KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsReadingRemembrances

Charleston Heavy

I’ve loved Charleston for awhile now. The first time I saw the city’s name was on a baseball cap my dad brought back from Air Force Reserve training, one of those gifts that are rather insignificant, except that they are linked to the return of loved one, and thus become more than mere trinkets. The first time I visited the city, I was a sophomore in college, on a study trip to the Sea Islands, the Avery Research Institute, the Boone Hall Plantation, and other sites. While in the city, my mentor took me to the house and workshop of the most beautiful, nonagenarian blacksmith—Philip Simmons. I shook his hand, looked into his eyes that didn’t have whites except for where the irises should be, the kind of eyes that could see. His masterpieces are everywhere in Charleston, in the Smithsonian; his prices were high; he was living in the same house he and his wife bought when they married, and when she died so many decades ago, he decided that the river of money that flowed toward his work would be best applied to paying college tuition for kids from the neighborhood (I think I remember someone saying he paid for over twenty non-relatives to earn college degrees). In short, I met a revolutionary.

My second trip to Charleston, I was working at my alma mater, and I helped lead a study trip similar to the one I participated in as a student.  On the way, we stopped at South Carolina State and stood on the site of the Orangeburg Massacre. We took a tour from Bill Moss, a long-time Civil Rights activist. We learned why James Baldwin called the Civil Rights Movement the Second Slave Rebellion, why Daniel Moynihan in his famous report called it the “Negro American Revolution.” Moss talked about the 1960s, about meeting with his compatriots in a specific bar not unlike the Green Dragon Tavern of Samuel Adams’ day, and standing in twos or threes by the jukebox, so that the strained, happy sounds of Sam Cooke, or the Spinners, or Brook Benton, would drown out the sound of their voices beyond a few feet and thus prevent them from being picked up by FBI microphones they knew were planted by the bar stools, or in the clock, or in the ceiling, or all of those places.

We walked past the Citadel and marveled at this remnant of history, founded to suppress slave rebellions in and near Charleston. The building still haunts the city that is itself haunted by its past violence, and by all the imagined violence that never happened but nevertheless shaped lives, architecture, the shape of streets, the course of love between people. On January 8, 1852, James McCune Smith published the essay “Nicaragua” in Frederick Douglass’s Paper, and offered one of the most poetic passages we have on racial haunting. A century before Frantz Fanon would harness the flawed and powerful terms of psychoanalysis to illuminate the metaphysics of race, Smith wrote: “The negro ‘with us’ is not an actual physical being of flesh and bones and blood, but a hideous monster of the mind, ugly beyond all physical portraying, so utterly and ineffably monstrous as to frighten reason from its throne, and justice from its balance, and mercy from its hallowed temple, and to blot out shame and probity, and the eternal sympathies of nature, so far as these things have presence in the breasts or being of American republicans! No sir! It is a constructive negro—a John Roe and Richard Doe negro, that haunts with grim presence the precincts of this republic, shaking his gory locks over legislative halls and family prayers.”

I can’t help but wonder if this immortal, immutable black ghoul, now over four hundred years old, still roams Dylann Roof’s psyche, or if he has allowed himself to become the ghoul, to lay claim to all those forces in himself that he formerly projected onto the phantasm. Jury selection will soon begin for his trial, and the prosecutor will seek the death penalty. I wonder what Charleston will be for me now. I wonder if it will feel the same the next time I am there, walking the downtown streets with their pastels and palms. There is something I love about the heaviness of that city, the tired willows and waxy magnolias, the haze and humidity, the thick food, the sweet drinks, the stony mansions festooned with cast iron spikes. I’m sure Roof’s terrorist attack will both augment and taint that heaviness for me, and deepen further the immensity of the buried pain that haunts–as it always has, I suppose–that city where violence and wealth compound and flower, still today, into a seductive, treacherous splendor.