The shootings in Charleston have been on my mind quite a lot lately, not least because I lived there for several years in the late ’90s, both for graduate school and for a couple of years of work after I finished my studies at the University of South Carolina.
I’ve always thought the genteel, quietly elegant and polite society of South Carolina was far more sophisticated and mature than just about any city I’ve ever visited or lived in here in the United States. Outsiders only see the Confederate flag flying on the state capitol grounds, but while the black heart of racism clearly still beats in this otherwise verdant state, and deep, crippling poverty afflicts a shockingly high percentage of the population, there’s so much more to South Carolina that can’t simply be reduced to what you see in the national headlines.
There is, of course, so much genuine kindness, compassion, and generosity overflowing in every city South Carolina. The outpouring of forgiveness and unfathomable grace that the community of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston extended towards the killer during his appearance before a judge last week is but one example of just how much that city has truly earned its moniker, The Holy City. There is also hate and there is plenty of resentment. There is a deep well of grief and sadness with roots woven tightly into family histories dating back generations. There is ugly racism, social inequality, and the ever present shadow of vicious hate groups devoted to the denigration of other races.
But during my four years in Columbia, where my route to and from school was within the shadow of the Confederate flag when it still flew over the capitol dome, I also met some of the finest, most welcoming people, many of whom later became dear friends. I worked at a private college that was surrounded by a predominantly African-American, poverty-stricken community, and the administration was (and is) active in breaking down the barriers between “town and gown” that often afflict institutions in similar settings. I lived in the same neighborhood myself, and I and a close friend often ran for miles through its maze of dark streets at 5:30 am and never once felt unsafe.
I’m also not white, in case that’s not obvious, and while racial relations in South Carolina was and still is defined largely along black/white lines, I was welcome to attend and participate in panels and workshops that addressed the ongoing struggle to move beyond the struggles of the civil rights movements of decades past and forge a better future. And yep, there was plenty of discussion, plenty of words spoken, lots of handouts distributed. Outsiders assume that, as in many parts of the country, South Carolina doesn’t know how to — and doesn’t want to — face the intractable problem of racism that still exists in the Palmetto State, but the truth is that it does and wants to.
It could certainly move much faster, and clearly, as the events of the past week have demonstrated, there remains a lot of work to be done. But the way that Charlestonians and South Carolinians everywhere have come together to grieve and honor its dead, and how swiftly Governor Nikki Haley and other elected officials of both parties called for the removal of the Confederate flag after years of ignoring the issue, demonstrate just how much things have changed and will continue to change, and that no one will be ignored, whatever their skin color.