Sunn m’Cheaux - Gullah Language Instructor
Charleston, South Carolina native, Sunn m’Cheaux (pronounced SUN MI-shoh), is a writer, musical artist, skateboarder, activist, advocate and the first and only Gullah Language Instructor at Harvard University. I first became acquainted with Sunn m’Cheaux via Facebook, and quickly became just one of many people eager to learn his thoughts on various social issues, as well as catching glimpses into his life as he shared his music, his love of his family’s heritage and land, and his beloved late cat, Needle.
When Sunn m’Cheaux announced he’d accepted a teaching position at Harvard University, I was immediately filled with a sense of pride and joy. As an African-American woman, I’ve always been saddened by, what I consider to be, my lost heritage. To see Sunn not only living in the arms of such a rich heritage, but also sharing it at a university as prestigious as Harvard took my breath away.
I recently had an opportunity to SymplyConversate with Sunn m’Cheaux and I am so proud to share our conversation with you.
SymplyEbony: What has teaching Gullah at Harvard taught YOU? Has it given you any new realizations about the way your culture is viewed by those outside of your community?
Sunn m’Cheaux: Teaching my native language [Gullah] at Harvard has been a teachable experience for me in the sense that I’m presented with much more outside perception of Gullah/Geechee, which has made me more keenly aware of how much people don’t know and want to know overall about Gullah/Geechee.
SymplyEbony: When did you realize your appointment at Harvard had a positive impact on your community? What moment or event stands out in your mind?
Sunn m’Cheaux: Immediately. Understandably, there were some among us who were initially skeptical—our community isn’t monolithic—but I’ve had countless encounters with Gullah/Geechee people who’ve expressed pure joy, pride, enthusiasm, and personal stories of how native representation in this echelon of academia has inspired them. I’m likewise inspired.
I walked into my initial meeting with Professor John Mugane (Director of Harvard’s African Language Program) remembering a past anxiety in classrooms wherein my Gullah/Geechee identity was suppressed. So, when the vetting process led to me being formally offered a chance to pioneer a Gullah language course at Harvard, I understood its significance in that moment, and I was elated for the culture.
In a sense, it felt vindicating that a language thought unfit to be spoken in class, would now be taught in class no differently than any other accepted, respected language.
SymplyEbony: I know you are in the process of renovating your mother’s home, which was damaged in a fire. How long has your land been in your family? What does it symbolize for, not only your family, but your community as a whole?
Sunn m’Cheaux: Mama’s house sits on property that’s been in our family since the near-end of slavery. Growing up, my ‘neighborhood’ was a familial village. The absence of Mama’s house at the center of our community has left a void that we aim to refill by way rebuilding her home.
Villages like ours swim or sink depending on solidarity or lack thereof. Aside from providing Mama a personal house, we want to provide our overall village with a renewed sense of home that’s been threatened by gentrification for some time now.
SymplyEbony: It saddens me that I’ve lived my entire life not knowing the original culture of my family. That was systematically stripped away through slavery and assimilation into “accepted” society. How has Gullah/Geechee survived and evolved through the generations?
Sunn m’Cheaux: As I said about my own family’s land, gentrification is chipping away at the geographical isolation that contributed to Gullah/Geechee communities maintaining so much of our “African-ness” with little outside interference. That said, the more resources that are siphoned out and outside interests injected into Gullah/Geechee community, the more dispersed we’re forced to become. That fragmentation of our properties stretches thin the many ties that bind us together as a community.
We have survived this long, [through]generations, against all odds, by being as resourceful, innovative, and determined as ever; but we will need increased advocacy and alliances to, at the very least, hold onto what we have left.
SymplyEbony: One thing I’ve noticed about you is your ability to tap into ways to make learning an enjoyable and interactive experience for the youth. How did your program at Harvard expand into middle schools?
Sunn m’Cheaux: I owe that to Joan Matsalia, Assistant Director of HASI (Harvard Achievement Support Initiative). She read about my course in Harvard Crimson and believed it would be a great addition to Project Teach (Harvard’s Official College & Career Awareness Program).
Our initial interview lasted hours longer than planned and foreshadowed the professionalism, affinity, and friendship that’s come to define my time with Project Teach as a resident lecturer for visiting middle schoolers. I’ve run out platitudes to express how much I, too, enjoy the energy and curiosity these young scholars from widely diverse backgrounds bring to the classroom. It’s a very fulfilling feeling.
I’m profoundly grateful to Joan--whom I now consider a friend--for making a place for Gullah/Geechee and me in their space. Also, big up Jean Dao (Program Coordinator at Harvard Public School Partnerships Program) and the entire Project Teach crew. I can’t say enough good about working with them. Respect.
SymplyEbony: You cook for your students. It’s a level of care I’ve never seen in a college setting. Can you tell me about the motivation behind that...and can I get a plate? Lol.
Sunn m’Cheaux: My course teaches the Gullah language, but I believe that my students being immersed into as much of the Gullah culture as is possible lends itself to a deeper, better understanding of the Gullah curriculum. That, and I love to cook! You’re quite welcome to a plate any time.
SymplyEbony: I remember someone complaining that you should be teaching these classes at an HBCU. I also recall you saying, Harvard was the only college that made an offer. (I’m paraphrasing). What is your response to people who feel your classes don’t belong at Harvard?
Sunn m’Cheaux: Well, I don’t want to conflate those two groups, people who want to see the Gullah language taught at an HBCU and those who think the Gullah language doesn’t belong at Harvard. To me, those points of view are fundamentally different. I, too, would love for there to be Gullah language courses at HBCUs. It just so happened that Harvard’s African Language Program took the initiative first. That doesn’t mean they’ll be the last, though. It’s my hope that other schools--particularly, schools in the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor region--will be more inclusive of Gullah/Geechee in their curriculum.
I don’t really have a set response to people who don’t think Gullah classes should be at Harvard because there’s a myriad of reasons someone may come to that opinion. Gullah belongs wherever we (Gullah/Geechee people) want to be. I can only continue to excel and expand the course as best I can to better present, preserve and protect our language.
Given the success of Gullah-related projects like Billboard chart-topping band Ranky Tanky and Greg Anderson-Elysee’s comic Is’nana the Were-Spider: The Ballads of Rawhead and John Henry, there’s a rising tide of interest and support for Gullah/Geechee culture in recent years that I’d like to think my course has been contributory. I want to keep that same positive energy going for any enterprising Gullah/Geechee people looking to express themselves and in turn help keep us keeping on.
SymplyEbony: Lastly, I really appreciate you taking the time to SymplyConversate with me! I am a true admirer of your journey and I’m honored to share your story with my readers.
Sunn m’Cheaux: The honor is mine. I appreciate your appreciation… received and reciprocated. Likewise, looking forward to sharing your platform, SymplyEbony, with my social media friends and following. I dig what you do, and value the support you’ve shown for all things Gullah/Geechee. It matters. We outchea.
**If you’d like to learn more about Gullah/Geechee, please visit his Gulla Teacha website. You can learn about Sunn’s activism as well as his art via his personal website. You can also follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.