Browsing PBS’s app on Roku, I came across “Sapelo“ haphazardly, and within a short time, I thought, “Man, I know who that is.” Dr. Cornelia Walker Bailey had joined the story of what had thus far been two African-American boys playing around the woods, fields, and ponds. Bailey is the author of God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man, which I bought and read twenty years ago after being intrigued by its title. The book is a “cultural memoir” about the Saltwater Geechee people who live on an isolated coastal island in Georgia. This one-hour documentary focuses on the previously mentioned two younger boys and an older teenager, who Bailey and her husband have taken in to raise.
I only know a little about the Geechee people, probably about as much as any conscientious Southerner whose sense of place extends beyond college football and Jim Beam. Though this isn’t explained well in “Sapelo,” the Geechee are a group descended from slaves who, after Emancipation, built their own communities on the Georgia Coast. Due to their relative isolation, their culture developed in unique ways; however, the allure of modern life has drawn young people away in recent decades. Sapelo Island is the historic home of the Geechee, and Dr. Bailey is well-known as the people’s cultural historian. Unfortunately, she has been getting on in years, and in this documentary, we get news of her cancer diagnosis then her death. With the boys’ future uncertain, the question is clear: who will take up the mantel?
“Sapelo” provides one narrative of what is happening to this unique Southern culture. We can read books about it, praise Dr. Bailey’s efforts, and insist that it’s important to maintain, but the people themselves must decide that it is worth maintaining. The two boys, Dr. Bailey admits, were taken in with hopes that they’d like it and want to stay to serve as part of the next generation. However, the young boys occupy their time behaving wildly to drive away boredom, while the teenager plays video games and seems to be pining away for a modern life. They love their adoptive family, but for them, nearby Brunswick is their connection to the world. Their mother, who is shown as well, had also been adopted in the same way, but she chose to return to the mainland, where she had them.
By the end of the documentary, Cornelia Walker Bailey has passed away, the family is in disarray, and one of the younger boys has been taken away to reform school. While the Geechee people are interesting in and of themselves, this narrative also relates to small towns and communities all over the South. Young people are torn: will they choose their rural heritage and traditions or the siren call of electronics, media, and city life? Here, the three boys seem to appreciate what they have on Sapelo Island, but are ambivalent about devoting themselves to it. It’s a classic dichotomy of roots and wings.