An image of a Black woman weaving a basket.

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Climate Crisis

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The Cultural Losses of Climate Change

Rapid gentrification, land loss, and warming climates are contributing to the disappearance of regional cuisines around the U.S.

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When renowned chef BJ Dennis cooks in the Carolinas, he’s thinking of his people.

As a descendant of the Gullah Geechee, a nation of formerly enslaved Africans who live on the southeastern coast of the United States, Dennis can be found preparing eggplant, greens, squash, and, of course, okra soup. “I wanted to showcase Gullah food and the cuisine in my career,” Dennis said. “Something like okra soup, that’s a dish that really tells a story about who we are.”

His ability to work with such food is a result of preserving a cultural legacy that white Americans once mocked. Now, the climate crisis threatens the cuisine, the land which the food is grown upon, and the culture as a whole.

Stretching from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida, the Gullah Geechee, roughly 200,000 people that formed their own official nation in 2000, have long relied on the ocean for cultural sustainability. Similar to their ancestors who descended from the West African coast, the community has harvested crops along the oceanfront for centuries, producing the very ingredients Dennis has used to create his own artistry in the kitchen. Rising sea levels and rapid gentrification of South Carolina by way of new golf courses, resorts, and condos directly on wetlands; oil drilling and seismic blasting; hurricanes and flooding; and ocean acidification have all affected the Gullah Geechee, particularly their food security, according to the Ocean Conservancy. Scholar Tamara Butler says that the climate crisis is threatening the community she grew up in and the legacy it carries for Black people across the South.

“You know, I think about how shrimp and grits has taken off. Peas and rice, all of that. How is it that all of these people are making these dishes everywhere?” she said. “The origin of them [is] here. The origin of them is South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and the North Carolina coastline. If those things go away, now it’s just another Southern dish. We lose the claim to the knowledge that we’ve produced.”

Butler holds a number of titles, including the executive director of the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center, associate dean of libraries and associate dean of strategic planning and community engagement, and associate professor of African American studies. First and foremost, however, she’s from Johns Island, a South Carolina barrier island that’s part of the Gullah Geechee corridor. Much of her work has focused on collecting the stories of Black Gullah women and finding ways to preserve the Gullah Geechee culture in the face of increased gentrification and climate change.

“One thing that you are finding now is the immense commercialization of Gullah Geechee culture,” said Butler. “During my mother’s generation, being called ‘Geechee’ wasn’t a good thing; it meant you were backwards and country. It meant that you didn’t speak English; it meant that you were uneducated people. Now you find the commodification of our culture by white people. They’re taking the Geechee experience naming themselves things like ‘The Gullah Tours’ or ‘Experiences’ or ‘Gullah Cuisine,’ and it’s owned by white people.”

This commodification, Butler says, has led to a bigger tourist footprint, a whitening of Gullah Geechee history, and ultimately, negative changes that affect the climate and the land. When Butler was a child, St. John’s Island was quite remote. Now, when she returns home to visit family, she sees multiple subdivisions and apartment buildings going up and an increase in foot and car traffic. She’s also noticed rising tides and increased volatile water activity, all of which contribute to the loss of land, one of the most valued components of Gullah Geechee culture. Hurricane Florence, which made landfall in September 2018, allowed gentrifying developers free reign on John’s Island and other Gullah communities, moving out people who have traditionally owned and lived there. A survey from the Center for Heir’s Property Preservation estimates that more than 108,000 acres between 15 counties in the South Carolina lowcountry are likely heir’s property—South Carolina Lowcountry land which is passed down and owned by people who often share a common ancestor that died without leaving a will—which has historically led to land loss within African American communities.

“We’re literally losing ground,” Butler said. “With erosion and rising sea waters, people are losing waterfront property that they’ve owned for decades. We’re losing the land that produces such incredible crops, and then we risk ultimately losing the knowledge that allows those crops to exist.”

Sapelo Island, the last remaining Gullah community in Georgia, had close to 300 people living on it about 50 years ago. In June 2020, there were just 29 Gullah Geechee left. The lack of population alongside massive floods and torrential rains have wiped out essential crops, causing many Gullah who relied on that land for food and work to relocate to new areas.

“These high tides are jeopardizing what people can fish—what kind of fish people can catch,” Butler continued. “And the kinds of industries that rely on that saltwater need saltwater to stay where salt water is. We’ve also seen a shift in crops due to excessive rain or drought, which impacts whether or not you can impact collard greens, okra, and peas—our foods.”

Also at risk is saltwater grass, which is used to make sweetgrass baskets, a centuries-old craft that’s rooted in West Africa and is essential to Gullah Geechee culture (and, according to Butler, are now often sold by white tour promoters while young Black sellers are criminalized).

“There’s only so much sweet grass available. Once again, we’re talking about issues of tide, erosion, private property—all of those things are challenging how people access sweet grass.”

Dennis senses the imposing threat as well. “The land loss and loss of farmland is a real threat. When you’re on the coast, your fields are getting flooded with saltwater, so now you have to think of new ways of trying to farm,” he said.

“You’re losing your farmland, you’re losing your property, you’re losing your culture,” Dennis continued. “When this happens, you lose part of your story, your history, your ancestral lineage. You lose a piece of yourself.”

The challenges Butler outlined are, in many cases, not specific to Gullah Geechee land. University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability professor and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Kyle Whyte has spent much of his career working to increase indigenous leadership in climate justice movements. “Communities and peoples and nations who faced injustices in the past and continue to face injustices today are also those who face some of the greatest risks associated with climate change,” Whyte said.

In a paper published in the journal Geoforum, researchers argue that rising seas are inundating racialized land—or land that people were forced to live on due to decades of segregation—and pushing Black and Brown individuals to certain parts of the country. Science researchers found that climate change will cause the most economic harm to America’s poorest societies, most of which are largely populated by people of color. Climate change most certainly will impact all Americans, but mistreatment and land loss mean that people of color will bear the largest physical and economic burden.

According to Whyte, Indigenous people—including the Gullah Geechee—are facing threats to their cultural integrity, as a lot of Indigenous cultures are tied to species or habitats that are threatened by climate change. Indigenous peoples infrastructure is heavily affected by climate change in many different regions. Oftentimes, Indigenous people didn’t have the greatest opportunities to build the needed infrastructure due to mistreatment as a result of ongoing white supremacy. Indigenous economies are at risk, particularly as those economies may depend on tourism, harvesting, or natural resources. Climate change also stresses their political self-determination because many Indigenous people are not recognized as sovereign, which makes it challenging for them to negotiate land management and climate change issues with the United States. All of this, according to Whyte, contributes to psychological issues for Indigenous peoples.

“Climate change is an existential, psychological threat to Indigenous people,” said Whyte. It’s not just that there’s a loss or damage that you can resolve through money. These threats and risks affect the fabric of our communities of our people, our cultural life, our social life, and our psychological well-being.”

Much of this, according to Whyte, can be traced back to the legacy of white supremacy in the United States.

“Over centuries, nations like the United States engaged in highly problematic and inequitable policies that reduced our land base without our consent,” he said. “You have decades of pollution by a number of different industries that ruined a lot of our territories. And then overdevelopment happened because of the growth of cities and suburbs, and the growth of commercial and industrial agriculture. It rendered us with a really much, much smaller land base. We no longer have the range of mobility across mobility across a large territory of land that our ancestors had.”

Butler, Dennis, and Whyte all share concerns about the next generation. When land loss happens, traditions become increasingly difficult to continue. The history of Black and Indigenous people being separated from their land—and the traditions and cultural values lost with that separation—is a painful part of American history, something that Butler considers in her everyday work.

“I’m just trying to figure out: how do we connect those dots to get people reconnected to land when we’re constantly being separated from it?”

According to Butler, rapid development and a lack of respect for Gullah Geechee perspectives has already created irreversible damage to Gullah Geechee land. The goal now, is to slow that damage; an act that is essential and vital to the future of the Gullah Geechee. The culture, formerly ignored and considered an uneducated community, has now been explored and exalted by prominent food media publications. While this coverage is important, it only scratches the surface. When Dennis cooks for people, he wants diners to think about the hands that prepared this food, the historical context that allowed the food to exist, and what exists if that legacy disappears. Rather than simply eating a delicious bowl of Gullah red rice or purchasing a sweet water basket, it’s important that Americans—particularly white Americans—allow Gullah people to be leaders and primary decision-makers in their own communities, stop pursuing development opportunities in vulnerable communities of color, and elect federal officials who prioritize addressing climate change. For Dennis, many of the conversations on how to do this work begins at the dinner table. And Butler believes that it’s essential to preserving and protecting the Gullah Geechee culture.

“We’re losing community,” she said. “Without that, who are we?”

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