History, I thought. History would make the summer more interesting. The children were old enough to understand and, I hoped, to care about the monumental events, the social upheavals, the great and the forgotten that make up the living past. The old South. Slavery. The Civil War. We live, after all, in North Carolina. And who better than their parents to try to trace for them the intricate web of the understood and the misunderstood and the never-to-be-understood that make up history. History, I thought — if you want to call running with such a dangerous whim thinking.
I’d heard that Charleston, an old seaport city in South Carolina, was a town rich in history and beautiful to walk in, with its eighteenth century homes exquisitely preserved. Located in the sub-tropical “low country” — a coastal plain steeped in the tradition of great plantations — it had the distinction of being the city where the Civil War started, on a misty morning in 1861, when Confederate troops began their bombardment of Fort Sumter.
What the Chamber of Commerce immodestly but aptly described as “superlative white sand beaches” clinched the deal. Since we went to the beach with the children every year anyway, and since I didn’t want to go back to sleepy Holden Beach in North Carolina — where the only cultural attraction was the magazine rack at the 7-11 — I thought this would be a great opportunity to upgrade the family vacation.
We rented a house on the Isle of Palms, a balmy sea island about fifteen minutes from downtown Charleston. The house was expensive, as were all the other houses on the beach. I hesitated before plunking down more than two weeks’ salary for a one-week rental, but I knew that, in addition to the house, we were getting Charleston’s gardens and parks and churches; its museum, America’s oldest; Boone Hall, the plantation where “Gone With The Wind” was filmed. History. We could pinch pennies the rest of the year.
I realized this wouldn’t be an easy history lesson. Though I’ve lived in the South nearly fifteen years, and there’s much here I love, I distrust the South’s myths about itself, its romance with its past. I knew that Charleston, as a city preeminently Southern, a symbol of the flowering of antebellum culture, a living reflection — as the Chamber of Commerce delicately puts it — “of a graceful way of life that has all but vanished,” had a side that was stony and cruel. Still, this was 1986, this was the new South; bigotry and occasional violence still existed but not like in the old days. We weren’t Freedom Riders, risking our lives to integrate lunch counters, but a family on vacation, insulated from white racism by our color and insulated from the past by time. By time, and by the blessing — or is it the curse? — of painfully short memories. Perhaps we all need short memories to let the new rise from the old. But I found that my memory wasn’t short enough to take Charleston on its own terms.
On our first day in town — in 1986, in the new South — the Times-Courier reported that the NAACP was up in arms because Ernest Hollings, the junior senator from South Carolina, had referred to blacks as “darkies.” What was all the fuss about, the Times-Courier wanted to know. In an editorial upbraiding the NAACP, the newspaper suggested that the senator had always been a friend of blacks, and wondered why he was being condemned for a slip of the tongue. Hadn’t anyone from the NAACP, it asked, ever called a white man a honky?
I set aside the Times-Courier and spent a few hours walking around Charleston. I had to admit all the things I’d heard were true. The magnificent old houses and lush gardens and hidden courtyards and cobblestone streets were incomparably beautiful. Since people lived and worked in the historic district, its cleanliness and charm were even more impressive. It was less like a city than a museum and was, understandably, a source of tremendous civic pride. It was the Charleston you see on posters and postcards. It was rich. It was white. But it was just one of Charleston’s faces, the one always turned to the camera; we discovered another Charleston only a few blocks away.
There, the houses were also old. But the wood was rotting. The paint was flaking. Instead of elegant little courtyards and gardens there was overflowing trash. It was poor. It was black. It was the Charleston the guidebooks don’t mention, but which was just as much the legacy of that bygone, glorious age.
Slavery and segregation did far more damage to blacks than a couple of decades of remedial programs have been able to fix. There are many explanations for the existence of a black underclass in American cities, but all the talk becomes frivolous when it drowns out the cries of the past. Past, but echoing still: the groaning voices; the ringing chains; the sails of the slave ships, sighing in the wind. And later, too much later, guns and hoses and dogs and clubs, heralding what some hoped was a solution. But there’s no solution to the rape and ruin of a people. Perhaps a kind of healing is possible, but only by hearts big enough to contain an uncontainable grief.
I’m sure there are many people in Charleston — politically aware, generous, moral people — who strive to improve race relations and help the poor. But the city is so jazzed on the memories of its past, so lost in dreams of faded glory, that the obstacles these people face must be enormous. Like an old dowager wandering distractedly through her once elegant but now neglected mansion, recalling the people and parties and conversations that once gave meaning to her life, Charleston seems to long for a way of life that’s impossibly out of reach, a glory that can exist only in memory — and a stingy memory at that.
There was, in the displays we saw, scarce recognition of slavery at all. At the Magnolia Plantation, for example, our guide described in minute and reverential detail each room of the Drayton family’s ancestral home. But in the upstairs art gallery, amidst the many scenes of plantation life, there was remarkably little about the three hundred slaves who, along with the Draytons, also called Magnolia Plantation home. One notable exception: a drawing of the Reverend Drayton receiving gifts at Christmas — from his grateful slaves.
The old slave shacks were still somewhere on the sprawling grounds, but we were left on our own to find them; the brochure they handed us at the front gate discreetly referred to them as “a row of antebellum cabins.”
Whenever it came to slaveholding — which insured the splendor of the old South as surely as oil sustains us in our imperial glory today — Charleston, “America’s most historic city,” told its history as badly as a kid caught in a lie.
Ironically, the children — for whom this lesson had been arranged — didn’t seem troubled by Charleston’s present, or its past. Norma and I exhorted them to remember the forgotten tragedies, but what they mostly heard, I suspect, were grown-ups telling them to think this and feel that. How easily I forget, when trying to improve young minds, how minds work: there is earned and there is received knowledge, and they’re as different as the breeze from a window and from a fan.
I remember, as a young boy, being scolded by my father for laughing at some kids. They were playing catch with the cardboard tube from a roll of toilet paper. Had it occurred to me, he asked sternly, that they might not be able to afford a ball? No, it hadn’t; nor had it occurred to me — as from the tone of his voice I realized it should — that I was supposed to feel bad about it.
It was an important and painful moment. Not only was I made aware of how privileged we were, in comparison to a family that couldn’t afford fifteen cents for a ball, but I swallowed whole my father’s guilt. Now I, too, was responsible for the world’s ills, only I didn’t know why. It took me many years to figure out the difference between guilt and compassion, to see how one arises from a belief in our separateness and creates more suffering while the other relieves suffering because it knows all hearts are one.
I realized that I didn’t want to create the same confusion for my children in my eagerness to teach them something about the past. I’d rather give them nothing than a world of illusions. Besides, their own experience speaks to them more eloquently than I ever can. The only real history is the one we live moment by moment; perhaps, if we live truthfully, we learn some truth about the world. If, as Emerson said, there’s no history, only biography, the best place to begin is with ourselves.
By the end of the week, everyone was tired of going places. Enough history, we decided. Outside our door was the beach!
As it turned out, the house we rented was near a point on the island where the ocean meets an inlet. The inlet itself was off-limits for swimming because of strong currents. The day we moved in, though, a neighbor told us swimming was dangerous in front of our house, too.
It was common knowledge, she said, that along the beach the currents were treacherous. Just last year, a boy had drowned; a friend, trying to save him, drowned too. If we wanted to go swimming or even wading we should go several hundred yards down the shore.
I fumed about the situation each time we had to scramble over the prickers and scratchy weeds and hilly dunes to get to where it was safe. I was furious with the town, for not posting warnings, and with the realty company, for pocketing our money without telling us what all the locals knew. While Norma and the children played in the waves, I sat on the hot sand composing angry letters. The indifference! The greed! I’d demand a refund! I’d threaten to sue!
On our last day, we went for a long walk, to say goodbye to the ocean and gather more shells. The sky was cloudless, the sea breezes cool; Charleston seemed far away. We walked until dinner time, then turned around and headed back. From a distance, we could tell that on the beach, in front of our house, something was happening. As we got nearer, we saw three women standing together, crying. Closer to shore another woman was stretched out on the sand. Her eyes were shut, her body was heaving. She was wailing, “Let me die, let me die. Oh God, please let me die.”
Two men knelt beside her. We ran over and asked if we could help. One of them pointed to the ocean. “Her daughter’s out there,” he said. “We can’t find her. Someone called the rescue quad, but it’s been twenty minutes. Can you call again?”
We made the call and hurried back. By then a crowd had gathered. Police had arrived. Still, the woman sobbed. “Please God,” she pleaded, “bring her back to me.” Again and again.
We stood there, transfixed, not wanting to be spectators but not wanting to leave. We didn’t know what to do. The children were weeping; I hated to see them so upset; but it felt wrong to mediate between them and this grief. Was there ever a cry so desolate? It laid the heart bare. It was the sorrow of being on this earth with the light gone out of you, with everything taken from you except despair.
With our arms around each other, Norma and the children and I watched as two boats dragged the water; I knew there was no hope she’d be found alive. I knew, too, this could have been avoided. I knew that if it hadn’t been for the neighbor, it might have been my child out there.
When the reporters arrived, I insisted they get the whole story, that someone be accountable, that this not be allowed to happen again. But later that night, on the news, there was nothing about the town’s negligence. The drowning was a “tragedy,” an indiscriminate act of nature; the cruel and senseless sea had claimed another victim. History. Written with a stick, on sand.
What’s still enigmatic to me about the drowning is that it had nothing and everything to do with our week in Charleston, with racism, with poverty, with the South old and new.
Is it coincidence, I keep asking myself, that the family was black and poor, and came from Charleston on a day trip, and was the only black family we saw on the beach all week?
Isn’t it likely they would be drawn to a relatively isolated point on the island, where there were no other swimmers, because they might not be welcome farther down the beach? Because of this, weren’t they at greater risk? If they had rented a house — if they could have afforded a house — might not a neighbor have kindly told them where not to swim?
I know, I know: there are no answers to such questions. It could have been anyone in the water, including one of us. To see racism everywhere is paranoia. But I remember some graffiti from the Sixties: “It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you.” Of course, no one was after the girl. Except history, perhaps.
I suppose it’s after all of us, though. We’re all victims, when we don’t see beyond our prejudices, nor rise above the conceits of our moment in time. Racists are victims, too — of their fear, which keeps them from a more generous accommodation to the universe. I’m the victim of my fear when I don’t remember this, and shut my heart against them, and hate the ones who hate.