I was writing on the whiteboard, my back turned to my students, when I heard a telltale snicker behind me. It was the spring of 2009, and I was teaching fourth grade in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia. I whirled around to see Alonte, arm cocked, a suddenly innocent look on his face.
Despite several warnings regarding the consequences of his behavior, he’d continued to dispose of a seemingly endless cache of arrowhead erasers by throwing them with impressive velocity and remarkable aim at Kristoffer, seated across the classroom, to the considerable distress of those in his line of fire.
Needless to say, all of this was to the detriment of my lesson on adding decimals, and I was compelled to ask him, in comically exasperated fashion, “Alonte, why can’t you pay ATTENTION?” Ever quick on his feet, he immediately countered – in a manner uncannily imitating my inflection - “Mr. Martin, why is you so WHITE?”
I thought about that exchange last Saturday morning as I made my way across the five bridges connecting my home in Bluffton with the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, a former school for freed slaves and now primarily a museum dedicated to preserving the Gullah culture in the Lowcountry. The center was celebrating its 150th anniversary, and I didn’t want to miss the festivities.
I hadn’t responded to Alonte in a manner I’m particularly proud of – I’d put his mother on speakerphone before my transfixed class and told her of his insubordination, waiting a few smug seconds longer than necessary to hang up after she threatened him with corporal punishment - but I treasure the moment as comic but compelling proof of the evolution of race relations in the American South. I’d seen something in a 10-year-old, one utterly uncowed by the spectre of white supremacy in the former Confederate capital, that showed me how much things can change in 150 years.
Or so I thought.
The first person I saw upon parking my car at Penn Center was a man wearing the dark wool uniform of a Civil War soldier, with a canteen strapped to his belt and a wooden rifle in his hands. He was walking with grim determination toward identically dressed men, congregating near a banner identifying them as members of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. A drummer boy, who looked no older than my former students, stood nearby fanning himself with his felt cap in the still heat.
Women began to parade past in similarly anachronistic attire: gingham hoop skirts, lace gloves, and wide-brimmed sun hats. Suddenly self-conscious of my sweat-stained baseball cap and sleeveless shirt – and making a silent vow to stop dressing like a 12-year-old on weekends – I slunk off in search of shade.
And so it was from beneath the sprawling limbs of an ancient oak, one well removed from the stage and seating area, that I took in the morning’s celebration. The vantage point was close enough for me to see the solemn soldiers and hear the celebratory songs of several ever-swaying Baptist choirs, but far enough away so as to blur the pageantry into an impressionistic pastiche of reverence, gratitude, and pride.
But here’s the thing. It would be not just irresponsible but insensitive, even in a blog that five people read, for me to rhapsodize about the warm emotions that morning’s ceremony inspired. The Lowcountry, let’s not forget, was effectively Ground Zero for the American slave trade, and Penn Center – while itself a wonderfully noble undertaking – is perhaps this area’s most salient reminder of its dark past.
That history is reinforced in Penn Center’s museum, which contains a variety of artifacts and photographs chronicling slavery in Beaufort County. It’s also a place where the Gullah community – a culture steeped in its West African heritage and still enduring today in parts of the Sea Islands – is celebrated and preserved.
Browsing a dictionary of the Gullah language in the museum’s gift store, I learned such memorable – if lamentably impractical – phrases as “de pooty grabe,” for “the pretty grave,” and “dem oagly sabbidge,” for “the ugly savage.” I quickly realized that I’d inadvertently been doing my part to preserve the language in the previous week, while recovering from a lingering sinus infection.
I didn’t want to leave Penn Center without visiting Gantt Cottage, which Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders of the civil rights movement often used as a retreat in the 1960s. Victoria Smalls, coordinator of the weekend’s festivities, had told me King had written much of his “I Have A Dream” speech there, and I had to see what about the site may have inspired his famous words.
I was surprised, therefore, to find the cottage so humble; a modest wooden cabin in peeling white paint atop a red brick foundation at the end of a quiet unpaved road. There wasn’t even a sign to commemorate it as one of the most important structures in the county, if not the region. But there was something fitting and unpretentious about the cottage’s peaceful environs, and I couldn’t help but think of Rev. King’s wish for his children to be judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.
Proof abounds that those words have come closer to fruition in the intervening 49 years since he spoke them at the Lincoln Memorial, and certainly since Penn Center’s founding in 1862. But they don’t yet ring true today; my most commented-upon story to date has been a recent one about the proliferation of Hispanic-owned businesses in southern Beaufort County, which many anonymous readers used as a platform to espouse their doctrines of prejudice. Bigotry, it seems, can be a harder thing to kill than a palmetto bug.
Pat Conroy, reigning literary laureate of the Lowcountry, began his novel “The Prince of Tides” with the memorable line, “My wound is geography.” While the sentiment belongs to the novel’s narrator, I always thought it applied best to South Carolina itself. Charleston became the slave trade’s foremost port not only because of the political ideologies of the men governing it, but also because of an ideally accessible and deep natural harbor, the characteristics of which no one could control.
We have as little influence today over our area’s history; it’s all we can do to shape its future for the better. I’d crossed five bridges on my drive to Penn Center, only to encounter a sixth upon my arrival, one connecting a reprehensible past with a present ever evolving, ever improving.