Charleston’s Psychic Landscape: A Conversation with Kwame Dawes




DÉLANA R.A. DAMERON: Almost immediately upon hearing about the massacre in Charleston, I thought of your work, Kwame. When I caught my breath on Friday, I went to my library and picked up Wisteria. Kwame, I opened to the back and there was the program for your book launch on July 9, 2006, at the South Sumter Resource Center in Sumter, South Carolina. Raina J. León and I had driven the four hours to my grandmother’s house to sleep on her couch in order to be able to be present for the unveiling. It was important for me to be there. I am so grateful that I am a historian by trade! Your words have steadied me now.

When I was asked to write about Charleston and my writing, I understood that I could not do so without pointing to how important you are to that story. When I met you officially in 2006, on the 10th anniversary retreat of Cave Canem (and this past Sunday they are finishing up their 20th retreat!), I remember sitting on the steps between dorm rooms on the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg campus and telling you, “I feel like you have been in my backyard almost all my life, and I am finally here at this moment where I can introduce myself to you and it means more than me being a young woman in the audience.” I was 21 then, and I had spent the better part of the last two years following you at your readings around Columbia and Charleston. Wisteria had not launched in book form, but you were presenting the poems, set to music and because I didn’t have access to the poems in writing, I set about memorizing them. I can still recite some lines to your poem, “Skin”: “This skin’s swallowed the blast of sun.” “This skin has smelt the acrid smoke / of burning flesh, hanging there against / a new day”. “This skin is a walking museum, / when you see me coming read me / when you see me coming read me.”

One day I will come to the river.

Oh, love will touch this skin,

and I will rise, ebony glow and tender … 

These words, your words, meant so much to me because here you were — this rock star of a poet — reading poems about women who could be my grandmothers. About me. About my family. I hungered for it, and these words fed me. Kwame, what I am so blessed to be able to have a space now to say: It was in that recreational room, it was on the wharf on that rainy day with the Atlantic Ocean to your back, in the Columbia Museum of Art, and so on, that I learned the power of poetry to bring a community together. The power of poetry as archival tool. As oral history. As mirror to a community of men and women who might not have ever had fine art — because here you had the orchestra and the classically trained musicians and singers — tell their story. These moments changed my writing. I saw myself. I wanted to write myself. My elders.

This is a very long intro to this conversation, but I wanted to situate us in this moment, how pivotal you have been to poetry and art-making in South Carolina (and, indeed, the world). Of course you know I mourn that we (South Carolina) lost a national treasure when you left for Nebraska, but you and I get to meditate and reflect together now about this place we lived and wrote in, this place we left, and yet — this place still inside of us. 

In your introduction to the performance and book launch of Wisteria in July 2006, you said: “When I came to South Carolina after living in New Brunswick, Canada for almost six years, I was walking into a grand myth. This was the Deep South, the world of Dixie, the site of lynchings, the launching point for the Civil Rights Movement.” Can you talk a bit about your relationship to South Carolina, how you came to be there?

KWAME DAWES: In 1992, I assumed a tenure-track job at the two-year campus of the University of South Carolina at Sumter. Coming to Sumter was, for me, a foray into the exotic. Indeed, I had hoped to return to Jamaica to teach, and my wife and I had been planning for that, when the job I thought I had in Jamaica fell through. I had applied all over the world, and the first offer to come in was from this small town in South Carolina. I accepted and we moved into a world that initially seemed quite different from anything I had experienced, but that would eventually become home, familiar, complicated, transformative, and deeply important to my life.

When we arrived in Sumter, we had one infant child, and when we left 19 years later, we had three children. We had come to see South Carolina as our home. When people ask me about what South Carolina means to me, I tell them that I published my first book in 1994. I have since published over 40 books, and 35 of them were written and produced while I lived in South Carolina. I tell them that my children were either born or were raised in South Carolina. I tell them that some of my dearest friends live in South Carolina.

In the same introduction, you said that after you interviewed the women who would be the jumping off points for the poems in Wisteria, that you, “started to write poems inspired by [those] conversations [because] poetry has always been [your] way of processing information … [that you] were working through your own pain even as [you were] writing the poems.” What impact you would say the South, or Charleston, had on your writing, your art, your sense of self?

The truth is that I am acutely aware of myself as a human being trying to live in a community. I see myself that way long before I see myself as a poet or as an artist. I have never imagined that a place will not have some impact on what I write because I find myself constantly listening, feeling, and engaging with the world I inhabit, and that manages to find its way into my work. So it is normal that so much of my work, having been written while I lived in South Carolina, has been shaped somehow by the experience.

My writing has sought to find out what is the meaning of my body in a landscape — my peculiar body, the way it is seen by others, the way I see it, the way it exists in the culture, in the history of that culture, in the physical and psychic “landscapes” of that culture and world. And all my writing, even those poems that have been about Ghana, Jamaica, Canada, and all the other places where I have lived, have had to contend with the idea of my body being in this South Carolina landscape. Charleston is a critical part of that. There is something quite beautiful about that city, and yet there is something quite harrowing about it. It is peculiar because I have always had the sense that Charleston is one of those cities that has always been acutely aware of its history and that has been defiantly dogged about distinguishing the true Charlestonians from the newcomers. And in many ways, the newcomers can be several generations deep. How astounding is this? Charleston carries its history proudly, and it is curious that this history is marked by those historical moments of first calculating how to engage in the American Revolution, and then calculating how to carry out its long nurtured inclination toward secession from the United States.

South Carolina did not begin to speak of secession in 1858. There is a long history of this kind of talk and near action that long predates that moment. Charleston made strange and quick sense to me because during the colonial period, Charleston was essentially a sister colony of Barbados, and so many of the planters in Barbados owned property and slaves in Charleston. The names on the streets, the peculiar presence of British colonial culture, and the complex and rich resistance of the Gullah people in the low country — a resistance in language, culture, and politics — more than just echoes what happened in the Caribbean, but was part of that maroonage. It has, in other words, been easy for me to engage with Charleston as part of a long and complex haunting that is the colonial and slave experience of anyone who pays attention to Africa and its diaspora.

And so Charleston is in you in myriad ways, a familiarity that extends beyond your adoption of the South as home, but that it reflects another part of your home. I know you were in Berlin when the news broke. Last winter, I was in Amsterdam when the non-indictments were passed on the murderer of Mike Brown, and I just remember being and feeling so lonely and alone and feeling that I needed to go back to the United States. I needed to be with my people who were hurting and hurt. Even stateside today though, in New York City, I feel as though I am abroad — lonely and alone — and I need to go back “Home.” Did you feel this way? Take me into your interior upon hearing the news.

I was crossing the Atlantic when I read the news on my Twitter feed and my news feed. My wife was with me. We commiserated. That we have been together since the news broke has helped a great deal.

DéLana, in the last few years, violence has come close to home, so close that I have had the peculiar sensation of saying, “This could have been me.” And this is what I felt about what happened in Charleston.

I am a churchman. In South Carolina, I was a member of a Baptist Church, a black Baptist Church. I did not have to stretch my imagination to think of a room sparsely filled with people studying the Word, making connections around scriptures, living out the daily rituals of fellowship full of its complications of love, anxiety, tradition, and deep desire for understanding. I did not have to stretch my imagination to think of me sitting there, seeing a white stranger walk in, feeling a little uneasy, even wondering why he is there, and yet still seeing his presence as one of those peculiar ways that God works. I did not have to stretch my imagination to consider that the bible study leader noticed this man, and probably registered in her head that this may be someone suffering from some desperation, some need, and making a mental note to see if she would have to talk alone with him afterward to see if he needed anything, could be helped in any way.

In other words, I did not have to think too hard to imagine my body in that space, and to think of the combination of deep fear and sinking realization when this stranger acted as he did. And that I can do that, that I can think of praying for God’s mercy, that I can think of being bewildered by the reality that I could die, is enough to make me do what we all do when faced with tragedy: start the process toward empathy by way of a rather selfish exploration of how relevant the event is to our lives.

This bold, crude, vicious act of a man doing what he did because we are black is startling, and it pains me to think of it. And we know it was a terrorist act because if we exercise the empathetic act of the imagination, we will imagine that for the next few months, and maybe longer, small and large congregations in black churches around the country, will share a collective fear, apprehension, and anxiety that if a white person enters, if a white stranger walks through the doors, they will have to act as if their lives are in danger.

We know that in white congregations around this country, people will worry about a black stranger entering, will even want to search him or her, to be sure this is not someone coming to act in revenge. The reason is that this killer arrived with an agenda that did not just involve himself, but involved his victims. He was not trying to cause mayhem merely to draw attention to himself, but he was seeking to terrorize a target group, a race of people who figure greatly in his sense of self.

The terrorist was enacting a political act of violence because he defined in his statements and in his act, the players of his actions in political terms. He said he wanted to start a race war. He may not have started one, but he certainly has created the kind of anxiety that festers when racism and white supremacy takes root in a society.

You know, DéLana, I remember when I first moved to South Carolina, and how we used to hear about the burning of black churches all the time. I visited several of those churches in and around the state. There was always the sense that the black church was, in some ways, a target of white supremacy — a kind of symbol that allowed for symbolic gestures of white supremacy, even by people who were not involved in some specific organization like the Klan. So the killing in Charleston is part of that tradition.

But the outrage, too, by whites and blacks alike, is also part of a tradition, and that has to be worth something — it has to count for something. Today I got an email from my dear friend Charlene Spearen, who you know. Charlene and I were partners in all the work that was done for over a decade to promote and celebrate poetry in the state. When I left South Carolina four years ago, Charlene assumed a professorship and administrative role at Allen University where she continued this work. Tywanza Sanders, who was killed in this attack, was a student of hers. He was an aspiring poet, and just a few days ago had called Charlene to say he had a collection of poems that he wanted her to edit with him so he could get his work out there into the world. I tell this story to say that these actions are not without consequence and those affected by the killings form a complex network of friends, family, and acquaintances. A young artist was murdered. He was the one who asked that killer, “Why are you doing this?” He asked the question that a poet will ask.

My God. I read that he was a poet, and that he went to Allen. I didn’t make the connection to Charlene. My God. You are right. We are so impacted and intertwined and caught in this complex network of friends, family, and acquaintances who are affected by the killing. He was a poet. Can we as poets do anything? What can poetry do when “this skin” is constantly under attack? When “this skin” is being slaughtered almost daily?

Tywanza Sanders was asking the poet’s question. It is the questioning of those seeming inexplicable things that has guided me as a writer all my life.

When I started working as a volunteer at the South Sumter Resource Center in South Carolina, I observed many elderly African-American women coming in and out of the Center for support, for information, and to be a part of the work with the young people. I was struck by their dignity and their steadfast ease with everyone around. I asked around, and I found out these were women of very different backgrounds, education levels, and experiences in life. They had all lived as adults during the height of the Civil Rights movement, and they had all lived in South Carolina when the Jim Crow laws were firmly in place.

I knew these women I interviewed would have seen so much. But I also knew that these women had continued to live among white people, work with them, and in some instances, supervise them. I knew that the women were working with white men and white women who were on the sidelines spitting at their children, cursing them for seeking to desegregate their schools and public spaces. I knew the women remembered, and I wanted to know how they managed to go on. I wanted to know how they faced the memories and how they dealt with them. I wanted to know how they felt about these white people with whom they were now working. I wanted to know because I believed that inside these women was a rich and complex history to which we really had not paid enough attention.

So I sent messages to them asking if they would sit and talk to me. They all said they would love to. Those conversations, all of them recorded, changed everything for me as a writer and as a person. They embraced me, accommodated, and then relished my curiosity and they talked, they laughed, mourned — but mostly they remembered, and remembered, and remembered.

The poems that came from these conversations — Wisteria — were poems full of questions, and full of curiosity. Art can ask the questions. Art can ask us who we are. Art can ask us what are we feeling. Art can help us understand what we are about. But art, and especially poetry, is a form that defines reflection and consideration. And there is a time for reflection and consideration, as much as there is a time for other kinds of acts — direct, confrontational, urgent.

Are you reflecting and considering, or moving toward the other end of your spectrum — seeking a response that is direct, confrontational, urgent? If reflecting and considering, who or what writings or what art do you turn to?

To be honest, I am not trying to reflect at this point. I am still trying to understand. I am still trying to fully take in what has happened. I am trying to see what this means for the families, what it means for race relationships in this country.

I am trying to see if the theories that have been lurking in my brain over the past 10 years are valid, are part of what this incident is — is it part of the pattern of heightened racial action that is directly tied to white America’s anxiety about having elected a black president? I am asking why we think it is odd that despite there being allegedly hundreds of witnesses to a shooting that took place in one of our major cities recently [in Detroit] — one in which a black man was killed — no one has chosen to cooperate with the police. Are they afraid? Is this a reflection of fear of the shooters or fear of the police? The police are berating the lawlessness of the people and not asking themselves what could they have done to make them so distrusted by so many people.

This is the time for essays like Claudia Rankine’s thoughtful and sophisticatedly articulated essay in a recent issue of The New York Times; this is the time for historians to remind us of the ways that this is connected to our recent history, in the way some black historians began a Twitter thread that amounts to a bibliography of documents that examine the history of violence against black people.

This is the time for noise, deep and difficult thought, and a contextualization of all these matters.

This is the time for us to call out folks who are missing the point, who are trying so quickly to paint African Americans as stoic and forgiving people long before they recognize our anger, our outrage, our understanding that this man acted out of a calculated and familiar impulse of hatred and brutality — impunity at its height. This is the time to ask whether Hilary Clinton would have responded to the cry, “Women’s lives matter” in the face of a spate of violent rapes, with the declaration, “No, ALL lives matter.” Of course she wouldn’t, and here is how we know that what she suffered in the moment of liberal notions of being “presidential” was a failure of the imagination, and by that I mean, the failure to be empathetic and to understand that the antithesis of “black lives matter” is neither “white lives matter” nor “all lives matter.” They shot nine black people in a church tonight, people, black lives matter, black lives matter, black lives matter.

This is the time for us to warn black people that there are more complex responses to atrocity as a Christian than a simplistic interpretation of the saying, “I will turn the other cheek.” “Turning the other cheek” is not an act of meekness, it is an act of defiance. “Turning the other cheek” says: I will stay here in your face, I am not going anywhere, and if you want to hit me again, you will have to contend with all the horror that allows you to try to hit me again.

This is the time when we have to allow the families, the church, and black people to experience all the stages of grief, even the ugly and challenging stages.

This is the time when we have to challenge those who want to characterize the killer as equally a victim as those he killed — it is crude, lazy, and very convenient thinking. It is stoic, noble, to say something like that, but let’s be clear, if our example is the Christ, a man facing his own persecution and execution, then we should remember that while He prayed for forgiveness for His murderers, He had long assured his followers that those same murderers were going to face a fate of deep horror and pain.

Sometimes the prerequisite for mercy is penitence.

Sometimes it is important to know that forgiveness does not preclude justice nor does forgiveness cancel outrage.

The first thief on the cross was assured of peaceful eternity because he was penitent; the second was assured of eternal damnation because he replicated the abuse of the executioners. Jesus, for the record, did not even deign to answer him.

My point is not to offer a theological justification for anything, but to make clear that ideas of stoic and too-quick dignified forgiveness are not rooted, as it is often suggested, in the patterns of Christianity, but in a desire, largely by whites, to position blacks as people who will not hold them accountable for their evil or for being implicated by association, in these acts of evil. It is a comfort to white people to know that they are forgiven, that we are stoic, carry no grudges, and are not angry. Well, it is a lie. It is a crude, self-serving lie.

Anger is part of mourning. Anger is part of healing. So now is the time to challenge these efforts by the media to give us the gift of “dignity” as they perceive “dignity.” Dignity is manifest in self-respect, it is manifest in integrity and honesty of thought and feeling; it is found in pride and in the desire to protect, safeguard, and defend the humanity of those who are victims of such cruelty. That is the dignity I am interested in.

I keep asking. I keep searching. What do we do, Kwame? What do we say to those who are hurting? Are words enough? Is art enough?

Words are never enough, and art is never enough, but there is an unfortunate expectation that anything can be enough. Nothing is enough. At the end of the day, the comforts of faith, of family, of memories — those are the things that help, and even when those are not enough, they are something.

Like all of us who have lost people to hate-induced violence, what we want and need today, will change in a month’s time and then in six month’s time and in a year’s time. Poems and words will become helpful somewhere in the mix.

Above all, we want our loved ones to be remembered. We want the injustice to be remembered, and we want others to know that hurt goes on for as long as memory, and that this, too, is fine. I have been reaching out to friends and writers about something I hope we can do as a way to remember and reflect. We will do this for ourselves and for those who were murdered by this man, and for the families, immediate and extended, of those who were killed. But I am hoping that we will do something for the state of South Carolina, something that will help the state to confront its history and its present, something that will offer the kind of language and thinking that ensures that the toughest lessons are learned even if they are uncomfortable lessons.

I am a poet, DéLana, and I know that for me poetry is a means for me to discover what I know, what I am thinking, what I am feeling, and how the world is arriving at me. I need to learn from this process. As I learn, I know that others will be given the space to start discovering where they are in all of this, as well, through my words.

I appreciate what you have said about learning through the process of trying to discover what you know and what you are thinking. It reminds me of this quote of yours, from Wisteria’s introduction. I would like to end this beautiful conversation with the quote, but if you have a response to it, please share: Wisteria does not answer the questions we have for God Almighty what so many African Americans experienced in the South, but it does ask the questions, and ultimately, like any great blues song, it finds a way to discover beauty and grace in the midst of suffering.”

I suppose during a time when we keep hearing people calling the Charleston killing “unspeakable,” “inexplicable,” and “beyond our understanding,” the suggestion that there are answers that only God can answer in the hereafter is something of a cop-out — one that God would likely call us on as well.

The truth is that we, as humans, have many questions for which there are no ready answers — questions that have allowed us to build a way of living around concepts of “fate,” “providence,” and what Shakespeare described as the “divinity that shapes our ends.” There is comfort there and I value such comfort.

But there are many things that are clear as day — they speak their meaning and their logic loudly. This man who committed this act of terrorism was explicit, lucid, and direct. He called his act an act of racism. We should take him at his word. And we should, because there has been too long a history of this kind of thinking and these kind of actions for us to pretend that we do not understand what makes people act in this way and how people learn to act in this way. We should ask questions of his family, we should ask questions of his community, we should ask questions of his church, we should ask questions of his state, we should ask questions of those who helped to shape him and who would have stepped up to accept praise and responsibility were his act one of heroism rather than such a terrible and heinous one.

It is comforting to imagine that he is a fluke, that he is a one-off, that he is an isolated case. But he is not — certainly not in his thinking and certainly not in his logic, nor in his stated rationale. That he used a gun, that he understood how to secure and gun and then to use one, those are familiar things, and there is a pattern here.

So I think we should do the hard work of thinking about these matters. We should do the hard work of asking how white supremacy can manifest itself in various levels of our society, and can even manifest itself in our sense of who we are. We should do the hard work of asking what we can do to continue the work that has already been done to undermine such thinking. This is the start I think we all need to make. It is what I am trying to do.

¤

DéLana R.A. Dameron is the author of How God Ends Us, a collection of poems selected by Elizabeth Alexander for the 2008 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize.


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