden and wildlife preserve and part of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
“A woman who’s a coordinator for Funda Fest about two years ago had visited Brookgreen Garden,” Daise explained.
After hearing one of his stories during an audio tour of the South Carolina Lowcountry, Daise said that the Funda Fest coordinator had insisted that he participate in the annual event.
“I’m very please that this resulted from a trip to Brookgreen Garden,” Daise said, “and an understanding and appreciation of Gullah culture.”
Funda Fest will be at Music ‘n’ More at Lily Pads at the UUCSC next Saturday, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15, available either online at musicatlilypads.org or at the door. Children under 12 are free.