By D.R.E. James
Charleston, crumbling eloquently under the weight of hurricanes, humidity and history, possessed those subtle aesthetic nuances I’m infatuated with–exposed brick, fading hand painted signage and the chipped edge of a claw foot tub. The summer I moved there the city had just completed a dynastic reign as the number one city in the world according to Travel and Leisure magazine 5 years in a rainbow row, ala the New York Yankees from 1949-1953.
I was caught up in a Lowcountry wanderlust. The rustling, when a slight zephyr cut through the palmetto fronds sounded as glorious as a spurt from Julian Dash’s tenor saxophone. I remember bragging to my homegirl Tasha studying law in San Francisco that the Haight-Ashbury had nothing on Mazyck-Wraggborough. My schemes were grand and my thoughts were cashmere.
Thoughts of diddy bopping with Frankie, my rambunctious 3 year old daughter from the frothy surf of Folly Beach to festivities of the MOJA festival. Thoughts of high falutin al fresco with poet laureates. Thoughts of witnessing a Shepard Fairey mural on a whim or a glimpse of Bill Murray bumping down Upper King in a rickshaw. Thoughts of a place where maître d’s outnumber the police. Thoughts of washing down lamb biryani with generous gulps of neo tropical India Pale Ale. I was scheming as a tuxedoed pianist played “Pure Imagination” the theme from Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory on a baby grand and my cousin Marvin and I toasted mimosas at the bar of the Francis Marion Hotel. Scheming a coup d’état of Hanna Raskin, as the city’s premiere food writer. From there, using my ink pen as a Khopesh I’d help turn The Charleston Chronicle in a journalistic juggernaut and instigate a rivalry with The Post and Courier. I’d chop it up with B.J. Dennis about bucket hats and Nat Fuller. I’d ask the sommelier Femi Oyederien could the scuppernong ever shake it’s “country cousin” stigma and become a voluptuous and respectful wine. Then things got really real.
One morning on the corner of Cannon and St. Philip Streets I bumped into this brother around my age. From the look in his eyes, something told me that he was on the cusp of doing some ill-advised foolishness. We talked on that corner for about 15 minutes, then I told him I was running late for work. We dapped up and I wedged a wrinkled $10 bill into his fist. I knew very well that it took just as must restraint for those tears not to slide down his face as it did for him not to rob one of these white folks en route to their Bikram yoga sessions, oblivious to any plight. That incident ruptured the levee of my consciousness. I’m already a habitual over thinker, sometimes it’s a blessing, sometimes it’s to my detriment. From that moment on I started to think that white Charlestonians, living in their perpetual jubilee care more about the humanity of a carriage horse clunking thought the French Quarter with tourist in tow than the well-being of a black Charlestonian.
I started to think since plantations are now swank wedding venues and rice isn’t funding opulence. White Charlestonians see black Charlestonians as a burden. My soul was in shambles that entire summer. Lord Forgive me for this selfish statement, but the only bonafide happy moment I can conjure from that summer is when Frankie finally learned the chorus to Nas and Lauryn Hill’s classic duet “If I Ruled the World.” Even thinking about it now makes my heart melt like freshly whipped honey butter does when it slathered over the fluffy innards of a hushpuppy.
Most black Charlestonians I encountered, especially the old-timers rambling on in an almost inaudible dialect, reminisced about the wonder years of Mosquito Beach, before vendettas turned the sugar shacks into slaughter houses and about how the “it takes a village” mantra has evaporated from the culture. They’ve witnessed occupational aspirations go longshoreman and shrimpers to basketball point guards and rappers. They’ve witnessed gentrification, which had been dolled up and now called rejuvenation or beautification, in other words “we’re going to creep in, spruce up your shabby neighborhood and then kick you out” sending blacks on the peninsula back peddling up Dorchester Road and the ones on the islands of James, John and Daniel feeling the pressure of developers with plans for country clubs and cul-de-sacs.
They’ve witnessed black proprietorship dwindle to mainly barbershops, because the convenient stores they did have, are now being operated by owners who speak Farsi. They assured me that the city’s soul is gasping for its last breath. I witnessed it, the scrupulously curated antebellum swagger choking the life out of the city’s blackness. I was thinking this is city is the cradle of the black diaspora sponsored by men like Henry Laurens via the Transatlantic Slave Trade, before Jack Johnson, Motown, Tuskegee Airman, the Harlem Renaissance, hip hop, the Black Panther Party or any other zeitgeist of black excellence. This where it all began so when did things go awry? If they had such a head start how did a city like Atlanta beat them to the finish line of African American affluence?
Since I was in this holier than thou city, I started to think about the Holy Bible, Deuteronomy 28 to be precise. Scratch off lottery tickets, food stamps, section 8, dope deals, stray bullets, sidewalk memorials of teddy bears and silk roses with plastic stems and empty bottles of the victim favorite cognac, 16” Malaysian wavy, dice games, pit-bull puppies, fatherless toddlers and murderous police. Is this the punishment the good book had promised us? Porgy and Bess in modern-day, a life full of squalor and tumult. I thought about Genesis 15:13 “know of a surety that they shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs.” I started to think I should really be in Zamunda, in the lap of luxury playing polo with Prince Hakeem because this is neither my land or heirlooms–the chandeliers, the oil painting of a sturdy thoroughbred wrapped in a gold baroque frame, the regatta trophies, the blue canton ginger vases. None of it.
I thought about that chef who was gunned down in the kitchen at Virginia’s on King and how I wasn’t surprised the triggerman was black. Just like I wasn’t surprised that black folks called the slave cabins at McLeod Plantation home until the 1990’s. I thought about my mama, being redbone, mulatto or whatever, having a chance to stay in the big house, but my father, who is as big and black as the day is long, would have surely been out toiling in the field, literally picking his weight in Sea Island cotton. I wasn’t surprised to find out that Mother Emanuel, the beautiful church that was the setting of a horrific massacre, is on a street named after John C. Calhoun who peered down on me in disgust from 115 feet in the air as I plundered through a basket of Tuscan Kale at Marion Square’s Farmer’s Market. I thought about how he called slavery “a positive good” and how the base of his statue said, “TRVST JUSTICE AND THE CONSTITUVTION” and I thought as a black man in America I couldn’t trust either one.
I tried with vigor, to see Charleston like a Jonathan Green masterpiece, breezy and vibrant, but instead I thought about the lithographs of Henry Louis Stephens, wicked and wretched. I mean, my hometown of Southport, North Carolina is only two and half hours up the coastline. My granny Annie Ruth and granddaddy Buck knew Jim Crow very well. Strange Fruit also hung from those ancient oaks in my neck of the woods, but I was ill-prepared for this.
Eating and drinking top notch vittles and booze usually soothes my angst and puts me in a jovial spirit, but even when I dipped into a sea foam banquette at the Darling Oyster Bar, in all its Nauti-posh splendor. I couldn’t slurp those Beausoliel oysters from their shells without remembering that The Darling is also a purveyor of Geechie Boy grits and how that brand is graffitied with cultural appropriation and exploitation. The whole Gullah Geechee thing reminded me of the now defunct mascot from Cleveland Indians baseball franchise, Chief Wahoo. I couldn’t help, but think if “they” had their way, the Gullah Geechee mascot would be some sambo-like caricature with a Kool-Aid smile.
The next day when I ventured to the eastside to enjoy a breakfast of sautéed crab over grits at Hannibal’s my mind once again veered off into super-conscious territory. I thought about William Deas, Mayor Rhett’s butler, who with generous dashes of sherry and fresh crab roe turned she crab soup from a morbid bisque to a bowl of legend. I thought about my cousin Marvin who pondered moving to Charleston as a restaurateur and what that might look like based on the range of that industry from bottoming out at busting suds in the dish pit and a crescendo as a career fry cook.
How did I get royally bamboozled?
I thought back to Travel and Leisure magazine and how their readers are pomp sophisticates, who take snorkeling excursions in Grenada and are privy to the fact that the “g” in gnocchi is silent. They don’t know that the orange package of Top Ramen is chicken and the red is beef. They captained the equestrian team at Kent School and have labradoodles named Percival and Phoebe. They’ve never watched an episode of Showtime at the Apollo on bootleg cable.In realizing this I felt as befuddled as Denzel in Malcolm X when he realized the author of Webster’s dictionary was a white man from Connecticut. Strange enough, that’s when I realized that the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Mr. Nathaniel Lump, could tie his Italian silk knit tie into a proper windsor knot, but couldn’t tie a durag.
I think about if black Charlestonians think they’re on the masthead of the city’s glossy narrative of old moneyed stiffs, WASPy beaus sockless in loafers, wannabe debutantes and hipsters who try to dress craggly hoping to cloak the fact they they’re the recipients of hefty inheritances. I’m not sure, but they’re not throwing a pity party. Like most black folks, they’ve mastered the art of turning peril into pleasure. Even at our absolute worst, we throw on our Sunday’s best in such a way a that a crack fiend could simultaneously be black queen (or king). We snatch eviction notices off doors and turn it into confetti, even with the stove heating the house on chilly winter night. We still do the electric slide at Easter cookouts. A potent synthesis of pride and resilience.
I’m sure, Darius Rucker, strumming a guitar from a hammock atop Mount Pleasant may think I have his city pegged all wrong. Charlemagne, the media enigma who wears SHRIMP AND GRITS t-shirts and rightfully big ups Charleston every time he’s within 100 feet of a microphone, may think I’m tripping. This pocket of cultured, “woke” artsy-fartsy cool kids, who sport Ankh chains, dashikis and septum rings to Egyptian musk-scented poetry shindigs may also feel like I’m tripping. They may call me out for being from the other Carolina and say I have no business nitpicking at their beloved city. However, if any of them want to duke it out, I’m ready! I treat verbal jousting as an intellectual sport and I’m even prepared to engage in fisticuffs if it come down to that. I’m not running. I’m going to stand my ground and see if I can make sense of this. Whether it be sweltering sauna-like conditions deprived of rainfall or flooded streets. Even if it’s not ripe for my taking I’m going to get my chunk of this pineapple everybody’s been yapping about.