A week ago I went to Charleston, South Carolina for the 8th Biennial Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora conference. When I found out the conference was going to be in Charleston I was hesitant and uncomfortable considering that this past June nine innocent black people were murdered at the Mother Emmanuel AME Church by a racist terrorist. When the incident happened I was deeply hurt but not surprised. The black church has always served as a a safe space where black people could be themselves and be protected but the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and then the Charleston 9 show that white supremacy respects no boundaries but lives to terrorize black people anywhere they are. A few months earlier Walter Scott was murdered in North Charleston, where my hotel was,and had it not been for a video the lie his murderer told would have determined how Walter Scott was remembered. These recent events were on my mind as I went to the conference and many at the conference made the effort to honor those that had recently died at the hands of white supremacy, which added a much needed level of conciousness in such a tense space.
The fight to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse was a polarizing topic in the aftermath of the shooting of the Charleston 9 and although I did not see a flag during my four days down there, it’s shadow stretched far and wide over the area. Once I arrived at the conference a friend of mine informed me about the gentrification that was taking place so rapidly that a town that was once known for its large black population was becoming increasingly white. It was important that I heard this because we tend to limit gentrification to the north or post-industrial cities but my friend was sure to point out how it was also present in the South and how it was impacting the city dynamics. She mentioned that many of the new white people moving to Charleston wanted to live out their Gone With the Wind fantasies in this old south town. I wasn’t surprised when I heard this as it only proves how gentrification, especially when the gentrifiers are white, is colonialism. The gentrifiers buy into an area with hopes that the “natives” will bend to their will and serve them just like colonial invaders did to people in Africa, Asia, the America, and Australia.
Yet it wouldn’t be until I actually had the chance to leave the conference site in North Charleston and head to the heart of Charleston that I was able to see what my friend was talking about. As our Uber driver took us from our hotel to downtown, we passed through the black neighborhood which I knew before I saw a single black person because of the many signs of urban decay such as rotting boarded up houses, the lack of businesses, and the deteriorating sidewalks to name a few. However once we got downtown you could tell that this was the area the city cared about. Myself and my two colleagues were immediately surrounded by white faces going about their business. When we went to lunch we were the only black people besides a black woman who was with a white friend in the restaurant. The three of us looked out of place. Also, it was ironic to hear about white people moving out to the islands to live considering that during slavery many planters felt the climate on the islands was too unbearable and would practice a type of absentee ownership where they would move away for the summer and fall. The tale of two Charlestons was obvious. The outskirts were for the blacks to stay only to enter the white spaces when they were needed to provide labor, whereas downtown was where the whites came to play from their island abodes. (They even had a restaurant called The Planter’s Inn because slavery was so good that we need to remember the planters who were in believed in buying and selling human beings). Even the famous Charleston City Market had an eerie feeling about it. It was easy to imagine enslaved women and men walking the streets doing business as they looked at the new slaves that were being dragged off of the slaves ships in chains to be sold in the streets. It also didn’t help that the Daughters of the Confederacy Museum was on top of the market or that there was a carriage tour filled with white tourists and a white guide dressed in a colonial outfit with a whip in hand. The romaticization of slavery was on full display and it seemed that no one cared that the city sprung from the deaths of enslaved Africans and their American born children.
Yet it wasn’t until we visited the Old Slave Mart that I was able to truly understand how slavery made this Old South city thrive. The building had been converted into a museum but walking through it there was a haunting feeling. I had visited other places dedicated to studying and understanding slavery yet the feeling of being in a building where black people were bought and sold brought it all home for me. I stopped and
touched the brick walls which had stood and watched the sale of black people standing as silent witnesses to the families that were ripped apart all for the profit of planters. I was so overcome with emotion I stood there touching the wall looking at the shackles that I had seen before but now seemed more real. The echoes of the enslaved people that were sold out of this little building filled the place.
The museum was barely filled on the Saturday afternoon while a few blocks away the restaurants were bustling with excitement with the new and old money rubbing shoulders. This was Charleston the city built on the backs of black people. Fifty-Four percent of enslaved people that were brought to what would become the United States came through Charleston (Online they say 40% yet this is a statistic cited by several scholars who were at the conference who study slavery so I’ll take their word at it). I can easily see some Caribbean immigrants distancing themselves from Charleston saying that that stat has nothing to do with their ancestors. This is false. There was a tight connection between Charleston and the West Indies as many planters from Barbados migrated to the Lowcountry already with the knowledge of how to run a plantation causing slavery to be entrenched in South Carolina from the beginning whereas elsewhere planters were still experimenting. As a result it is not difficult to imagine an ancestor of mine having a loved one sold to be a slave in South Carolina. It is not difficult to imagine said loved one, possibly a child, passing through the walls of the slave mart to be inspected by buyers eager to put her/him to work. The ghosts that haunt Charleston fight to be heard amidst the attempt to erase and compartmentalize them for cultural consumption as seen with the recent gentrification down there. Somewhere in those echoes in the slave mart is probably a distant ancestor of mine who through forced labor built Charleston with their blood yet now fights for someone to remember what happened to them.
P.S. my colleague was doing work in our hotel when she overheard three old white women say that Spanish speaking immigrants need to be forced to learn English so as a result the next time we saw her we decided to speak Spanish just to make her upset. We did this at a restaurant where we were getting bad service while all the white patrons were quickly dealt attended to and the same white patrons looked at us like they couldn’t believe black people speak Spanish.
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