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April 15, 2001 - Gullah Geechee on Sapelo Island, Georgia - 2002-01-31

TEXT: I'm Rosanne Skirble and today on Wordmaster I want you to meet a special woman I met a few weeks ago on a remote island off the coast of Georgia. Cornelia Walker Bailey traces her ancestors back to a rice-growing region of West Africa from which her people were sold into slavery more than 200 years ago. Mrs. Bailey says once in this country, her ancestors were forced to build dikes, dig canals and flood the land to grow rice on islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.

Like the old pecan tree in her front yard, Cornelia Walker Bailey's roots run deep in the soil of Sepalo Island and the Gullah-Geechee culture. Gullah is the English-based Creole language she speaks among the Geechee, her people . . . descendents of slaves who labored on the Sea Islands. She says, for an outsider like me it might take some time to catch on to the rhythm of Gullah.


"'I'm binyah, you comeyah' . . . 'Comeyah ain't got no business tellin' binyah what to do. Remember child, I binyah.' . . . You can translate it by saying, 'I was here on Sapelo and Hog Hammock all along. You are the new person. So you (have) got no reason telling me with my land or my business because you just came.' Or you can translate it as an older person who is teaching a younger person the ways of the world and say, 'I know. I (have been) here a long time. I have the knowledge and the wisdom. So I know 'I binyah and you just comeyah. So you young."

TEXT: Cornelia Bailey refers to a cemetery as a place for the "sure dead" and to someone who talks too much as a person with "cracked teeth". . And, she remembers as a child her confusion when her mother told her about a woman with what the young Cornelia imagined was a broken foot turned out to be a pregnant woman!


"And you would go off and report to your friends, 'You know mama and auntie were sitting there talking, and they said that Miss So-and-So's 'foot broken.' We see you down the road some place, and we look at your foot and, ain't nothing wrong with your foot. I don't know what mama was talking about. They must have made a mistake, be(cause) her foot look fine to me. We didn't know about her being pregnant!" So, they kept you in the dark for as long as possible until they figured you were ready for that part of life."

TEXT: Mrs. Bailey wants her grandchildren to explore life on Sapelo Island using all their senses.


"So you do these things. You stand up and look at the sky and (sniffs) say, 'I smell fish in the river. And they (the grandchildren) stand there and say, 'Grandma, I don't smell no fish!' (I say) 'Hold your head up. Smell! . . . Now don't you smell fish? Don't you know what fresh fish smell like? And they (say), 'Yeah.' (I say) 'Smell. That means there's fish in the creek.' So all of a sudden they realize from now on that the fishy scent coming in the air is coming from the nearby creek. So you say things that they don't even realize are there, and then you explain it to them."

TEXT: Cornelia Bailey tells her grandchildren about the American Civil War and how after the war the island plantations were burned and the owners fled to the mainland. The freed slaves on the Sea Islands had no where to go, so they stayed. They farmed and fished, cooked foods that reminded them of Africa, wove baskets from sweet grasses and spoke the language she still speaks today.

She says things began to change in the mid-1950s when bridges brought real estate speculators, tourists, electricity and paved roads. The predominately black communities slowly died away, squeezed out by vacation homes and resorts.

But no bridge was ever built to Sapelo Island where Cornelia Bailey was born fifty-five years ago. Sapelo is free of condominiums, traffic lights and has more dirt roads than paved ones. Most of the Island is a nature preserve that is owned by the state.

Sapelo has few amenities a general store, a church, a community center, but no hospital, school or supermarket. Mrs. Bailey is among 64 residents, all black, who live in simple pine houses among big trees in a community called Hog Hammock. Many more lived on Sapelo when she was a child. But, she says, the young have left and the old die. She says preserving this heritage is a struggle, but also a matter of pride.


"We have to work real hard on doing that, and teaching the kids there is nothing to be ashamed of. It's a part of your history. Any culture anywhere depends on the people, and you have to be first one to say, 'I am proud of who I am. Once you say that, nothing stands in your way, no matter how you pronounce something, how you eat something, how you cook it, it's you and you're part of it."

TEXT: Cornelia Walker Bailey fears the Geechee ways will die out with her generation. She wants the people in Hog Hammock to hold on to their land, but knows the young people will leave unless they have good jobs. She is working to create cottage industries to market foods and crafts. But, Cornelia Walker Bailey says, much more needs to be done to ensure that Sapelo Island has a future that can preserve the past. I'm Rosanne Skirble.