EP 82 – Melissa L. Cooper, Author of Making Gullah

Recent reports about tax hikes, black land loss, and the near extinction of Gullah culture in the Lowcountry of regions of Georgia and South Carolina have made headlines in the New York Times, and featured on national TV networks like CNN. Missing from these reports is an account of how these unique African Americans emerged in the national imagination as distinct populations whose traditions should be documented and examined.

Enter Melissa L. Cooper, an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Rutgers University-Newark. Her groundbreaking book, Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race and the American Imagination (University of North Carolina Press), is set to be released on April 17, 2017. It is the first book to trace the construction of the Gullah identity. Using Sapelo Island as a case study, Cooper unearths the intellectual and cultural trends that inspired, and continues to inspire, fascination with Gullah culture and their African roots. In addition, Making Gullah tells a larger story about race and the American imagination; offering readers an opportunity to discover the complexity of an identity famous for its simplicity and timelessness.

About Melissa L. Cooper

An emerging expert in Gullah history and the history of race in the American imagination, Cooper’s research has attracted interest outside of the academe, and has resulted in several public appearances. She is a featured scholar in the new digital documentary, “Between the Waters: Hobcaw Barony,” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and produced by South Carolina Educational Television. She was also a featured scholar at a “talk-back” that followed Trutus Theatre’s Presentation of “Appropriate” in Columbia, South Carolina in February 2016. Cooper has delivered dozens of talks exploring Gullah history, which include presentations at Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina and at Avery Research Center, Charleston, South Carolina.

Cooper’s professional background extends beyond her current work as a professor and historian. She spent more than a decade teaching history in New Jersey’s public schools, and as a result was featured in two radio documentaries: the first, “Probing the Minority Achievement Gap,” aired on National Public Radio in May 2004, and the second, a 2008 Peabody Award-winning documentary, “Minding the Gap: Why Good Schools are Failing Black Students.” Cooper has engaged public audiences for years: in 2006, Cooper was a cohost on the PBS show, Real Moms, Real Stories, Real Savvy.

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