Anacostia Community Museum Attempts Record-Breaking Ring Shout

Traditional dance in which participants dance counterclockwise in a circle to the beat of clapping and a stick that is banged on a wooden surface

Doing the Ring Shout in Georgia
Doing the Ring Shout in Georgia, ca. 1930s Members of the Gullah community express their spirituality through the “ring shout” during a service at a local “praise house.” Image courtesy of Lorenzo Dow Turner Papers, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution

The Anacostia Community Museum is sadly at the end of one of its most visited exhibitions in recent history—the show “Word, Shout, Song” was so popular, it had been extended for four months. This weekend the show closes. But don’t worry, it it is slated to make a reappearance as a traveling exhibition.

“Word, Shout, Song” traces the social and linguistic history of the Gullah people back to their ancestral homeland of Africa, following the work of 20th-century linguist and professor Lorenzo Dow Turner.

Turner became fascinated by the language of the Gullah people, which was previously dismissed simply as “bad English,” and discovered that the dialect was actually a mix of 32 diverse African languages. The Gullah people have their roots among the 645,000 Africans captured, enslaved and brought to America between the 16th and 19th centuries.

On Saturday, July 23, the museum will hold a special event celebrating the final days of the exhibition. “Family Day: All Things Gullah” will include everything from storytelling to food, music and crafts. Around 3:30 p.m., the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters and the Santa Barbara Shout Project will attempt to lead the crowd in an attempt to break the record for the world’s largest ring shout.

A ring shout is a traditionally religious African-American dance in which participants dance counterclockwise in a circle to the beat of clapping and a stick that is banged on a wooden surface. The stick takes the place of drums, said Griffin Lotson, manager of the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, because slaves were forbidden to beat drums on plantations in the 18th century.

“People really love it,” Lotson said. “For us, it’s basically about keeping the culture alive and pumping in some new life.”

Lotson said only a handful of groups that practice the tradition remain in the U.S., so his group does their best to preserve and protect the culture of the Gullah people, who today live in areas of South Carolina and Georgia.

He added that part of the reason the tradition has faded out is that after the Civil War, many Gullah did their best to adapt to mainstream American culture in order to better fit in, often abandoning traditions like the Gullah language of Geechee and rituals such as the ring shout.

“Being a Geechee was super unpopular–I was taught not to be Geechee,” said Lotson, who was born in 1954. “‘You’re too Geechee, boy,’ they’d say. Because it wasn’t mainstream, you couldn’t get the better jobs, you talked funny.”

Today, Lotson said, he and his group do their best to maintain what has been an unbroken thread of a unique culture within the U.S. through traveling and performing across the country. Lotson and most of his group are direct descendants of plantation slaves, and Lotson’s grandfather and mother were both involved in preserving the ring shout tradition.

“I think this exhibition is great,” Lotson said. “’It be my people,’ as we say in Geechee.”

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