We just returned from a pleasure trip to Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is a beautiful town filled with stunning architecture, history, and restaurants with some of the best chefs on the East Coast. We enjoyed it all—from our charming hotel in the historic district to the incredible food to walking the sacred grounds of history. Nothing on our screens can ever replace travel and being there in person.
We took the first ferry of the day to Fort Sumter so we could see the flag-raising. A group of students, probably early high school age, were on the boat with us. They quieted as they lined up on either side of the flag, carefully unfolding it according to the ranger’s directions. Another student pulled the ropes to raise it into the stiff breeze blowing over the harbor. The students represented many different races and nationalities and seeing their hands working together on the flag in that particular place at this particular time in history gave me at least a whisper of hope.
We took a day trip to Beaufort because I wanted to visit the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Pat Conroy was writing creative nonfiction in the form of popular novels long before it was recognized as a genre, and Beaufort is the place he called home. The quintessential southern town, Beaufort is filled with stately mansions, waterfront cottages and streets lined with live oaks dripping with moss. Scenes from The Big Chill, Forest Gump, and Conroy’s own Prince of Tides were all filmed here. (Barbra Streisand was stopped by the local police who did not recognize her when she sped down the highway in the white Mustang from Prince of Tides, without a driver’s license or registration.)
When we arrived, we asked two gentlemen lounging in hammocks with a case of Coors between them, if they knew anything about the Pat Conroy tours advertised online. One of them said, “Oh yeah, that’s Bill. Lemme’ see if I have his number.” Bill re-arranged his day so he could take us on the tour. He couldn’t have been more gracious and knowledgeable and incorporated scenes from the movies on a screen in his van with what we were seeing outside the windows. He took us to Pat Conroy’s grave which is in a Gullah cemetery. Conroy spent a year teaching the Gullah children on Daufuskie Island (the basis for his book, The Water is Wide) and felt a deep connection to its people. Conroy is the only white person buried in that cemetery, and according to Bill, the decision by the church council to allow it was not unanimous. The grave itself is covered with pine cones and all kinds of random items—pens and pencils because he wrote all his books by hand, flowers, shells, and buttons and even a few miniature bottles of Jack Daniels.
When you visit this part of the country, race is the elephant in the room. As you listen to the stories, you realize how much of our country’s growth and prosperity was built on the backs of slaves. I kept wondering if the tour narratives have evolved over the years. Everything is explained in accurate, but carefully chosen language. Nowhere did we see a confederate flag, even in the trinket stalls of the City Market. And has that changed even more since the terrible shooting in 2015?
I felt almost uncomfortable with the deferential service offered by the African American men and women who served us breakfast in the hotel each morning. Do the women who weave sweet-grass baskets in the markets and along the roadside do it out of pride for their heritage or because it’s an incredible money-maker with the tourists? Probably a little of both, I suppose. I couldn’t help but see the irony as a black security guard stood outside the museum with “Daughters of the Confederacy” inscribed in the archway above the door.
One of our last visits was to Boone Hall Plantation, located a few miles outside Charleston. (More irony – the cotton dock of the plantation, where slaves were once unloaded, is now an upscale event venue where the actress Blake Lively was married.) In front of one of the slave cabins, a gifted black actress and singer gave a presentation on the Gullah culture. She interwove her narrative with spirituals and reflections on the life of the slaves on that plantation. At the end she said the Lord’s Prayer in the Gullah dialect and then sang about how beautiful all of the faces seated in front of her were. I didn’t understand all of her words, but I didn’t need to, because she looked every single one of us in the eye as she kept singing over and over, “…and you, and you and you.”