Melissa Cooper explores race and myths surrounding Sapelo Island

Melissa L. Cooper spent many summers on long Sapelo Island, an 11-mile stretch of lush landscape that rests off the coast of Georgia.

Her mother was born there and later moved to the Northeast for employment and educational opportunities.

Cooper was among the first generation in her immediate family to be born and raised off the barrier island.

Her grandparents, though, stayed behind.

“For me, it was a distinctly beautiful landscape populated by my family and provided a great contrast to the sights and sounds of the city,” said Cooper, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark and author of “Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination.”

The community she knew, which is reached only by a 20-minute ferry ride, was far removed from the one written about in books and articles.

“Making Gullah,” published earlier this year, examines how Sapelo was often perceived — and given a romanticized, almost mystical status — by outsiders.

Cooper will read and discuss her book on Sept. 2 at First Baptist Church in Decatur as part of the AJC Decatur Book Festival 2017.

During the 1920s and 1930s, anthropologists, folklorists, intellectuals and artists descended on what was believed to be an undisturbed, “isolated”paradise where people adhered strongly to African traditions.


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Even the term Gullah was created by outsiders, she said, and not the way residents identified themselves.

“There was this imagined isolation, which was really a myth,” Cooper said. “There was this tension between outside impressions of people and their culture and the way people understood themselves from the inside.”

These works glossed over — or didn’t answer the question at all— that if things were so idyllic, why were there several incidents of slaves running away from plantations on the island or engaging in other forms of resistance?

What they failed to recognize was that the island was indeed shaped by outside issues such as Jim Crow, racism, classism and industrialism.

“One of the things that became very apparent to me in researching and writing the book was that people in the Lowcountry and Sapelo were navigating the Jim Crow South,” she said. “Whereas in studied and cultural work, they were presented as really simple folks happy to lead simple lives.”

Indeed, she said, the assumption that rural blacks were “simple” close-to-earth folks who had little ambition beyond religiosity, pleasure or survival was a manifestation of racial prejudice.

In more recent times, residents have been forced to deal with limited opportunities, spiraling taxes and land grabs. Many left the land of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

“In a sense, their way of life was changing and the number of people in the community got smaller and smaller.”

In the wake of the black studies movement, researchers and writers began to ask more complex questions about the islanders’ past and cultural world.

What is the Sapelo Island of today?

For Cooper, it’s a community working hard to ensure that their descendants will be able to always call the island home.


Melissa L. Cooper will read and discuss her book, “Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination,” at 4:15 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 2 at First Baptist Church of Decatur, Carreker Hall, 308 Clairmont Ave., Decatur.

AJC Decatur Book Festival

Kidnote with Henry Winkler. 5 p.m. Sept. 1. Free, ticket required. Decatur High School Performing Arts Center, 310 N. McDonough St., Decatur.

Keynote with Brooke Gladstone, Wesley Lowery and Carolyn Ryan. 8 p.m. Sept. 1. Free, ticket required. Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, 1400 N. Decatur Road, Atlanta.

Festival. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sept. 2, noon-5:45 p.m. Sept. 3. On and around the Decatur Square. Free.

For a complete schedule of events, go to