Two weeks ago, I found myself back in downtown Charleston, surrounded by police cars…
I realized immediately: “There are probably nine funerals this weekend.”
Several years ago, I was enrolled in a bar prep class in Charleston, South Carolina. I was new in town. I was new to the state. Although I was knee-deep in law books, I’d still had the time to read up on some local politics. What I read puzzled me, so I struck up a conversation about it with a young, local African-American woman who was sitting next to me in my bar class. Her explanation was simple: the collective memory of slavery and of the Civil War was still alive here.
“It lingers,” she said matter-of-factly. There was a subtle sadness in her voice that haunts me to this day.
Two weeks ago, I found myself back in downtown Charleston, surrounded by police cars. I was trying to make my way to my favorite coffee shop in my old neighborhood. I’d flown into town for a joyous occasion, the seventieth birthday of a dear friend. It was a beautiful morning. However, despite the cheery, historic homes with window boxes full of flowers, there was a strange solemnity over downtown Charleston that day. The streets were all blocked off. Police cars were everywhere. People were walking in a light but steady stream down the sidewalks, all in their Sunday best, bright colorful suit dresses and hats. It was Saturday. I realized immediately:
“There are probably nine funerals this weekend.”
Charleston isn’t that big, and downtown Charleston is a finger of a peninsula, not so dissimilar from Manhattan in shape. I wove my way across downtown, blocked street to blocked street, all the way to Black Tap. As I walked from my car to the coffee shop, I passed an older black man on the sidewalk. He walked a wide path, out of his way, to make room for me. I felt a pang of guilt. Things were different in the North. I got my coffee. It was just as good as I remembered, but felt somewhat trivial in light of the circumstances.
I downed my coffee and headed back, crossing all those same streets again. At some point, a storm had rolled in, a strange, inexplicable misty haze. On East Bay, as I approached the bridge to Mt. Pleasant, big fat raindrops began to pellet my windshield, then buckets. Halfway across the Ravenel, it was raining sideways through the bridge cables in big gusts. I could hardly see. Somehow, practically being blown off the bridge was less unsettling than the previous sun. More fitting.
At the birthday party, it was clear that the town was still coming to terms with what had happened on June 17, 2015—with friends lost, the shock, the tension. One woman breathed a sigh of relief; they weren’t the next Ferguson.
It was at that point that I began to understand the gravity of the situation. This was a hate crime. Nine people were dead. Dead. All of their loved ones left to mourn. Their city left to mourn. I understood all that when I landed in Charleston the day before. What I hadn’t fully appreciated was the context. The police shooting of Walter Scott, on April 4, 2015, was still fresh in people’s minds. The city in many respects had been in lockdown since the nine were gunned down in church. People were sad, but they were also scared. Things could have been worse. It could have been a lot worse.
Two weeks after my friend’s birthday party, a certain flag has been ripped out of a certain plot of soil in Columbia, South Carolina. Ripped out by Republicans. It’s a historic moment. You’ve probably read about it. You may have been talking about it.
After hearing and reading some comments from friends and family in the Midwest, I have to say, many people in the Midwest just don’t understand the South. I grew up in Oklahoma. Oklahoma, culturally, really isn’t the South. I rarely saw the Confederate flag growing up. When I did, it was in movies and, very occasionally, in the back window of an F150 pickup truck. I wasn’t offended by those trucks. I was puzzled by them. They were peculiar. It struck me as a symbol of poor, white rebellion. Nascar-types. Trailer parks. I shrugged. I didn’t get it, but I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it back then.
In South Carolina, the Confederate flag wasn’t relegated a handful of the eccentric poor. Flags were in front of trailers and mansions. They were flown in universities and on the South Carolina Capitol grounds.
More importantly, the flag’s history—all of it—hasn’t been forgotten in South Carolina. “It lingers.”
If you are having a hard time wrapping your mind around why so many African Americans, and others, in the South have found the presence of the Confederate flag on state grounds in Southern states to be so troubling, please consider this analogy: How would Jews living in Berlin feel if the German government started flying the Nazi flag alongside the modern German flag? Would they feel welcome in Germany? Would a government that cared about them, that represented them, do something like that? The atrocities that these two groups have suffered under these two flags are not so dissimilar, and they are not forgotten. Nor should they be. Nor should history. However, certain pieces of historical memorabilia, in the name of kindness and inclusivity, are better left to museums.