Maybe you can judge a book by the cover.
The black, grainy textured one on a new publication reads, "De Nyew
It's a recently released Gullah-language translation of the Holy Bible's New
Minister Mary Elizabeth Ravenell owns a shiny charter edition of the book
published by the American Bible Society, and she's been spreading the Good News
since its release Nov. 5.
Ravenell, 60, is a Lowcountry native who now lives and works in Orangeburg.
Since attending the official releases of the book in Waxhaw, N.C., on Nov. 5 and
St. Helena Island on Nov. 11, she is emerging as a spokeswoman for the book and
the idea that Gullah is a language.
Ravenell, who also conducts a youth ministry, became involved in promoting
the translation project this summer, shortly after the 26-year effort was done.
It happened at Penn Center, a community cultural center and former school for
freed slaves following the Civil War.
She teaches middle school social studies at Felton Laboratory School in
Orangeburg, but she was a student this summer at the Gullah Studies Institute, a
new program on St. Helena Island, where the center is located.
"I took a class from Dr. (David) Frank this summer at Penn," she said in an
interview. "He brought in a Xerox copy of the Gullah Bible and he asked students
to read from it. When he got to me, I could read it so fluently, he kept asking
me to read more."
Dr. David Frank, a linguist and creole language expert, taught a course on
the Gullah New Testament. "Penn had expressed an interest in having classes on
how to take advantage of having had the translation completed. . Mary was
enrolled in that course. She didn't know about the translation project, and it
really got her mind working. We appreciate her enthusiasm and her statements
expressing her reaction as a Gullah speaker. At the end of the course, we
decided to interview her for a videotape. She was very eloquent."
The release of the 899-page book at Penn's Heritage Days energized Ravenell
even more. "It's become my passion," she said.
She took that passion to her family's Thanksgiving dinner in Goose Creek. On
that morning at the home of her sister and brother-in-law, Margaret Ravenell
Williams and Vann Williams, Ravenell surprised her mother, Elizabeth McCants
Ravenell, by reading the Lord's Prayer from the Gullah New Testament. It was
especially meaningful because of the role Gullah played in their lives.
It also was a happy occasion because Elizabeth McCants Ravenell, a
great-great-grandmother, would turn 83 the next day.
Mary Ravenell grew up in Union Heights, a small black working-class enclave
in Charleston's Neck Area. As a child, she found herself traveling the mostly
rural Gullah highways and byways of the Lowcountry with her preacher father, the
late Bishop James Lee Ravenell. "He built his church with his own hands," Mary
She had learned Gullah from her grandmother, Mary Coaxum Johnson.
"He would go into people's homes, sometimes sitting on the porch, teaching
them about the Bible," she said of her father. "I would interpret the Bible in
Gullah and they would come alive. They would catch on fire. My father would then
say, 'That's how it's supposed to sound.' "
Mary Ravenell sounded just fine Thanksgiving morning as she prayed and read
in Gullah. Joining Ravenell and her mother for a time was KaDeja Elizabeth
Shontel Laribo, a 7-year-old student at the Berkeley County School of the Arts.
After a short while of the lilting, sing-song utterances, the three Elizabeths
were in a world to themselves in the living room as relatives began arriving for
"After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread."
"Pray like dis yah, say, 'We Fada wa dey een heaben,
leh ebrybody hona ya name.
We pray dat soon ya gwine rule oba da wol.
Wasoneba ting ya wahn, leh um be so een dis wol same like dey in heaben.
Gii we de food wa we need
dis day ya an ebry day.'"
According to Frank, Gullah, the language of enslaved blacks along the South
Carolina and Georgia coast, is an English creole because most of the vocabulary
comes from English. It's called a creole language because it's structurally
different from English. Creole languages come out of a contact language, meaning
their origin comes from a contact situation between two language groups. Many of
the familiar creole languages come out of a slavery context.
Enslaved Africans were brought together from different language groups where
English was the most dominant language. In that situation, it's common for a
pidgin language to come first, an ad hoc language that's just something people
come up with to communicate.
When that language becomes established and becomes a mother tongue, a
language of communication, the first language children learn in the home, it
undergoes changes and develops into a creole language.
One of the ways KaDeja had been exposed to Gullah, like a lot of other
children, was from the hugely popular, Emmy-nominated Nick Jr. TV show, "Gullah
Gullah Island," produced by Ron and Natalie Daise of Beaufort. Ron Daise was a
member of the New Testament translation team. He conducted the ceremonies at the
unveiling at Penn.
Projects such as this take a long time. Frank said, "Pat and Sharpe began
this project around 1979. Pat was a veteran Bible translator. She had already
worked on two different New Testament translations. She had been in this line
for a long time. It was her calling, her ministry. Rather late in life she had
met Claude Sharpe when they were doing a Kuna translation of the Bible in
Panama, where Kunais is spoken.
"They got married and when they were finished in Panama they moved up to the
States. Her husband, Claude, was from Charleston and more familiar with Gullah.
Pat was a trained linguist. Somehow they got the idea of translating the Bible
into Gullah as their next work. As far as I know, no one had that idea before.
It was around 1979 when they first went to St. Helena Island and started talking
to people about their crazy idea."
Ron Daise said, "They had the idea of a Gullah translation being done under
the aegis of Wycliffe Bible Translators, so they came searching for those who
would be interested."
Daise said the Rev. Ervin Green, then pastor of Brick Baptist Church, down
the road from Penn, and his wife, Ardelle, were approached about being on the
translation team. At the Penn unveiling, Ron Daise said, Ardelle Green said
their initial response, like everyone else approached, was "no."
When the Sharpes showed the connections of some Gullah words to words from
West African languages, their opinions began to change, Ron Daise said.
Ron Daise's 92-year-old mother, the oldest living graduate from Penn, was on
the original translation team. "I was home from college and I looked at the
translation and I read it and read it well," he said. "She asked me if I wanted
to be on the team and I said sure. I had always heard it in school, on the buses
and in church."
Ron Daise gave translated Scripture readings in public to people familiar
with Gullah to find out if the audience connected. He said the translation team
thought they were readily understood by the audiences.
"The change came for me when I saw the reaction of the listeners," he said.
"One elderly woman said she understood it. There were tears in her eyes. She
said it (Gullah) was beaten out of her."
Fortunately, it wasn't beaten out of Mary Ravenell and she remains highly
enthusiastic. "I'm trying to get a copy to President Bush."
Frank said there are plans to translate the Old Testament.