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Making Gullah

A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination

By Melissa L. Cooper

304 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 13 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-3268-1
    Published: April 2017
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3267-4
    Published: April 2017
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-3269-8
    Published: March 2017

John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture

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During the 1920s and 1930s, anthropologists and folklorists became obsessed with uncovering connections between African Americans and their African roots. At the same time, popular print media and artistic productions tapped the new appeal of black folk life, highlighting African-styled voodoo as an essential element of black folk culture. A number of researchers converged on one site in particular, Sapelo Island, Georgia, to seek support for their theories about “African survivals,” bringing with them a curious mix of both influences. The legacy of that body of research is the area’s contemporary identification as a Gullah community.

This wide-ranging history upends a long tradition of scrutinizing the Low Country blacks of Sapelo Island by refocusing the observational lens on those who studied them. Cooper uses a wide variety of sources to unmask the connections between the rise of the social sciences, the voodoo craze during the interwar years, the black studies movement, and black land loss and land struggles in coastal black communities in the Low Country. What emerges is a fascinating examination of Gullah people's heritage, and how it was reimagined and transformed to serve vastly divergent ends over the decades.

About the Author

Melissa L. Cooper is assistant professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark.
For more information about Melissa L. Cooper, visit the Author Page.


“[An] incisive history. . . . Highlight[s] the land battles, bigotry, and poverty that beset the Gullah.’"--The New Yorker

“A unique contribution to the multitude of previous studies focusing on Gullah culture, skillfully highlighting the heritage of the Gullah people and unveiling the history of the prolific studies of African America's African connection through the lens of Sapelo Island, GA. Highly recommended”--Choice

Making Gullah is an original and provocative look at the culture of Georgia’s Sapelo Islanders and the tensions between natives and outsiders over the construction of their cultural identity. This is an important book, one that helps us better understand popular and scholarly discourse about race and culture in the twentieth century.”--Jerry B. Gershenhorn, author of Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge

“Fresh and compelling, Making Gullah reveals a vital story about the creation of ‘Gullah’ over the twentieth century and right up to today. Melissa Cooper’s excellent work uncovers the complex origins of race making and identity formation on Sapelo Island. This is a crucial history of land rights and reparations.”--Clare Corbould, author of Becoming African Americans

Multimedia & Links

Listen: Cooper separates fact from fiction about Gullah people on this episode of Georgia Public Broadcasting's "Two Way Street." (2/1/2018, running time 51:00)

Listen: Cooper talks to James Stancil for the New Books Network podcast. (5/19/2017, running time 53:43)