Cover image for God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man : a saltwater Geechee talks about life on Sapelo Island
God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man : a saltwater Geechee talks about life on Sapelo Island
Bailey, Cornelia.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, 2000.
Physical Description:
x, 334 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 22 cm
Personal Subject:
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F292.M15 B35 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



"In this memoir, Sapelo Island native Cornelia Walker Bailey tells the history of her threatened Georgia homeland." "Off the coast of Georgia, a small close-knit community of African Americans traces their lineage to enslaved West Africans. Living on a barrier island in almost total isolation the people of Sapelo have been able to do what most others could not: They have preserved many of the folkways of their forebears in West Africa, believing in "signs and spirits and all kinds of magic."" "Cornelia Walker Bailey, a direct descendant of Bilali, the most famous and powerful enslaved African to inhabit the island, is the keeper of cultural secrets and the sage of Sapelo. In words that are poetic and straight to the point, she tells the story of Sapelo - including the Geechee belief in the equal power of God, "Dr. Buzzard" (voodoo), and the "Bolito Man" (luck)." "But her tale is not without peril, for the old folkways are quickly slipping away. The elders are dying, the young must leave the island to go to school and to find work, and the community's ability to live on the land is in jeopardy. The State of Georgia owns nine-tenths of the land and the pressure on the inhabitants is ever-increasing." "Cornelia Walker Bailey is determined to save the community, but time will tell whether the people of Sapelo will be able to retain the land, and the treasured culture which their forebears bestowed upon them more than two hundred years ago."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Author Notes

Cornelia Walker Bailey was born on Sapelo Island, Georgia on June 12, 1945. After the Civil War, former slaves and their descendants bought land on Sapelo Island. The isolation of island life allowed them to retain elements of West African traditions, language, and religion that have become known as Gullah-Geechee culture. Bailey was a storyteller who fought to protect that culture. Her memoir, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks About Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia, was published in 2001. She helped found and was vice president of the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society. She received a Governor's Award in the Humanities for her preservation work in 2004. She died on October 15, 2017 at the age of 72.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Bailey grew up and lives on Sapelo Island, off the coast of Georgia, in a small African American community that has held on to its African traditions dating back to slavery and is threatened by the encroachment of Georgia's development plans. Bailey's family is among a handful of descendants of slaves who managed to hold on to the land since the eighteenth century. She conveys the significance of spirituality in the culture of the island, showing how religion, voodoo, and the numbers all figured prominently in the islanders' beliefs in "the supernatural, dreams, signs, and magic." Bailey laments the loss of the culture as young people are lured away and lose touch with their heritage. In this fascinating cultural memoir, Bailey recounts the history and traditions of the island, the struggle of its inhabitants to maintain ties with their past. In simple recollections of day-to-day life, Bailey conveys the changes that have occurred on the island, the slow manipulation of black landowners, the arrival of R. J. Reynolds in the 1930s, and the islanders' current struggle to keep the land and maintain their independence. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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.DAnthony J. Adam, Prairie View A&M Univ., TX (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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. Excerpted from God, Doctor Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Memoir of Life on Sapelo Island by Cornelia Walker Bailey, Christena Bledsoe All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Daycleanp. 1
1. A Special Giftp. 9
2. Paradise to Usp. 19
3. The Spirit of Grandma Adap. 30
4. A Make-Do or Do-Without Familyp. 36
5. Grandma Winniep. 44
6. At the Bluffp. 55
7. The Babydollp. 72
8. Around the Firep. 80
9. Moving Dayp. 92
10. Ain't Nuttin' Right with Hog Hammockp. 104
11. The Jack-o'-Lanternp. 116
12. Make Sump'n of Yourselfp. 122
13. The Old Manp. 130
14. The Hag That Rides Youp. 140
15. The Bolito Manp. 145
16. God Resides in the Eastp. 157
17. The Dog Fingerp. 169
18. The Buzzard Lopep. 178
19. In Come Dr. Buzzardp. 187
20. Life Everlastingp. 201
21. The Cuspp. 209
22. Mama Gets Connedp. 213
23. To Skin a Catp. 218
24. God Loves You Bestp. 228
25. One Come, One Gop. 240
26. Coming Homep. 251
27. The Eye of the Stormp. 266
28. She Who Has a Purposep. 279
29. I Flew Backp. 298
30. Watch Nightp. 320