Spirit of Sea Islands tells author, ‘This is where you belong’

How the Georgia coast called, and kept, Tina McElroy Ansa
African American author Tina McElroy Ansa poses Thursday March 7, 2008 in St. Simons Island, Ga. Ansa has become frustrated, she says, trying to find a publisher who wants to publish the kind of books she and other African-American authors have to offer. As a result, she's created her own new imprint, which she hopes will become a place where quality black literature can thrive. (Photo/Stephen Morton)

Credit: Stephen Morton

Combined ShapeCaption
African American author Tina McElroy Ansa poses Thursday March 7, 2008 in St. Simons Island, Ga. Ansa has become frustrated, she says, trying to find a publisher who wants to publish the kind of books she and other African-American authors have to offer. As a result, she's created her own new imprint, which she hopes will become a place where quality black literature can thrive. (Photo/Stephen Morton)

Credit: Stephen Morton

Credit: Stephen Morton

In May of 1978, the first time I, a Middle Georgia Girl, crossed the two-lane causeway connecting St. Simons Island to the Georgia mainland with my new husband Jonee’, I distinctly heard a man’s voice say, “This is where you belong.”

Not booming. Just conversational. I couldn’t tell whether the man speaking was Black or white, but his message was clear: “This, is where you belong.”

I turned to Jonee’ and cautiously examined his face without saying anything.

“What was that?” he asked as we continued to drive slowly toward the island.

“What was what?” I proceeded cautiously.

Credit: Tina McElroy Ansa

Credit: Tina McElroy Ansa

As a child in my hometown community in Macon, I was known as the “the one born with a veil over her face.”

I had come to this world with a thin pale membrane over my face, part of the amniotic sac that had not completely ruptured. These births are not rare, but they are uncommon. Some of these births are children arriving with the membrane intact over their entire bodies.

All are believed to be “touched” by the supernatural: Ghosts, communication with spirits, premonitions, readings, curses and hexes.

So, I knew what would come next if I dared offer my experience first, “Aww, Tina’s ‘seeing ghosts again.”

This was different. This felt more than serious. It felt holy.

“I heard something,” Jonee’ offered shyly.

“A voice?” I was eager for company.

“No,” he said as our tires hit the island dirt. “But it was something.”

I didn’t discuss it then, but we went on to fall in love with St. Simons, the way many do. It’s not surprising.

Credit: Tina McElroy Ansa

Credit: Tina McElroy Ansa

Over the decades, the promise of that voice has been fulfilled over and over again.

This is the place where, in the early 1980s, local older women taught me and other “come here” transplants about simple justice. Those same noble women taught me of true Christianity, of the wastefulness of anger.

On St. Simons I met two of my most unlikely and influential mentors. It is also where my documentary-making husband ended up supporting us in the 1980s by painting the interior of condos, while I wrote “Baby of the Family,” my first novel.

Credit: Stephen Morton

Credit: Stephen Morton

We believed in each other. I felt I returned the favor as one artist to another when in September of 1989, I gritted my teeth and waved sweetly as he boarded a plane for Los Angeles and the longtime dream of attending the American Film Institute.

I was expected to keep the home fires burning for a year (Good thing I did not know then that Jonee’ would accept a coveted second-year invitation).

And I was committed to the plan to go on a book tour without a regular job and without my partner who was off in Hollywood making movies. Two months after Jonèe left for Los Angeles, my kitty Zora and I celebrated alone when the first copies of “Baby of the Family” arrived hot off the presses.

I complained. A lot.

Yet since 1984, St. Simons Island had had five years of getting to know us. Of me serving coffee, orange juice and biscuits to the local Black women at Mary House after Bible sharing. These “untrained” Biblical scholars opened my Catholic school-trained eyes to true walking, talking, leaving the church service to go settle an argument with a neighbor, kind of Christianity.

Five years of us showing up when we said we would. We complained when the storied grassroots “Georgia Sea Island Festival,” where folks from all over the country had enjoyed local food, music, crafts, history and culture of the coast for the previous 11 years didn’t happen in 1988.

So in 1989, Jonee’ and I produced the festival.

Five years of my little group of 10, 11 and 12-year-old local Black girls hanging out at the beach reading and discussing “The Color Purple” with me and just treating everyone to an ice cream cone at the pier. By then, the Geechee-Gullah people of the islands, the folks on the mainland and the arriving “come heres” like me had gotten to love us.

The Island and its people enveloped me. Miss Joanna Lee gave me sage advice. Mr. Buck Glouchester Buchanan, who died recently at 103, was a brilliant historian, horticulturist and neighbor who made sure my house, garden and heat ran well. Ann Hodnett, a former friend and employer, noticed when I lost weight and lent me money with the admonition, “Eat!”

My new artist friend Ana Bel Lee Washington whom Jonee’ and I had met in 1988 became my much-needed girlfriend, confidante and lunch buddy.

Today – 20 years after her death and nearly 40 years after she even discovered her own talent, 18 pieces from our collection of Ana Bel Lee Washington oil paintings currently hang in the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah. The exhibit runs until May 15.


After “Baby of the Family” was out a while, it was bragging time. In addition to caring for me during my first year alone, the island and surrounding areas decided they were kinfolk and had the right to claim me. This delightful period continues to this day. Grandmothers, now my age, come up to me at the post office or drugstore just to introduce their grandchildren to the Black woman writer who looks like their Sunday school teacher.

By that time, through their example and lectures to stop whining about a blessed life and get on with the joys and duties therein, came the duties of a griot. They gave me the stamp of approval that “yes, you can invite her to things and she won’t embarrass us all. Oh, yes, she’ll look at your cousin’s poetry. Oh, of course, Tina loves to read poetry. She would love to speak to your…”

And, of course, I did love all those things and the fact that my adopted people knew they could call on me.

This island has been good to me and to my husband. For most of our 40 years on the Georgia coast, I have been blessed to mostly write books, go out and promote and talk about them, then, come back to my island home and start writing another book. It is, indeed, a dream for any writer. But times and life changes, and lately I have found myself pivoting from author to publisher to editor to writers’ retreat runner to teacher to podcaster.

Much of life in the Sea Islands is like life anywhere there is a beach, a stretch of land and a history that includes Guale indigenous peoples. Africans on this soil, shaping the culture, architecture, food, language and life.

Much of the area falls into the category of South Georgia, in its politics, its cuisine —crab cakes, barbeque and catfish — and, Jimmy Carter aside, its global reach.

However, of course, no community is safe from its past or its present.

Ahmaud Arbery went to school with young waiters or random net casters I’ve run into on the mainland and on the island. They want to share their memories of young Arbery, who was murdered right down the road. His killers went free in the area for weeks and were tried at the courthouse in Brunswick.

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

This is also where in the early 2000s Jonee’ found a new use for his fascination with scuba diving when he joined a local Black water diving team as a photographer. His team, led by master diver Lucky Lowe, unearthed and recovered the fossil of a millennial-old sloth and a juvenile. The recovered fossils, and the film Jonee’ made about it, are at Fernbank Science Museum in Atlanta.

And then, there’s the land itself.

Much of the irreplaceable land – on or near water – has been lost to increasing development. The bane of the existence of most folks interested in preserving land ownership in the hands of the descendants of the Black folks who lived and worked these same coastal lands as chattel. The Black families that remain are the ones who put “Won’t Sell, Don’t Ask!” signs in their front windows and yards in the ‘90s to discourage buyers and developers.

With the land, with the sea, with survival, with memories that grow from the lineage and the land. This year, on the night before the March full moon, the Worm Moon, the second half of a legendary Geechee-Gullah Sapelo Island couple, slipped away to meet his life partner in death.

Julius “Frank” Bailey Jr. aged,79, died in a Savannah hospital surrounded by his children and grandchildren. Julius was married to the last matriarch of her kind on Sapelo Island, Cornelia Walker Bailey, an author, memoirist, land and ecological activist, cookbook editor, storyteller, hotelier and icon.

He was truly her partner. In life. In family. In business. In culture. In background. In tribe. In their love of Sapelo Island. Julius was so much a part of all that Cornelia did for their family and on their island, that folks sometimes combined their name into “Cornelius.”

Julius was as retiring as his wife Cornelia was loquacious. She had a great deal to say about the future and present of their beloved home island. She didn’t bite her tongue around anyone, Black or white, in her fierce battle to keep her small sea island in the hands of the descendants who lived and worked enslaved on the rice and cotton plantations that made America rich.

Everyone who knew the couple witnessed them working on Wallow Lodge together, her finishing his sentences, sitting in the yard swatting horse flies, fanning a small fire or driving a bus filled with visitors to the ferry.

Jermaine, the 18-year-old grandson of the Baileys, was one of his grandfather’s final caregivers. This was, as one imagines, an extremely heavy load for one so young. But Jermaine, along with his brothers Johnathan and JaMarcus, comes from a hearty bloodline. One that endured capture in the homeland, the unbelievable horrors of the Middle Passage, and the selling on the auction block like animals.

Yet the Bailey ancestors, along with the elder Baileys, kept their souls intact to pass on the land, heritage, language, ways and stories to the young ones.

Of course, that struggle for the land is a quotidian issue, while other battles are still being fought.

The concern for the presence of a number of industrial chemical dumps in and around Black, brown and poorer neighborhoods in the Brunswick area also grows alongside the growth of tourism in the area.

The stories continue. Appreciating and recording stories that seem to hang in the air of the Georgia coast is a balm for the soul of an African-American writer and teacher such as myself.

A Griot. That is certainly what I wish to be. It is how I wish to be recalled. The Griot. Someone who survived to share the stories with the young ones.

That is indeed a mighty purpose. One to which I aspire.

Credit: Tina McElroy Ansa

Credit: Tina McElroy Ansa

Even now, with Jonee’ dead three years and yet still peeping around every live oak tree I pass, the Sea Islands and the Georgia coast still offer me the comfort and succor of home. My parents bristled when I spoke too fondly of the Georgia Sea Islands as my discovered home.

“You know you were born in Macon,” my mother would state flatly.

But I find the islands are more and more steady, changing yet still reliably the same. Something I can count on.

This is where I wrote and published five novels, founded a publishing company, published two books, and - during the pandemic in 2020 - edited and published a volume “Meeting at the Table: African-American Women Writers on Race, Culture and Community,” with my Spelman College freshman roommate memoirist, professor Wanda S. Lloyd.

We clashed in classic form in real life but discovered the joy of collaboration 50 years later. We also discovered that we were pretty enlightening and entertaining. So, in 2021, our podcast, “2 Old Chicks Who Know a Lot of Sh*t,” was born.

I’m working on my sixth novel, set partially in Mulberry, Georgia. I plan to follow that up with my first book of non-fiction.



I grow a garden every year and I go crabbing on my birthday in November. One of my early mentors and supporters, the late writer Eugenia Price, always exclaimed, “Creativity continues!!”

It’s true.

The sunsets at the pier are still stunning. The secondary dunes are yet posted and protected.

New neighbors still leave tomato seedlings on the front porch without a note. They leave vegetables later in the year.

Even with the flood of development of formerly wooded coastal land and in some cases marshland, it is still common to come across a breathtaking view of a hawk or egret in flight from the Harris-Teeter parking lot or to spy a multi-colored male painted bunting and his khaki green mate at your garden birdfeeder.

As that spirit who first spoke to me 40 years ago said, this is, indeed, where I belong.

Tina McElroy Ansa is the author of five novels including “Ugly Ways,” and “Taking After Mudear.” She is also the founder of DownSouth Press which published “Meeting at the Table: African-American Women Write on Race, Culture and Community.” A 1971 graduate of Spelman College, her first job out of school was on the copy desk of “The Atlanta Constitution,” where she was the first Black woman to work on the morning newspaper.