Thursday, October 26, 2006

Things They Say to Me #1

A little background--I grew in Lafayette, LA, a town of about 90,000 two hours west of New Orleans. It's nicknamed "Hub City" because so many oil-industry related businesses operate from there and "Acadiana" because the Acadians banished from Nova Scotia settled there in the 18th century. While many things about Lafayette sets it apart (like most of south Louisiana) from the rest of the south (it's strong and persistent French and Spanish Catholic culture, a system of laws based on the Napoleonic code rather than English civil law, a widely acknowledged history of consensual (more or less) interracial coupling), it's still a southern city in a typically southern state. The Knights of the White Camelia, for instance, recruited on my college campus, taking full advantage of the racial tensions running high, a result of David Duke's run for governor and the neo-nationalist fervor running rampant through the black student population. (A side note--does anybody else miss rap music that was smart, complicated, committed, artful? As catchy as "Golddigger" is, Kanye West's got nothing on the Native Tongues.) This is all to say, when I got this job and knew I'd be moving to Charleston, I figured I was well prepared to live in a southern city. Even though I'd lived in Seattle for six years prior to moving here, I was born and raised in the south. I love the south. I figured I was ready for anything Charleston had to throw at me.

But then I got here. And discovered that I couldn't even begin to imagine what Charleston had to throw at me. Consider this:

In the summer of 2003, Brian and I, our then 3 year old daughter, and two white friends from grad school decided it'd be a lark to go on a plantation tour. We'd been out to Ft. Sumter and that was relatively painless. And a plantation would be cool, right? (I can hear you all laughing now.)

We decided to go to Boone Hall because it's famous and has been in movies and has still-standing slave cabins that you can actually visit. When we get there, there's already a group inside the house, so we have to amuse ourselves on the grounds until it's our turn. I immediately sense that this is whole plantation tour idea is a mistake. My kid, in her typically uninhibited way, is darting back and forth between the slave cabins that line one side of the drive leading up to the house. She's giggling and having fun, doing exactly what three year olds should be doing, and all I can do is try not to break down in tears because my brain keeps flashing to images of my baby being snatched up and sold away to god knows who for god knows what. I talk myself down from this potential freak out, reconnect with the rational part of my brain and hang out on the porch of the house until it's time to go in.

When it's our turn, Brian and I notice that we are the only black people in the group (and as often as this happens to us in so many parts of our lives, we are still surprised when we find ourselves the only black people in the room--it's as if we forget we're afrogeeks). The guide, in colonial dress and full-on southern twang, shows us around and does the typical, what-you'd-expect spiel about the house and the family and furnishings. It's all interesting enough, but more interesting is the way the guide keeps eyeing Brian and I nervously, tripping over her words now and again. I felt sorry for her. I had no intention of causing her any kind of strife or discomfort. It probably is disconcerting to have black people show up on a plantation tour.

She takes us in to the game room, the last room we'll see before the we go out into the gardens. The game room houses dozens of photographs from films that have been shot at Boone Hall. It also, as the guide pleasantly told us, houses a framed shopping list that instructs the buyer to pick up, along with milk and eggs, "one slave girl." The list is on the wall right next to the doorway, so my husband and I stop to look at it, before we go to the gardens. It's not everyday you see something like that and it stands in such startling contrast to the pictures from the film productions. We had to stop and look. The spirits of all those black people who lived and died there would never forgive us if we didn't look.

The rest of the group moved out to the garden. The guide stands just outside the doorway, clearly waiting to catch our attention. When she does, she says: "If that gives you any ideas [gesturing to the list], she[gesturing to my beautiful brown three year old daughter] looks like she'd get a good price." The guide then promptly turns around and heads out to the gardens, while my husband and I stand there, shocked, not quite believing that we'd really heard what we thought we heard.

By the time we collect ourselves, the garden part of the tour is in full swing. We learn there is no offical tour of the slave cabins.

I wish I could say we made a big stink about the incident, that we demanded to see the person in charge, that we wrote angry letters to everyone we could, that we confronted the guide. But we didn't. We floated through the rest of the tour in semi-shock, trying to fathom what could prevent someone from knowing that that was offensive. And this is what's so insidious about this place: the palmetto trees and the wrought iron and the brick sidewalks and the horse drawn carriages and the beach and the manners--it all works to lull you into this freaky state of politeness where your goal becomes trying not to disturb anyone's day. We ended that day thinking, "well, this is Charleston and she was probably just trying to say that our kid is cute and just got all nervous because our being black freaked her out." Of course, we should have been thinking, "this is Charleston. Of course she said something deeply offensive. No one ever calls these people on their racist bullshit. Of course she thought it was okay to suggest we buy our daughter."

23 years of living in the south didn't prepare me for Charleston.


Daniel said...

Welcome to The Great Awkwardness that is race in Charleston, where The Golden Haze of Memory entwines with The Bitter Taste of Old Wounds and newcomers -- even newcomers from other parts of the South -- are often left befuddled and embarrassed.

I wish I could offer you some brilliant insight on the subject, but I don't have any. Just a cliche: hang in there.

Pam said...

Wow. I've heard alot of crazy things said since I've been living here, but that one tops them all. That was an offensive comment.

I agree with the whole freaky state of politeness - it gets creepy after awhile.

Melvin The Barbarian said...

It does feel strange sometimes ... I work just a few blocks from the docks where they used to sell people. Charleston really is full of ghosts.

Say, do you folks still play D&D?