Alum’s Gullah Geechee Heritage Leaves Impression at WA
Harvard sophomore Collin Richardson graduated from Woodward Academy in 2019, but he’s left a piece of himself and his heritage behind for students in Dr. Elizabeth Burbridge’s history classes. While at Woodward, Collin created a presentation on his heritage for Dr. Burbridge’s class. With his permission, she continues to use it each year. In honor of Black History Month, Beyond the Gate talked with Collin about his heritage and how he has continued to embrace and explore it.
Beyond the Gate: Tell us about your family and your Gullah Geechee heritage. Did you learn about it when you were growing up?
Collin Richardson: Gullah is a culture/language created by descendants of Africans on the coast from North Carolina down to Florida. However, today the coastal Georgia and South Carolina is the main area inhabited by people who consider themselves Gullah Geechee. Charleston is considered the modern-day hub. My family is from Charleston; however, I mostly grew up in Atlanta, which has little to no Gullah residents. Also, growing up as a child, my culture wasn’t necessarily praised. The way we speak is called “uneducated,” the food we eat is “disgusting” and the way we act is called “ratchet.” So hearing these things and living apart from my culture, I didn’t learn too much about it and didn’t necessarily want to, except when I’d go home to South Carolina. As I grew older, my grandfather started to introduce me to my culture further than just the accent and the food I was immersed in. He told me about the history of our ancestors maintaining strong ties to their African heritage by creating creolized English, making distinct African dishes, and singing traditional songs. The Gullah Geechee language was created because the white enslavers would often leave the enslaved on the mosquito-infested islands off the coast while they worked. This created secluded communities all along the southeastern coast where African languages were able to be maintained better than other enslaved communities in the South, where speaking the native tongue was forbidden. The distinctive accent we possess is often confused with Jamaican or Bahamian because, in fact, the languages are very similar in structure and history. With my granddad’s influence, I have learned to accept that though some may think less of me or discount my words as broken English, I continue to take pride in my accent and my culture.
BTG: Tell us about your WA experience. How did going to WA affect your life?
CR: I started at Woodward my sophomore year so it was kind of a steep learning curve at first, but I hit my stride by 11th grade. Woodward was able to give me a wonderful education and learning environment while still being diverse enough for me to fit in comfortably. My best memories of Woodward are from spending time with my teammates on the football team. The brotherhood we had and the energy we got from the crowd always made home games special. But I had a lot of great memories just being a part of a diverse community where I could benefit from the curriculum.
BTG: Who are the teachers/coaches/classmates who impacted you most?
CR: Dr. Burbridge is definitely one. She encouraged me to really go beyond what I already knew about my culture and actually do some research. That really grew the feeling of pride I already had, but added more knowledge. I actually think it’s great that she continues using my presentation in her classes. My culture was previously a slowly dying one, but in the past two years, raising awareness has led to increased attention and protection.
BTG: What are your feelings about Woodward Academy’s Anti-Racism Task Force and the school’s ongoing DEI work?
CR: I really appreciated seeing the school’s work. Even though it’s 2021, racism is still prevalent in our society, even in my own everyday life.
BTG: How are things going at Harvard? Tell us what your college experience has been like so far.
CR: So far Harvard has been wonderful. Going in, I was nervous because I wasn’t sure if culturally I would feel comfortable. But between several black organizations, my teammates on the football team, and other friends I’ve made, I have felt at home and made the most of my time here. There is actually a Gullah language and culture course here that I was able to take to further grow my knowledge and appreciation.
BTG: What are your plans for the future?
CR: Currently, I’m concentrating in human developmental and regenerative bio on a pre-med track, so my plans for the future are going to med school to become a surgeon. However, I’ve also recently been exploring work in the consulting field, so I may stay on my pre-med track but possibly become a medical consultant.