My Complicated Relationship With South Carolina

Shani Charleston

As a black woman, it isn’t always easy to explain why I remain in this place. But today may give some insight into why I do.

On the surface, the events that have transpired since 8pm last night in Charleston, South Carolina, seem a lot like other killings of black citizens that have happened over the last several years. Angry, young white kid is given a gun for his birthday because Americans have some of the easiest access to guns in the developed world. Angry, young white kid, claiming that black people are taking over the country and ruining it, then goes into a historic, black church and starts shooting black people. When the story breaks, black community responds with shock and anger, daring anyone to call the angry white kid “mentally ill.”

South Carolina is a difficult, complicated place to live. A year ago I described it in a way I have yet to replicate with much success:

“The South is capable of inflicting indigestion on those of us who choose to live here. Making that choice often means committing to a complicated and volatile relationship with one’s own sense of place. This relationship, while flawed, is not unlike those that exist within families. It causes a lot of stress, a lot of anger, self-examination, copious laughter, and more chances to learn about ourselves on a daily basis and become comfortable with that self-knowledge.”

As a black woman, it isn’t always easy to explain why I remain in this place. But today may give some insight into why I do.

My husband and I have been house hunting in Charleston lately, looking into a move from the state capitol, Columbia. He’s been in Europe this week, so I scheduled to embark on Round 3 of the hunt on my own this afternoon, planning to see a once-grand, but still beautiful Charleston-style house on the peninsula that has dropped into our price range. I’m typically a night owl, so it was out of character for me to be asleep when the news of the shootings broke. This morning it was the first news I saw, and I cried as if it had occurred in my own hometown. For a few minutes, I pretended as if I wasn’t sure if I should still make the two-hour drive down. At the time, the suspect, Dylann Roof, was still at large, but I didn’t care. When I told my husband I was going, he agreed that it was the right thing to do.

Roof was arrested in Shelby, North Carolina, before I arrived at my destination, but as I was driving down I-26 I learned of the many secondhand connections I had to the shootings. The two most notable tidbits were that my husband had vaguely known the suspect’s family growing up and that the suspect was from my close friend’s (also my husband’s cousin—we are in the South, after all) Senate district.

I was supposed to meet my friends Marjory and Mary at what had been described to me as a noon “meeting” at Morris Brown AME Church. Despite the fact that I arrived 30 minutes early, the crowd was already overflowing into the street, which had been blocked off. Black, white, Asian, and Hispanic people who were poor, rich, and somewhere in between were standing in unstructured clumps, praying, sniffling, or holding hands. A black man in tattered clothes stood in the 99-degree heat, handing out bottles of water alongside a prim young woman from across the Ravenel bridge wearing business attire. When I asked if they worked nearby, she said no, that she’d come down with coolers and water and they’d randomly come together to help keep the crowd hydrated because they didn’t know what else to do to ease the pain.

As the service began inside the church, a separate, informal one took place in the street. Clergy from around the state’s Lowcountry region took turns leading prayers. As the heat rose, the white and black-owned businesses surrounding the church opened their doors and provided cool air, restrooms, Internet access for the live stream, and seats. There were no comments about this being unusual. Many people, when asked, said, “This is just what you do in Charleston,” as if I was silly to wonder.

As soon as word spread about the shooting, the commentary began across social media, proclaiming “White Terrorism,” “Peaceful isn’t working,” and “Don’t tell us we are one human race.” None of these posts came from within South Carolina. The reason? If you live here, you know that anything and everything is convoluted and complicated.

There is an organized group representing #BlackLivesMatter here, and they were especially active in successfully bringing awareness to the Walter Scott shooting in North Charleston a few months ago. During today’s service they were out again, as should be expected. But it turned out to be problematic. About three-quarters of the way through the service, two men began a demonstration with talkback and a drum. Remember, we were standing outside of an impromptu memorial service for nine black people who had been killed in cold blood the night before. Charleston has always been a place that relies heavily upon propriety. No matter your stance, this was inappropriate. Visible. But inappropriate.

Finally, a group of elderly, black women insisted upon joining hands with the people of many colors around them, and they made us all pray. The prayer circle drowned out the four-man demonstration within moments, and everyone within it, realizing the shift in what was happening, shed tears.

Like everyone, I’m still processing all of this, but I learned an important lesson today. Social justice is complicated and the lack of it is fraught with local nuance. What I ask from my friends who will and should add to the public conversation on the Charleston shootings is that they consider this before they tweet generalized condemnation. The rest, I hope to figure out in the coming hours and days. And I look forward to figuring it out alongside a city I already consider home.

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.

Photo taken today, courtesy of the author

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