God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks about Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia

God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks about Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia

by Christena Bledsoe, Cornelia Walker Bailey

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Equal parts cultural history and memoir, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man recounts a traditional way of life that is threatened by change, with stories that speak to our deepest notions of family, community, and a connection to one’s homeland.

Cornelia Walker Bailey models herself after the African griot, the tribal storytellers who keep


Equal parts cultural history and memoir, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man recounts a traditional way of life that is threatened by change, with stories that speak to our deepest notions of family, community, and a connection to one’s homeland.

Cornelia Walker Bailey models herself after the African griot, the tribal storytellers who keep the history of their people. Bailey’s people are the Geechee, whose cultural identity has been largely preserved due to the relative isolation of Sapelo, a barrier island off the coast of Georgia. In this rich account, Bailey captures the experience of growing up in an island community that counted the spirits of its departed among its members, relied on pride and ingenuity in the face of hardship, and taught her firsthand how best to reap the bounty of the marshes, woods and ocean that surrounded her. The power of this memoir to evoke the life of Sapelo Island is remarkable, and the history it preserves is invaluable.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Delightful…. In writing that is both unadorned and poetic, Bailey’s soft, Southern wit shines through.”–Publishers Weekly

“A memorable read…. Highly recommended.”–Library Journal

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a delightful, sincere memoir, born storyteller Bailey reveals the shadows of a little-known culture that is increasingly threatened by encroaching developers. Her tiny community of "salt water geechees" on Sapelo Island, off the Georgia coast, consists of the survivors of slave families who believe in the power of God, the "root doctor" and the numbers runner, hence the title. Bailey's own family is directly descended from the African Muslim, Bilali (or Bul-Allah), who founded their community. Many of their traditions can be traced to Africa, as Bailey discovered when she traveled there as an adult. Entertaining and mystifying, her reflections on growing up geechee evidence a healthy respect for the supernatural: on Sapelo, the living are seen to coexist with the spirits of the dead; a curse could lead a person to ruin; and every dream is significant. Bailey herself "died" as a child; her coffin was later used to store her mother's linens when she inexplicably recovered. Bailey's most terrifying reflections, however, concentrate upon the days of slavery and the Jim Crow culture that replaced it. In the decades that followed, Bailey's own father was cheated out of the family homestead by a henchman of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, according to the author. One indelible image is that of her father reknotting his net, as the family sits at the hearth to watch, before he goes night fishing to feed them. In writing that is both unadorned and poetic, Bailey's soft Southern wit shines through, resonating with humor and charm. Readers enthralled by anthropology and African-American life will not want to put this book down. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
In the middle of the 20th century, the US government built the first bridges between the mainland of Georgia and South Carolina and the string of islands known as the "Georgia Sea Islands," thus ending the virtual isolation of the island people—descendents of slaves from West Africa who had long lived in black communities far removed from white overseers, and later, from white bosses and employers, and who thus managed to retain their African cultural heritage to a degree unequalled elsewhere in the US. These communities, known as Gullah or Geechee (the exact origin of the words is still undetermined), have since faced a new challenge: preserving their unique culture while adjusting to sweeping changes and an onslaught of tourists. In this book, Cornelia Walker Bailey, whose family has lived on Sapelo Island since 1803, tells her people's story as only a proud insider steeped in local tradition can, with no unwarranted exoticism or unnecessary flourishes. Instead, she presents us with the wonderful facts of a people's survival, resistance, and spirituality; their beliefs in God, dream-signs, evil curses, and the power of nature to heal. Above all, however, she expresses the Geechee hope that the traditional way of life will not be irreversibly altered, as the white world encroaches. For abandoning the past would constitute the ultimate betrayal of the spirits of the old people, who have watched "over us and over the island," and who "will keep on watching in all the days to come." KLIATT Codes: A*—Exceptional book, recommended for advanced students, and adults. 2000, Random House, Anchor, 334p. illus., $14.00. Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Nada Elia; Visiting Assoc.Prof., Afro-American Studies, Brow , November 2001 (Vol. 35, No. 6)
Library Journal
With a population under 75 individuals, Sapelo Island has received excellent attention recently as a bastion of African American culture. As a descendant of former slaves who originally populated the island, Bailey gives an extremely personal view of Geechee/Gullah culture, which intertwines remnants of West African belief systems with coastal Georgian influences. Her prose style (with the assistance of author Bledsoe) makes for a memorable read as she explains the intricate relationship between God, "Dr. Buzzard" (voodoo), and the "Bolito Man" (luck) as they clash with modern ways that have lead to the rapid disintegration of this once vibrant community. Bailey's new work is highly recommended as a companion volume to historian William McFeely's "outsider" text, Sapelo's People (LJ 5/1/94) and Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust (1991), which also treats the Sea Islands.--Anthony J. Adam, Prairie View A&M Univ., TX Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Off the coast of Georgia, a small community of African-Americans has preserved the folkways of their forebears in West Africa. Bailey, a direct descendent of Bilali, the most famous enslaved African to inhabit Sapelo Island, describes the Geechee belief in the equal power of God, "Dr. Buzzard" (voodoo), and the "Bolito Man" (luck). She explains pressures on the community due to government ownership of the land. Includes b&w photos. Bailey gives tours on Sapelo Island and lectures across the country on Geechee culture. Her family has lived on Sapelo Island since 1803. Bledsoe is a writer and former reporter. The book is not indexed. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

A Special Gift

Let me tell you how it was. A screech owl hooting at your door was a sure sign of death. A black cat wasn't bad luck, it was good luck. And you never threw water out your door after dark. You might be throwing it on your loved ones, the spirits of your loved ones who came to visit at night. If you just had to throw that water out, you'd stop first and say, "Excuse me, loved ones. Draw aside," and that gave them time to move out of the way.

Back in the 1940s when I was growing up, it was part of everyday life [over here on Sapelo Island] to believe in magic and signs and spirits. My family absolutely believed. That's right. The spirits were always in our lives. Always. People talked to the spirits and accused them of playing tricks and being full of mischief. Like when Mama would lose her glasses and she knew, just knew, she left them on the table.

She'd say, "Okay, Uncle Shed, I know you're in the house. I know you took my glasses. I know you' playin' a joke on me. Now put my glasses back. You put my glasses right back where you got them from." Uncle Shed was
Shadrach Hall, Mama's uncle on her mother's side, who was born in slavery times and lived to be more than one hundred years old. Mama would call on the spirit of Uncle Shed to put her glasses back and then she'd go and do her work and come back, and those glasses would be on the table right where she left them. All of a sudden, they'd reappear.

Some of us saw spirits too, me included, not all the time but sometimes. Of course, there's a reason why I saw them. The old people said I was singled out.

We were living at Belle Marsh, on the west side of Sapelo, on the North End, when I got singled out. There were five small black communities over here then, Belle Marsh, Raccoon Bluff, Lumber Landing, Shell Hammock and Hog Hammock.

Hog Hammock was already the biggest community and Belle Marsh was the smallest, but we all lived on land that had been in our families since shortly after the Civil War. When freedom came, our ancestors knew the only way to stand on their own two feet and feed their families was to have their own land. So as soon as they could, they bought land on the island they had worked the soil of during slavery days.

Belle Marsh was my family's own little world. Other than Papa's Uncle Nero, it was just Mama and Papa, my brother Gibb, my sisters Barbara and Ada, Ada's baby son Michael and my brother Asberry and me in the area known as Belle Marsh. That was it.

Anyway, one day when I was three years old, I got sick. Real sick. Up to that time, I was a regular little healthy child. Mama and Papa had gone shopping in Brunswick that day. They'd gotten up early that morning and walked down to Marsh Landing at the southern tip of the island to catch the company boat. That was nine miles right there. Then they rode six and one-half miles over the water to Meridian Dock on "the other side," which is what we all call the Georgia mainland. From there, it's another twenty-one miles south to Brunswick but luckily Mama and Papa got a ride. What I'm getting at though is that they were far away.

It was spring, a beautiful Saturday in May, late May, matter of fact, and back at Belle Marsh, my brother Asberry and I were playing in the sun. There was a pear tree near the house and there were tiny green pears on the pear tree that were looking good. Mama had told us not to eat them because they weren't ripe yet. But a kid's gonna do what a kid's gonna do, especially if your parents aren't around to catch you, so naturally we ate them. Asberry picked them. He was two years older than me, which made him five, so he could reach up and grab them and he gave me some. We had ourselves a good time eating those pears.

By the time Mama and Papa got back to the Marsh Landing Dock and walked home to Belle Marsh, it was almost dark. I wasn't feeling well by then and I got worse quick. That night, I had a fever, a very high fever, and no matter what Mama and Papa did, nothing brought the fever down.

We didn't have a doctor on the island, we never had and we still don't, so people took care of things themselves. They had to most times, absolutely had to, and Mama and Papa had to this time. They couldn't have gotten me to a hospital on the mainland because the company boat didn't run on Saturday night and it was the only way on and off the island.

Mama and Papa tried every remedy they could and nothing worked. There's a plant here we call the fever bush because you make a tea out of it to lower your temperature, but that bush isn't ready to pick until late summer, so they had to try something else.

Mama bathed me in tepid water and that didn't work so Papa went out and got some leaves from the beauty berry bush, another plant that grows over here. In the fall of the year, the beauty berry bush has clusters of the most gorgeous bright purple berries and that's why it's called the beauty berry bush, but it's the leaves that you use and they're out in the spring. Mama crushed the leaves, mixed them with vinegar and slathered it all over my body to make the fever go down. But that didn't work either.

Mama and Papa sat up all night with me. Nobody in the house went to bed that night. Nobody slept. They were all too scared for me to sleep. Mama was watching and praying the entire night because she knew my fate was in God's hands.

A little before daybreak, I died.

Meet the Author

Cornelia Walker Bailey’s family has lived on Sapelo Island since 1803. Christena Bledsoe lives in Atlanta and Cedar Key, Florida.

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