[Kelly Doyle’s essay refers both to Susanna Ashton’s USC Press collection of South Carolina slave narratives I Belong to South Carolina and to Caryl Phillips’s essay “Home” that concludes Phillips’s The Atlantic Sound. IIt was a remarkable coincidence that the very semester we were reading these texts saw the unveiling both of a statue to Denmark Vesey, leader of a planned slave insurrection in Charleston in 1822, and of a statue to Judge Waties Waring. The landscape of Charleston’s “well-forgotten history” that Kelly describes now has a couple more items to combat our selective public amnesia. SKL]
5/2/2014 12:43:46 PM
Charleston: The Land of Historical Exploitation
To prepare for this exam I decided to take a travel through time through what I thought were major markers in the history of slavery and racism in Charleston, very much in the vein of what Caryl Phillips accomplished in his piece entitled “Home” in The Atlantic Sound. I hope to speak to the greater issue of Charleston’s forgotten history through the many ways in which it presents itself.
When most people think about Charleston, they think of the preserved beauty of the idyllic South. They envision vast plantations, stately homes, manicured lawns, and a history of class and culture: read Gone with the Wind. It is this vision that directly aids in Charleston being the number one tourist destination in America, a surprising fact given the dark, but well forgotten history of this city. However, even those who consider themselves residents of Charleston, myself at the beginning of this course included, are surprisingly ignorant of the embedded racism and willful ignorance of these facts that surround them.
Being a Northerner transplanted to the South and not being familiar with living among places so connected to slavery, I therefore didn’t even know to be conscious of the history of slavery around me. This course opened my eyes to the hidden history and legacy of slavery in the world, and specifically Charleston, and both how prevalent this history is and how it has been silenced and taken out of the public consciousness. It seems as if the unconscious consensus is that slavery is something that needs to be silenced; if we talk about it, it will only take longer for its effects to disappear. I strongly disagree with this point; ignoring slavery will only increase our misunderstanding of each other and history and aid in our inability to connect with the past.
I oriented my time-travel through Charleston on the downtown peninsula: Broad Street, East Bay Street, The Battery, The Citadel’s campus, and the College of Charleston’s campus. My intent was to look at these significant historical places with a focus on slavery and racism and propel myself through that history to the present. I passed an overwhelming number of tourists with maps, horse-drawn carriages carrying eager tourists, and hurried locals. My tactic for this assignment was simply to watch my surroundings and see what inspiration came to me. It was an overwhelmingly depressing experience, as I imagined. Charleston seems to exist as a mere playground for the willful neglect of truth.
The Exchange Building on East Bay and Broad Streets afforded me the most shocking and absurd view of the evolution of the history of slavery in Charleston, and it is where I will focus my energy in relation to my walk through downtown. Last Saturday, April 26, 2014, when I set out to do this assessment of “historic” downtown Charleston, there was a young woman taking her bridal portraits on the steps of the Exchange Building. She was happily posing in her white wedding gown and seemingly ignorant of the significance of this building for the history of Charleston and slavery in the South (the similarities to the film Sankofa were not lost on me). The open air market of the Exchange Building was where the selling of slaves occurred in Charleston. I wondered if this young woman even knew this fact or if it was just a stand-in for any beautiful Charleston building in which to house a grand affair. Did it matter what she knew? Either way, her ignorance highlights what our culture has been so successful in doing: forgetting the history of slavery. In looking at the website for the Exchange Building, I found what I already knew, that our official history is complicit in glossing over the history and legacy of slavery in Charleston. The description of this building completely ignores the truth and makes it benign to make tourists and residents alike feel more comfortable so they can remain blissfully ignorant of the facts. This forgetting widens the divide between white and black and is what keeps racism alive in our country. Charleston seems to actively encourage this through the shameless promotion of the town as a tourist attraction for economic gain. Downplaying Charleston’s history of slavery, the slave trade, and overt racism is what allows tourists to come to Charleston guilt-free and unaware of a reason to be guilty despite this historical exploitation. Why would the powers-that-be risk these wonderful gains for the unsavory truth? They wouldn’t and do not.
I think the answer to the question for this final, “what does it mean to read this material/these narratives of slavery here in Charleston, SC in 2014” can only be appropriately answered by another question: why does Charleston willfully ignore its past, its true history? While I have taken away many things from this course, this is what I have taken away from these readings and lectures in relation to Charleston. As evidenced through my walk through downtown Charleston, the support of this history is apparent, but ignored for a plethora of reasons: economic, social, and tradition to name a few.
In the history of the slave trade, 40% of slaves that entered the United States came through the port of Charleston. An important fact for both the history of Charleston as well as for slavery in America, and yet it is one that many do not know. Susanna Ashton’s collection of slave narratives, I Belong to South Carolina, helped put into context South Carolina’s involvement in the slave trade and slavery. These narratives mention and name specific places that are intangibly tied to South Carolina and the Lowcountry and because of this I think it was an excellent first read for the class. The slave narratives that I have read in the past have served to connect me to the atrocities and horrors of slavery. However, Ashton’s collection changed the way I think about Charleston and slave narratives. Rather than these narratives being a connection to an almost incomprehensible past in terms of place, time and the horrors described, they seem to be happening in real time because I can place myself in the context of the narrative. I can envision the places the narrator speaks of and almost transport myself through time to view South Carolina or the Lowcountry in the context of slavery in a way that I had never previously been able to do with other slave narratives or the history of South Carolina. Instead of being words on a page, the narratives were able to reach me in a different way because I could envision the history alongside the present within one particular place, South Carolina. As a start, I think it would be beneficial for these narratives to be taught in South Carolina schools specifically to move away from the willful forgetting of South Carolina’s participation in slavery and racism. While I think the slave narratives of Olaudah Equaino and Frederick Douglass are extremely important and should be read by students, putting these narratives in a specific context to orient South Carolina students to the world around them would serve as a way to improve the willful ignorance of South Carolina history. While none of these South Carolina narratives have made it into the mainstream canon, that in no way diminishes their importance and potential for bridging the considerable gap in understanding South Carolina’s and/or Charleston’s role in slavery.
While Ashton’s collection speaks to the past of South Carolina, Caryl Phillips’ piece, “Home,” speaks to the present of South Carolina. “Home” is about Phillips’ experience in Charleston trying to find information about Judge Waties Waring, and the silences that surround his history in Charleston. Phillips’ article speaks poignantly about Waring but also the culture of Charleston, that of loss and a forgotten past. As Phillips traces his story through Charleston, Broad Street, Sullivan’s Island, Magnolia Cemetery, and the United States Customs House on East Bay Street, he is commenting on the profound absence of consciousness he encounters from both sides, white and black. I get the sense from his text that even though he is an outsider in Charleston, he is one of the few who understands the weight of the social and cultural climate here. As he describes walking through Charleston, he is constantly questioning the silences and the areas, both physical places and in our thoughts, that are closed off to Charlestonians:
The rhythms of Africa floating over Charleston. White men and women dancing behind the United States Customs House. Somewhere in the distance, around the corner and out of sight, Sullivan’s Island. And before Sullivan’s Island? Africa. And the vessel’s European port of departure? Its home port? Its home? … Ghosts walking the streets of Charleston. Ghosts dancing in the streets of Charleston. (Phillips 265)
Phillips is able to put the present in context with the past in a way that really helped me understand the duplicity of Charleston: the willfully ignored or the silenced truth, and the way individuals and groups are complicit in their willful ignorance.
What speaks to the future for the history of slavery and racism in South Carolina and Charleston are two things: the first being Glenn McConnell who has been “elected” the next president of the College of Charleston and the second being this course which is proof that there are people who care about the real history and its impact on Charleston and the world around us. The institutions in South Carolina are still actively complicit in ignoring the racist sympathies and silencing of the beliefs in what should be an important leader for the Charleston community. It is therefore extremely important that those who understand the hypocrisy in this institutionalized forgetting continue to learn and grow in the history of slavery and racism and continue to inform others, like this class has done for me.
5/2/2014 3:41:11 PM
Phillips, Caryl. “Home.” The Atlantic Sound. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000. 223-65. Print.