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Reflections on a NEH Institute: Cornelia Walker Bailey and Sapelo Island

[By Will Cunningham]

Cornelia Walker Bailey is Sapelo Island. She is a descendant of Bilali, of whom she writes in her memoir that “If you had been standing on the white sands of this island at day clean in 1803, or a little later, you might have seen a tall, dark-skinned man with narrow features, his head covered with a cap resembling  a Turkish fez, unfold his prayer mat kneel and pray to the east while the sun rose. This was Bilali, the most famous and powerful of all the Africans who lived on this island during slavery days, and the first of my ancestors I can name.” Cornelia is the Island’s griot,community leader, writer-in-residence, tour guide, political activist, and historian. She wears many hats. 

While this post will focus on her memoir, her written work feels somewhat secondary to her grassroots fight to preserve her people’s heritage. The situation on Sapelo island is complicated, both politically and socially-but without Cornelia’s presence there, many doubt whether there would be any Geechee presence left on the island at all.

Cornelia’s memoir, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man is as much a memoir of the entire island as it is her own life. Dr. Buzzard (voodoo practice or roots healers) and the Bolito Man (a Geechee form of talking about luck) weave in and out of the daily practices of the Geechee community in ways that are both humorous and sobering. Cornelia’s prose is fluid, sometimes poetic, but at all times reminiscent of the oral tradition from which she comes. Reading her memoir is like sitting by a fire with the faint sound of waves crashing on Sapelo’s white sand, finishing a medley of stewed tomatoes and okra, and listening to a voice smoothed and sweetened by homemade wine tell you a story. It is melodic in the way that only a true storyteller’s prose could be. 

Those interested in low country history, African heritage in the America’s and African American folklore would find this book useful. But I would recommend this book to anyone- it is simply a  pleasure to read! The personal time I was able to spend with Cornelia Walker Bailey, though, eclipsed my enjoyment of her book. And the good news? If you find yourself in the Savannah, Georgia area, Sapelo is just a  short drive away. And if Cornelia is not on a book tour, fighting stubborn Georgia politicians, or already giving a tour, you might find her sitting in front of her house catching a sea breeze and sharing her stories with friends and family.