Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Segregated Charleston and Other Thoughts for Black History Month

Today I met with a handful of female students at Burke High School. They were, as I suspected they would be, a delight. On a purely personal level, it was nice to spend time with young women who were neither the mischievious snarky six year old who lives with me, nor the distracted, jaded twentysomethings I teach.

As part of a program I'm coordinating, we are going to give the girls tote bags filled with all sorts of groovy things, including gift certificates for merchants downtown. The idea is to encourage the Burke kids to come to campus, to hang out on King Street, to feel some ownership of the city. I was reminded (I say reminded because I have been told this at least once a month since I've lived here), however, that historically Calhoun Street divides the peninsula and these kids don't feel welcome or comfortable or compelled to go south of Calhoun.

And that fact just boggles my mind. I grew up in the south. I have no illusions about how race operates in the south. My own hometown of Lafayette, La certainly had black and white neighborhoods and black and white schools. We had a black mall and white mall. Hell, my high school had a black and white prom king and queen. And I understood that this was segregation. I understood how the history of racism had gotten us to this place. But I never once felt limited by that. My individual circumstances are certainly different than most of the kids at Burke. Instead of living in a segregated neighborhood, my family lived in a trailer out in the country. I went to integrated schools until 6th grade and then to predominantly white magnet programs until I graduated. Growing up, I spent an inordinate amount of time on a college campus where my mother was a secretary. Does this account for why I felt no limitations related to race (I felt plenty of limitations related to gender, but that's a story for another day)? Are these kids doomed to always feel like they are on the margins of their own city?

In other news, I saw great documentary on PBS tonight called Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. It's about the construction of black masculinity perpetuated by contemporary rap and hip hop and was really good and eye-opening. I very much recommend it. It also featured some of my favorite contemporary non-fiction writers. I'm going to post about them tomorrow.

7 comments:

Biffle said...

hey! alison and i watched that pbs show, too! We really liked it. Chuck D was super cool and so was that guy that looked like he was at the Spelman campus (actually, i kinda found him sexy).

Conseula said...

Chuck D rocked as always. The Spelman guy is Jelani Cobb and he is sexy and smart. I'm including one of his interviews in my Octavia Butler book.

Babbie said...

Well, I grew up in Charleston back in the dark ages. Prior to the 1960s neighborhoods were integrated on the penninsula; schools were segregated. When Memminger Elementary opened in the 1950s as a white school, I walked through black neighborhoods to get there. Maybe Calhoun has always been a dividing line, but as a white, I was not aware of it then.

Vera H. said...

I'm not from here, and I was totally unware of a "dividing" line, but unfortunately many cities and towns still have them.

I'll have to catch that PBS program. I airs again 2/27 at 4am!!!, but I can tape it.

claire said...

Great post -- such good things happen when I space out for a few days. Do you think the message about not coming south of calhoun is a school produced thing reinforced at home -- or is it a home produced thing reinforced at school? I am not sure why this matters -- but I also presume that some of the students have stories about how they have been treated if they were strolling on king st and wandering the shops.

Conseula said...

Vera--do try to catch the documentary. It was fantastic.

Claire--I'm going to guess it's a home produced thing reinforced at school. There are many generations of black Charlestonians who have bad and painful associations with this part of the peninsula. And that sort of thing is always passed on. I remember going places with white male friends when I was in high school and college and my great-grandmother being convinced that something bad was going to happen to me if I got caught in the wrong part of time with white boys. And I can imagine this sentiment being reinforced had I gone to predominantly black schools. (There's also some gender stuff going on there as well, but we'll save that for women's history month.)

Morgan said...

It's not just a home or school enforced thing. If you recall just a few years ago, several white merchants downtown were all over the news for not allowing groups of kids from Burke in their establishments. Also, I've lived in Charleston all my life and the dividing line is pushed back a little bit more every year as many black residents see their streets being overtaken by C of C students. We can thank Joe Riley and the powers-that-be in Charleston for a lot of that. If I saw my block being gentrified at the pace that downtown has been in recent years, I'd feel unwelcome too.