One week ago, Renee came to bed and told me that there had been a shooting in a church in Charleston. Several of our downtown friends were reporting helicopters and law enforcement engaged in a manhunt for the suspect. It wasn’t until Thursday morning that we understood the truth of the carnage.
Mother Emanuel, in the heart of downtown Charleston, is not a place I’ve ever worshiped in, but I did walk past it every day. For a time in college, I was a janitor at the public library one block away. I remember that on pretty days, the doors of the church would sometimes be opened onto Calhoun Street and you could hear music drifting outside. One of the victims, Cynthia Hurd, was a part-time research librarian (and colleague of my mom’s, also a CofC librarian) at my alma mater. Another victim, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, coached track at my rival high school. It’s very hard to not be in Charleston right now. When the full-story broke, my every instinct was to just go straightaway. The logistics/finances of spontaneous cross-country travel with two children under four are just too much right now. And what could I do? Witness, I suppose. Hug my mom and my friends. Grieve. Hold the space.
I moved to Charleston, South Carolina on April 17th, 1999. It was the spring semester of my junior year of high school. My first day of school was April 20th, 1999: the Columbine shooting. To that point, I had spent seven years in DC, four in Charlotte, two in Atlanta, and another four back in Maryland. I lived in Charleston from the age of 16 to 25. That’s still the longest I’ve ever lived in one city. My mom and many of our closest friends are still there. I graduated from high school and college there. I hit bottom and got sober there. I met and fell in love with my wife there. I learned all of the life lessons, heart breaks, and hard knocks of young adulthood in the backdrop of that very unique and picturesque peninsula. In the past, Renee has written eloquently here about her memories of Charleston. So to have this act of domestic terrorism happen in our former home has had us reeling this week. The nation is reeling, to be sure. It’s just so surreal to have the national media trying to unpack the pulse of a city I know so well. To feel so much a part of the community they are watching, and yet, not there at all.
Certain memories have been vividly resurfacing this week: I remember the confederate flag rally through Marion Square Park in 1999. I remember seeing participants with Klan memorabilia. I had never really seen anything so overt in its racism and hostility, though I came to understand over time that it was often more subtle racism that contributed to a larger culture of stress and fear amongst communities of color in Charleston.
I remember being shocked to hear a public high school history teacher referring, in class, to the Civil War as “the war of northern aggression.” It took a while to perceive the vast power of the so called “good ole’ boy” network. I remember the confederate flag flying at Bessinger’s BBQ in West Ashley. I remember when the local electric company forbid employees from parking work vehicles there at lunchtime because the restaurant was actively distributing pro-segregation literature at the checkout. I worked for a summer at the Palmetto Carriage Company, just around the corner from the ever-popular “Old South Carriage.” Wealthy white tourists clamored to see where the “real” slave market had been. They would cluck their tongues sympathetically (and, also, nostalgically?) while decrying the homeless and panhandlers poised around Market Street. Having been raised in racially diverse neighborhoods and schools, I was registering a different kind of racist, malicious ignorance than I had ever been exposed to before.
But I found my people there, too. And, in my queer community (both before and after sobriety), I found family and safety and camaraderie with men and women of color who were grappling with the complex intersections of their identities within the inflexible caste system of the south. My experience of queerness and gender nonconformity could never eschew my white privilege. Still, I learned the foundational tenets of my social justice activism and my anti-oppressive life work from living and working in and alongside communities of color in Charleston; communities suffering under the crippling expense of daily micro-aggressions and rampant gentrification.
Really, it makes sense that such terrorism should break across the bow of Charleston’s harbor. We’re at a frenzied pitch of denial and shame in this country. And Charleston is exceptionally poised to ache in the festering wound of its white supremacist history. But concomitant to the struggle, there is nowhere else I’ve been where the smell of jasmine can hang suspended in the air as you walk straight through it. There is no place I’ve ever been that can so awaken the sensuality of the human spirit. The weather, the language, the architecture, they all coalesce into a fully sensorial experience. I used to just walk the streets alone at night for hours…just aimless walking. I did this for years; it was my ritual of self-soothing and emotional regulation. And nowhere I’ve been holds such spirits. The whole city is deeply haunted. Over forty percent of enslaved Africans brought to America came through the port of Charleston. It is a city with a palpable wound that cannot heal. This is a living thing. This is something that, in my experience, most white people (myself included at different points) can choose to look away from. We can use our privilege to pretend that there’s some chasm between history and the present.
I’ve heard a lot of people talking about how “well” Charleston is responding to what’s happened, which is to say that folks haven’t taken to the streets in anger. But don’t be fooled, Charleston is the pinnacle of southern hospitality and it knows how to hash out its bloodiest conflicts out with a smile and a southern drawl. There’s much needed prayer and unity, to be sure. And I would venture that any community attacked in such a vicious way (and in a place of worship, no less) would rally around its city with a clarion call to heal. But the method by which that healing needs to happen will be a source of deep and painful division to come. Many feel that this was the tragic act of a mentally ill individual, but by deflecting our white culpability in the society that made this monster (and many others like him), we lose the catalyst for major self-reflection, empathy-building, and sustainable change.
I’ve heard some people say in the last few days that the issue of taking down the confederate flag at the statehouse is a distraction from the real work of combating systemic racism. And I can see their point; it is such a small step in the face of such an overwhelming violation. But it needs to just come down. Period. Take it down now. It should never have flown in the first place. Then we can move onto more substantive work.
We need leadership (locally, regionally, and nationally) that actually understands and acknowledges the truth of systemic racism in our culture. And we need healers in every place of life (streets, neighborhoods, places of worship, schools, and hospitals). We must conceive of ourselves as an anti-racist people actively working to transform our values and our structures instead of continuing to put our head in the sand of racist multiculturalism, colorblindness, and post-racialism (whatever that even means). And hand-in-hand with the work of anti-racism, we need sweeping gun reform in this country. That’s not even close to my wheelhouse, so I have no opinion on how it must be accomplished, but I know that it simply must.
Our priest sent out a note last Thursday concerning the Charleston massacre. In it he wrote, “murder, no matter how planned it may be, is essentially unconscious. Killing another is a refusal to look at one’s own pain and rage. It is also a refusal to be conscious of the other’s humanity. Biblical spirituality encourages greater consciousness and evil lives on the rejection of greater consciousness.” I am so disturbed by the fact of Dylann Roof’s having sat through the Bible study and prayer group for an hour before opening fire. And to not have been moved to change his intent: Stunning unconsciousness. I’ve had this Audre Lorde poem running through my heart when thinking about the betrayal of having welcomed him into their sacred space only to be turned on so viciously:
Memorial (Audre Lorde – 1950)
If you come as softly
as wind within the trees
you may hear what I hear
see what sorrow sees.
If you come as lightly
as the threading dew
I will take you gladly
nor ask more of you.
You may sit beside me
silent as a breath
only those who stay dead
shall remember death.
If you come I will be silent
nor speak harsh words to you
I will not ask you why, now,
nor how, nor what you do.
But we shall sit here softly
beneath two different years
and the rich earth between us
shall drink our tears.
I still haven’t been able to quite capture the tenor of my heart here. My emotional landscape eludes my writing. As ever, I stand with Charleston and I am ready to do the daily work of living differently and healing.
Some of my favorite photographic memories of Charleston: