It’s unlikely that many of his grade-school classmates would have predicted that Sunn m’Cheaux would grow up to be a Harvard instructor.
“I remember being humiliated in elementary school, because I sounded different from the other kids. I was a Gullah-speaking kid in an English-speaking class. I was a fish out of water,” the artist, activist, and social commentator told a roomful of Cambridge seventh-graders recently.
“That memory has always stuck with me. Like that song [‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”], ‘You say tomato’? Well, I said ‘demayda,’ not ‘tomahto,’ but I was corrected, disrespected, while the latter was accepted. Which is why I now teach Gullah at Harvard University, to see that Gullah is accepted and Gullah/Geechee people respected.”
M’Cheaux, an instructor in the African Language Program at Harvard, worked with students at Vassal Lane Upper School in Cambridge, teaching them the origin of his native tongue.
“The Gullah language is a creole, the result of essentially taking multiple existing languages and mashing them all up into one,” he said. “Mix in some other elements indigenous to the Sea Islands and surrounding areas, and you have a whole new language. That in a nutshell is Gullah.”
Gullah, or Geechee, was created by enslaved people brought from West Africa to Charleston, S.C., who needed a common language to communicate. It allowed them to speak freely, by way of encoded speech, in the presence of those holding them in bondage. That code-speak evolved into a language of its own, indigenous to the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which extends along the coast of the southeastern U.S.
M’Cheaux was working with the students through Harvard’s Project Teach program, which helps local seventh-graders see themselves as college-bound, showing them that college can be an affordable, accessible, and attainable opportunity. (Research out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education has shown that middle school is when students begin to envision themselves going — or not going — to college.) The program works to expose students to examples of some typical and some atypical courses, and acknowledges that college can be different things to different people.
For m’Cheaux, this has been a lifelong journey. Born into a rural, impoverished family in Charleston, m’Cheaux didn’t learn to speak English until he was bused to another town midway through elementary school. Although he became fluent in his second language, he says he never strayed far from his Geechee roots.
Read more: The Harvard Gazette