By D.R.E. James
The biggest and baddest dudes on the corner of Aiken and Columbus Street paused their dice game as I approached. They felt compelled to inform me how crazy I was for wearing a hoodie that read, in gold stitching: “BURN DOWN THE PLANTATIONS”. These men were the biggest and the baddest on the block, yet their ruthless hubris melted to unveil a sense of brotherly concern. If she were still living, I’d expect my granny Annie Ruth to gently reprimand me as she washed collard greens in the sink and took a pull from her cigarette. Back when she was my age “strange fruit” hanging from trees was a horrible, yet common trend. Her concern for my well-being would have been rightfully warranted. However, on this day, I couldn’t understand why these guys didn’t feel the same way I did about the hoodie’s message.
Lawlessness seemed to be their modus operandi—why were they suddenly so pensive? As if master was about to burst out of the minivan across the street and flog me with his bullwhip. Foolishly, I thought when I looked over my shoulder the dudes from the corner would be marching behind me with matching hoodies en route to the first of many plantations (Stono Rebellion-style). Unfortunately, this wasn’t the scenario. There were no Tupac Shakur among them. It was apparent that we weren’t cut from the same cloth (even if it was a cotton/rayon blend). Both fortunately and regrettably, I have people in my inner circle who are both loyal to my cause and insane enough to pull up to each plantation with a few gallons of gasoline and a book of matches to fulfill my mission; but it would be selfish of me to let anybody I care about take an arson charge on my behalf.
Think about when Public Enemy recruited Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane to create “Burn Hollywood Burn,” the most epic posse cut of all time. They bombastically castigated the institution that is Hollywood with its phony handshakes, fake smiles and shiesty politics. All of which lure black talent in with promises of riches and fame, but only pigeonhole, shortchange, and make jigaboos, mammies, Uncle Toms and sambos of them. Even as radical as Professor Griff’s S1W’s were and as crazy as Flavor Flav was, they weren’t really ever going to set Hollywood ablaze. Their lyrics were purely hyperbolic. I tried to explain this to my friend of mine who worked at the print shop where I was hoping to have my hoodies embroidered. After he declined the job, for fear of criminal charges, I was left in my bedroom (at 111 Drake Street) carefully positioning and ironing the adhesive letters onto the hoodies myself.
Although shock value wasn’t my intention, that hoodie garnered middle fingers, high fives, daps, scoffs, applauds, and sneers. I had people ready to rip it and buy it off my back. Creating the hoodie was more of a form of artistic expression. It was a statement that I’m not here to shuck and jive and just write about shrimp & grits. I’m not subscribing to any doctrine that breeds or supports any level of servitude or bondage. It was my way of denouncing the city’s deeply rooted ideology of white supremacy and chattel slavery.
I denounced the Plantation Singers who crooned “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” for a majority white, upper crust crowd at Hall’s Chophouse during their Sunday Gospel Brunch. I denounced Black families who stayed on plantations more than a century after Abraham Lincoln granted their ancestors the freedom to roam. I denounced any and every shindig that used these plantations as venues because I wanted to set fire to the wicked symbolism. Why must you keep reminding Black people we landed on slave ships, but never launched on spaceships? Why keep reminding us time and time and time again that we wore shackles, but never crowns?
Plantations currently operating in the Charleston area are the centerpieces of a meticulously curated neo-Antebellum wonderland that serves as the crux of the city’s Southern “charm.” The weight of white supremacy hasn’t gently “gone with the wind.” Rather, it’s still there sitting on sagging porches as hot and heavy as it’s even been. Even now, with the anniversary of the 2015 Charleston Church Shooting upon us, looking at photos of Dylann Roof posing in front of Boone Hall and McLeod Plantations makes me wholeheartedly believe he visited them to conjure the hatred needed to carry out his massacre.
It’s hard for me to be rocked to sleep by Charleston’s palmetto, pluff mud and pastel propaganda when I wake up to gunshots living in the Gadsden Green housing projects. Meanwhile, two blocks away a white couple scurries along, not to dodge stray bullets, but to make their reservation at Purlieu on time. It’s hard not to notice the line between decadence and deprivation when one night I’m enjoying charcuterie and palomas on the rooftop of the Grand Bohemian Hotel and the next I’m splitting a 40oz of malt liquor with my roommate, as he shakes every coin from his Crown Royal pouch to buy a few cans of Vienna sausage and a bag of cheese puffs from Knight’s Market.
I’m not saying anybody should be spared from the struggle. I know there’s beauty in the struggle and that nothing significant can be gained without it. That’s why I embrace the struggle with open arms, knowing that it’s made me a better man, father, writer, and everything in between. I also know that today the manifestation of systematic oppression from outside the community and internalized oppression from within are directly linked to atrocities facilitated on the very plantations promoted throughout the area. This is a ripple effect of generational peril. This is exactly why economic and social conditions for Black people in Charleston County are on par with conditions during Jim Crow, including a wealth gap so vast it’s damn near impossible to swim across. The rising tide of Black unemployment has flooded the city streets with no relief or FEMA in sight.
During my time in Charleston, I realized that mental and physical slavery are undoubtedly one in the same. This is why, for my own sanity, I’ve escaped the city named after a white king and am currently living in Charlotte, a city named in honor of an at least half-Black queen. I’m not a Charlestonian and I’m not Gullah Geechee. I’d never even heard of red rice prior to two summers ago. However, I feel obligated as a Black man to illuminate the ills of a city that owes its Black citizens more than an apology or museum for that matter.
What would Malcolm do? I’m thinking he’d bring the gasoline and H. Rap Brown would have the book of matches. After all, he said, “If America don’t come around, we’re gonna’ burn it down.” Maybe Angela Davis would be our lookout, anxiously tapping the gas pedal poised for a smooth getaway. She did flip Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer on its head when she said, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” That profound quote is the mission statement for my current sentiment.
Can we expect any real progress if Charleston County, with widespread community support, purchased McLeod Plantation for $3.3 million dollars, but recently only allotted $2.3 million for teacher salary increases in a notoriously lackluster school system? Is it ethical for Middleton Plantation to spend $5 million on a visitor and education center or Magnolia Plantation to spend $600,000 to restore slave cabins, while 42% of African Americans in the county under the age of 18 live below the poverty line? Recently, another $5 million in taxpayer money went to protecting Boone Hall Plantation from development, meanwhile Boone Hall generates $3.2 million annually. Money is being thrown around to flaunt a legacy of slavery and white supremacy, while little to nothing is being done to help the marginalized and disenfranchised communities of descendants of the enslaved.
The disparity is so blatant neither you nor I need to have graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University to realize Charleston’s priorities are severely lopsided. Until these plantations stop profiting off the commercialization of slavery and start helping those directly impacted by it, I’ll keep wearing my hoodie. More importantly, I’ll continue to write and fight if I have to, until these wrongs are made right.