Finally, the place where I live is making a public admission that I’m welcome here.
The last few weeks have felt like a train moving through the night without interior or exterior lighting. I’m not sure if the destination has been fully revealed, but as I sat in my 4-year-old son’s room a couple of weeks ago, the New Yorker’s story about Kalief Browder’s suicide came into view on my phone just as my little boy whispered, “Mommy, I love you,” and drifted into his dreams.
I sat there, listening to his deep, sweet breaths while I read that Browder—who had been arrested at age 16 and held at Rikers Island for three years without trial; who had been traumatized and brutalized and treated like an object by abhorrent human beings; who had been working toward a bachelor’s degree while trying to overcome a fear that is only known to those who have been brutally punished for the crime of existence; who spent five years experiencing the fact that the institutions that govern his city, state, and country did not assign any value to his life—had gone to great lengths to end a life that had been brought to psychological ruin for no good reason.
I read about this and I felt something break. It wasn’t something inside me, the way an especially poignant passage in a novel can conjure up a long-forgotten, repressed emotion that leads one to cry and cry for endless minutes before realizing the truth behind the tears. But there were no tears. I wanted to cry for Browder, his family, and the lost dreams of life and recovery. Instead, I felt numb and suddenly untethered. My feelings for a society that may or may not assign value to the lives of my sons were suddenly diminished. How does one love a country that acts like the college crush who tenderly covers you with his kisses in your apartment after the bars have closed, but refuses to hold your hand in public?
After reading about Browder’s death and realizing how exhausted I’d become with living in America, I started researching information about expats in London and Paris. Leaning heavily upon knowing the difficulties of packing up a family and moving to London after having done so for the summer of 2013, I told myself this was research for an essay. I came across a piece Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote for Smithsonian Magazine last April, entitled “Is Paris Still a Haven for Black Americans?” and after I’d texted several pictures of specific passages to my husband I had to admit that, despite plans for a more realistic move in the future, I was searching for a home country that would accept my family without simultaneously abusing our spirit.
I was questioning my patriotism, but why now, after 36 years of living here? Why, after my mother had fought my first grade teacher in Wisconsin to pull me out of a remedial reading group despite the fact that I was reading at a sixth-grade level? After my best friend in elementary school told me that she didn’t know if I was pretty because she wasn’t black like me? When my family moved South, my first year was spent at an all-black private school where teachers looked the other way when I was beaten every day for acting “too white.” My second year was spent at an all-white private school that raised the Confederate flag in between those belonging to the United States and that of South Carolina each morning. I was the first black student to attend the school, and every day, as an 11-year-old, I had to walk through its doors while being reminded that the school’s founding principle was that it did not want people like me in it.
Why hadn’t I turned my back on my country when, as newlyweds, my husband and I went to my high school’s alumni Christmas party, and upon leaving, a wealthy, drunk, entitled redneck who’d graduated a few years ahead of me yelled down the sidewalk, “Yeah, she thinks she’s made it because she married a white guy!” As he staggered on, no one did or said anything about it and I got into our battered Jeep Cherokee and cried all the way home while my husband cursed in disbelief.
Why now, after my first three years of motherhood were spent telling people that I wasn’t my child’s nanny? After a woman we actually did hire to be our nanny was asked by a white man if it was nice to be working for one of her own people for once? After traveling up the Pacific Coast Highway with a group of interior designers and lifestyle bloggers for a promotional trip and having a prominent architect tell me that I must really be something special to have been included with this group on the trip?
After all of that, now I wanted to turn in my passport?
I pretty much forgot about my investigation when the unthinkable happened in my home state. Nine parishioners were gunned down during a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. As the world waited for us to become the next chapter of unrest, my heart swelled as I watched an entire state become a single neighborhood. While I instinctively jumped into the collective action to help inform and understand, I was overwhelmed at the example South Carolina was setting for a country that has been in constant turmoil, and saddened as I watched this fact get overlooked by an engrained habit of making The Palmetto State a scapegoated whipping boy for a brand of racism that continues to be practiced by an entire nation.
Fifty-five years ago the Confederate flag was placed atop the dome of our statehouse for the same reason it was flown outside of the school I attended for a year in Orangeburg, South Carolina. It was a misguided statement of protest against desegregating the public school system. The flag remained there from 1962 until 2000, when it was removed from the dome and placed on a monument in front of the building after efforts to have it removed resulted in this compromise, leaving the flag where it was actually more easily seen.
State Representative Norman (Doug) Brannon, a Republican representing one of the most conservative strongholds in South Carolina, openly showed heartbreak at the loss of his friend and fellow legislator, Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who also served as Mother Emanuel’s pastor. Rep. Brannon—probably knowing full well that many of his constituents would disagree—initiated a legislative push to get the flag off of public grounds as a way to show that the state believes that the black lives lost last week, and those that remain, matter. He’s quoted in the New York Times saying, “What lit the fire under this was the tragic death of my friend and his eight parishioners. It took my buddy’s death to get me to do this. I should feel ashamed of myself.”
As the cries for the Confederate flag’s removal have grown into a cacophony over the last few days, I participated, but also fretted. I didn’t want to be disappointed in my state once again. I especially didn’t want to be disappointed in our governor, who once babysat me and whose family was instrumental in keeping my mother’s sanity when we first moved here, and who had been inactive on this issue. Still, I wasn’t about to be silent, which tends to be the polite way to be when it comes to controversy here, and hoped to set an example my neighbors would follow. I’ve been posting with great abandon on social media, bearing my feelings more than usual. I was invited to be a guest on a radio show about the topic, where my fellow panelists and I used history, demographics, and kinship to argue for the flag’s removal. I lost sleep. I forgot to drink water. I wore myself out. I ended up sick in the bathroom most of this morning.
But yesterday, when I saw that Gov. Haley was going to hold a press conference calling for the flag to come down, I knew I had to be there. I quickly changed into a skirt and blouse, and emerged in the statehouse rotunda soaking wet after running through a sudden downpour to get in. My reporting skills went by the wayside when I saw many of South Carolina’s state and U.S. legislators lined up behind the podium as my former babysitter said, “Today we are here in a moment of unity to say it’s time for the Confederate flag to come down.”
None of this was about me. It was about Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and Sen. Clementa Pinckney. It was about years of a state living a duality of treating its black citizens as beloved neighbors while espousing symbols that represent a system that doesn’t count blacks as human beings.
But still, in the statehouse with many people I’ve known since childhood yesterday, I felt a sense of relief that was deeply personal. The flag, though we don’t know when, is going to come down. It’s inevitable. Finally, the place where I live is making a public admission that I’m welcome here. Instead of moving to Paris, I can return there for a visit next summer.
Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist. She writes about the arts, culture, and race while attempting to figure out why Americans find “diversity” to be a scary word. Her essays have appeared in Equals, Vol. 1, and State of the Heart, Vol. 2: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love (Fall 2015, USC Press). Shani is writing a memoir while also performing the duties of homework-checker, boo-boo kisser, and dog cuddler. Find her at ShaniGilchrist.com, and on Facebook. Her Twitter handle is @ShaniRGilchrist.