The Holy City: Charleston, A Remembrance




MY RELATIONSHIP TO the South (always capital S) is complicated, and loaded. But there will always be reverence and love. I had to put distance between us to know how to love it, to appreciate what it gave me, to understand what it might have taken away. Only lately have I been able to articulate, or understand, that I moved to New York City in order to know how to love the South — and myself — better. It’s as though, to my dismay, as I get older, I continue to morph into my mother. The older I get — in spite of everything — I can’t help but acknowledge and feel this important pull Home.

I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, but Charleston is the home of my father. Before he turned 50, his whole immediate family — his younger brother, his older sister, his beloved mother — lay buried in the salt marsh. As a child, I spent a considerable amount of time in Charleston, visiting my grandmother and aunts and uncles, being their stand-in child on off-holidays, because my mother’s family was in Columbia and such was the sacrifice my father made. It was never enough time. Only now can I voice it. It was never enough time.

My grandmother died on Halloween when I was a freshman in college. My life changed. Later, my sister moved to Charleston, and lived in her house a few years before it had to be sold. Although I finished two years at the University of North Carolina, I transferred to the College of Charleston citing financial reasons, but now, with understanding, I see it differently. It was something else. Some pull, some intuition. Perhaps the same pull I feel today, two days after a 21-year-old white man walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Calhoun Street in Charleston, South Carolina, and sat in on a Bible study meeting before standing up and opening fire, killing six black women and three black men.

Mama Sonia Sanchez says, “I [will] speak your name so there is a tomorrow.” And so, I must: Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons, DePayne Middleton-Doctor.

I will not honor or call the name of the murderer.

My colleagues yesterday, when they asked why I was sad after I informed them of the massacre, asked, “Did you know anyone personally?” Despite the ridiculousness of the questioning — that I had to have a reason — I recognized then that everything I am today — a writer, a runner, a biker, a lover (wife?), an educator, a worker, a black woman — can be attributed to the time I lived in Charleston. A part of me — stronger than an identification as a black body again under attack — is there, mourning, seeking answers, perhaps retribution.

At 20, living in Charleston was the first time I had to consider what it meant to work to pay the bills. I became an adult in Charleston. I lived off campus, on Calhoun Street five blocks west of Emanuel AME Church. In anticipation of this life transition, I visited a few months earlier, walked into GAP on King Street, and asked, “Are you hiring? Here is my resume.” I sat down with the general manager immediately and was told, “When you get here in May, let’s start you at $7.50 an hour.” I thought I had made it. I was making a life.

The City of Charleston, how I learned to explain it to New Yorkers, is geographically similar to New York City. It is a port city where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers converge and open out to the sea. Like New York City’s five boroughs, there are five distinct areas of Charleston. The Peninsula, West Ashley, James Island, Johns Island, and Daniel Island. North Charleston, on the scene now because that was where Walter Scott was hunted down and killed, is technically outside city limits, perhaps like Riverdale or Westchester, except all black residents and not nearly the same privilege pouring down the hills.

My father grew up in West Ashley in a white house with a white door and “The Blood of Jesus” etched in the entryway. Blacks were directed to live and build their houses there in the 1950s; as elsewhere, like Brooklyn, investors bought these residences back from the aging and the estates of the deceased in the 2000s. It was less than a mile from the river. The Arthur Ravenel Bridge could be seen from my grandmother’s porch. You could smell the salt marsh at night if your windows were open.

When I lived there, I lived Downtown, in the Peninsula, the Manhattan of Charleston. This is where tourists go to view the multimillion-dollar houses on the Battery, to walk up and down the aisles of the Slave Market, now operating as a Flea Market, flanked by Gullah women weaving seagrass into baskets. When I moved there, and acquired my $550.00 in rent, and a $7.50 wage from the GAP was not enough, I rode my bike the four blocks from my house to the Francis Marion Hotel, where a sign in the window of Port City Java announced they were hiring baristas. I loved coffee, and I loved paying rent. I walked in with my resume, sat down with the general manager. I was hired.

I opened up the store every morning at 7:00 a.m., served coffee to the tourists, and those suits working nearby. I made friends, made a cup of coffee, and rode my bike down King Street for History and English classes at 11:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., when I would start my shift at the GAP. Port City Java looked out onto Marion Square, a small park in the middle of the Peninsula. If I squinted enough through the trees, I could see Emanuel AME Church in all its white majesty. Charleston’s other name is “The Holy City.” It is said to have more churches per square block than any other city in the country — though now, living in Brooklyn, with all its churches every block, I wonder.

Anyways, still wet behind the ears, long before I was hardened by years of living in New York City, I left the coffee shop to go to class or work at the GAP, and left my wallet on the counter when I went to the bathroom. It had only a few dollars, and my state ID and my college ID. Someone must have walked in, found my wallet, took it, and walked out. Someone must have taken the sad few dollars in the wallet, and having nothing else to do with it, dropped it on the ground.

I wish transformative moments in my life didn’t revolve around my losing a wallet or a phone. If you’ll allow: Once, when I was getting drinks after work with my colleague a week after my dad’s brother died, I decided I had had enough of grief, that I would feel better so why waste the energy now. I wouldn’t grieve properly. I would drink. And talk. I went to the bathroom, and went home. I felt better. I got home to discover that my phone was not in my purse, and that the one thing that still contained my uncle’s voice on my voicemail was gone; it was then that I recognized that he was fully gone, that I was still holding on to him, but he was gone. I cried.

When my wallet was taken from me, I had lost my identification. I had lost the few dollars that were going to buy my singular veggie sub for lunch and dinner because that was all I could afford at the time. A few days later, I received an email from a woman who found my wallet on the ground in front of Emanuel AME Church. The money is gone, she told me, but it seems the credit cards (all canceled at this point) and IDs are still there. She told me she sees that I am a College of Charleston student and must be local, so she would be in the offices of the church for the day and the rest of the week if I wanted to pick it up.

The other thing I became when I moved to the Holy City was a young woman who embraced Christianity. Indeed, this is when this part of my identity was gelling, when I understood things that happened to me and around me were not some machination of a deity out of reach, but that my intuition pulled me to Charleston so that I could be closer to home when my father suffered congestive heart failure (the same thing that took his mother, took his sister). And I could drop everything and drive the short drive up Interstate 26, to sit by his hospital bedside. It wouldn’t have been possible with the responsibilities I had building up for me as a student at Chapel Hill. God had moved me to move, I concluded. God had pulled me back so that I could be there with my family, and be the rock.

So when I told my grandmother’s spiritual son who adopted me after I moved to Charleston that I fell out of touch because in addition to losing my IDs, my few dollars, and my debit card, I lost the business card with his phone number in it, something was working against me. Satan, I said, was trying to have his way in the midst of all of the good I was able to accomplish.

But when my wallet came back to me!

I don’t remember the name or the face of the woman who waited for me to come and retrieve my wallet. I just remember the kindness, the grace she extended me; I think of her when I read the news about the massacre. When I think about the fact that the young white man almost didn’t discharge the bullets into the black bodies because they were so graceful and merciful to him. I think of her, and black men and women like her, sitting in the pews on that Wednesday night Bible Study, worshipping the same God I sometimes praise, sometimes curse.

I think of the graceful woman when my white co-worker asks me why I’m sad about the massacre carried out by a young white man that specifically targeted black worshippers of a God that continues to urge us to allow Him to seek vengeance.

And yet.

Because this happened below the Mason-Dixon line in a state that has so many other public relations issues, I fear a potential for mixed messages. To be clear: the murderer would have done his crime against black bodies with or without a confederate flag on top of a state house. That is not where we should be expending our energy. The murderer would still have found ways to carry out his ultimate motive to “take [the black bodies] out” whether or not his access to a gun was lawful. Just the same — the officers in Ferguson, on Staten Island, in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn don’t just decide to target black bodies because on their shirt is a badge. To use the language of my grandmother — who, if she were alive, might have been in a Wednesday Night Bible Study herself — this is about addressing and changing the climate of the country. This is about addressing and changing what’s in the heart, the hatred in the heart, and a system that reinforces, yes, allows it to grow and thrive and live and be free.

And yet.

Every day I live in fear that I will be in a place wherein someone who hates the very thought of my existence takes it upon himself or herself to remove me from this plane of existence. I went to bed Wednesday night and dreamt about Charleston, and woke up Thursday morning before the sun thinking about what life we are living right now. I got on the train, and a white man I had never seen before (you know morning commutes in the city; you see the same faces on the same trains in the same cars Monday through Friday) got on at Franklin Avenue, and — this is what fear will do to you — he had a bald head and tattoos on his face, and up and down the length of his uncovered arm to his knuckles. I watched the faces of the black travelers watch his face. I watched his face. The train was “delayed because of train traffic” between stations and the light flickered on and off. I swear the air conditioner in the train was off. Did I smile at him when he walked in? I look over at him between flashes, and, even now my heart is racing, his hands were reaching toward his pocket. Did he look me in the eyes when he walked in and moved next to me? I move to the other side of the train when it shifts back into motion and allow the inertia to act as my motivator, to mask my fear. His hand is still in his pocket. The black faces are still looking at me, are looking at him. He is on the other side of the train from me. The train stopped between stations because of traffic, and I had sweated into my gray T-shirt. This was my ride into work, into a world in which no white person in the office had any indication that there had been yet another assault on black men and women. Into a space in which I said I was not okay right now, because there is nowhere I can live. Nowhere I can go to be free.

¤

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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