Dancing Her Joy

My mom’s sister spoke

the Gullah Geechee cadence.

Her tongue swayed like hips on

an island gal working the kitchen

singing to herself dancing her joy.


My mom’s sister spoke

the Gullah Geechee cadence.

Not my mom though—

long story. But mom sure

had the sass

had the high cheekbones

had the salty sea island spray.


A second-generation product of

the great migration, I can only

imagine the low country

Saint Helena Island

Beaufort County

South Carolina

on my mind,

in my DNA.


My mom’s sister spoke

the Gullah Geechee cadence.

Sometimes the gist of it was

lost on me. It didn’t stop her from

seeing me, from smiling at me,

from loving on me. I was her

baby sister’s baby boy.

Nothing more to say.


My mom’s sister spoke

the Gullah Geechee cadence.

At my core I hear it still. The sing-

song in my bones. My longing for it

reaches back to the tomato red rice

that sustained generations of stolen

lives; Gullah lives, defiant in

dancing the cadence

of their joy.


Click here to read David Janey on the origin of the poem.

Image: Happy Day by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

David Janey:

My mother was born on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina — the grandchild of enslaved Gullah Geechee people. She was born in 1920, just after the Spanish flu and died in 2018, just before COVID-19. Her ninety-seven years on this earth were full with inspiration for any writer but particularly for me, her youngest child. Researching and reflecting on her life and my roots in it has been a frequent focus of my poetry.

In crafting “Dancing Her Joy”, I wanted the rhythm of the poem to echo the rhythm of the Gullah Geechee dialect I recall from my childhood family visits with my mother’s sisters, Hazel and Maggie. Although my memories are of her sisters, I thought the poem worked better speaking of a singular sister.

I intended for the middle stanza to stand out as a keystone or a sidebar where I cut into the talking about my mother’s sister to interject a reflection on how I fit into the generational progression. The four other stanzas all start with the same line and establish the tempo. Ending that line with the word “cadence” simultaneously drives the repetition and fuses the beat with the very definition of cadence.

I also wanted to tell a story about multiple generations, what is passed down implicitly, and how a people can survive when they insist on owning their joy despite the hardship of owning nothing else.

David Janey
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