A vivid and affectionate memoir of the vanishing traditions of the Saltwater Geechee people living on Sapelo Island, off the coast of Georgia.
Almost all of Sapelo Island is now occupied by a nature preserve and the campus of the University of Georgia Marine Institute, but it was once home to a vibrant African-American community whose isolation from the mainland helped preserve many elements of West African life. Bailey, a lifelong Sapelo resident, remembers her childhood in the villages of Raccoon Bluff and Hog Hammock with a deep awareness of the beauty of her disappearing culture. In simple, lucid language that retains the rhythms of the island’s vernacular, she evokes the spare beauty of the Sea Islands through prosaic, child’s-eye details. The presence of the sea pervades Sapelo Island: “On high tide,” she writes, “you’d smell the salt more and on low tide, you’d get a whiff of the sea and everything in it. . . . ‘Just smell that marsh,’ Mama would say proudly. ‘It smell so marshy.’ ” The author depicts the Geechee community’s close-knit but often troubled family relationships without sentimentality, remembering funeral customs and numbers rackets as well as the daily household rituals of meals and chores. She balances the islanders’ knowledge of animal and plant life, their traditional medicines and garden lore, against the precariousness of survival in the face of illness, poverty, hurricanes, and rip tides. Her memoir provides a valuable record of the most striking Geechee customs, including “ring shouts” (or circle dances), “root” magic, and classic trickster stories; in a moving coda, Bailey describes a trip to Sierra Leone, where she retraced the West African origins of these traditions. But her precise recall of small, easily forgotten daily routines is even more remarkable: poulticing a swollen ankle with mullein (“a plant with big, light green fuzzy leaves”) or fishing for mullet with a homemade cotton-thread net that “glides out over the water, opens into a big, wide circle and sinks down over any fish that happen to be in that spot.”
A quiet treasure.