AME Anniversary: Making Charleston My Home

Standard

 

(ED NOTE: The following blog first appeared in Charleston Skirt Magazine at http://bit.ly/1W1bZM5).

I moved to Charleston in 2013 without knowing a soul here other than my husband. I wondered whether the city would ever feel like home.

But people were kind and they would take the time to have coffee or even dinner with me. I didn’t mind that I was the one to do the asking every time, even if it stung my pride just a little. After all, I was the one trying to find new friends; the others already had their circles and, while they didn’t exclude me, they had no reason to think of me as they planned outings, either.

I loved Charleston, but was it home?

Visits back to the DC area where old friends and neighbors lived were always visits “home” for me.

And then June 17, 2015, not even a five-minute walk from my house, the unthinkable happened.

Peaceable people mown down by an angry, bitter young man with easy access to a gun.

Footage of faces both grieving and numb right there – right there! – where I’d stood to watch the many silly parades Charleston loves to hold. The curb where I’d stood with my leashed dogs watching decorated cars and costumed people strut past for Christmas, and St. Patricks’s Day, and Martin Luther King Day.

A New York newspaper called me right away and asked whether I could use my proximity to interview people. They would hire me, they would pay me well, to bring Charleston’s story to the world.

“I can’t,” I told them. “I’m not from here. I don’t know enough to know who to call, what to ask, that won’t increase the hurt.”

My home, but not my home.

The next days, after the police told us it was safe to go outside again, that the armed gunman wasn’t in our neighborhood and on the loose anymore, strangers on the streets spoke to me and I to them.

“You okay? You doing all right?”

Black and white, speaking with the tentative tenderness that a married couple shows after the kind of vicious fight that could have taken down the whole marriage. On Marion Square. Up and down Calhoun, in and out of King Street stores.

“You okay? You all right?”

We were the same, those people and I. They were my family. The tenderness I felt was for them, it was for the city. It was the tenderness I felt for my home.

Charleston, my home.

 

 

My Katrina

Standard

We mourn more when a pretty woman sustains a disfiguring injury than when an ugly one does. It’s not right, but we do.

So, when New Orleans, that sly seductress, was torn open and apart by the fury that was Hurricane Katrina, the nation felt it viscerally. It didn’t seem right that the lovely Party Girl that was NOLA, one who so generously shared her graces, should be brought low.

New Orleans is my home town, although I haven’t lived there since I was a little girl. My extended family does, though, and even now they greet me with that nonchalant disinterest in my adopted cities, because none could ever be as glorious as New Orleans, so why would they care? New Orleans has always been a city immodest in its many blessings: great food, drink, music, literature, beauty.

All of that changed 10 years ago, when Katrina scarred the beauty that was New Orleans and left it humbled and bewildered.

My first concern was for people. I remember the frustration of fallible technology as I waited for days for family members to check in. My parents, riding it out in an RV with my aunt and uncle, just barely out of the path of Katrina’s fury. A cousin, hiding out in Houston. An uncle, living on his boat because it just seemed safest when so much of New Orleans was water anyway.

And, then, my concern was for the homes. Roofs lost. Refrigerators full of old food and mold. Grand trees toppled. One aunt in Lakeview whose home was submerged, and an uncle whose car engine was soaked with the ugly, smelly water that filled the streets.

And, finally, the city itself and waiting to see if the lovely party girl of a city would rise from her knees, laughing at fate as she has always done.

For this last, I am still waiting. There is laughter, the kind of grim gallows humor the city does so well. But there is a shadow behind the eyes too. I see it in the poorest neighborhoods that haven’t quite recovered, in the Third World buckling streets the city hasn’t found the money or the gumption to fix, in the families who lost close ones to the floods, or to the floods of refugees who left for Florida or Texas and never came back.

When I visit, New Orleans has the look of a woman still beautiful, but whose gaiety has been dimmed by the knowledge that even a beautiful woman can be knocked down and, if it has happened once, it can happen again some time.

Katrina Boat

STANDING TO GRIEVE IN CHARLESTON

Standard

(reprinted from Charleston GRIT)

I live in Charleston and I love Charleston, but as a relative newcomer, I feel like maybe I have no standing to feel the grief and outrage that I do.

I live midway between the Mother Emanuel AME Church and the neighborhood where little Tyreik Gadsden was left paralyzed after being caught in crossfire. The night of the church shootings, our telephone rang with a message from the police: stay inside. All night, a helicopter crosshatched our street with a searchlight.

I watched television helplessly as black men formed prayer circles outside of the church, their pain so raw that I felt it through the TV screen. And I grieved with them.

I am not a native Charlestonian, I am not black, heck, I don’t even go to church. No one’s going to seek my quote on this tragedy because it isn’t really MY tragedy.

And yet. Tonight, one night after the shooting, a police car lit up and raced past my house, heading into Tyreik Gadsden territory. I heard sirens and my skin twitched the way a horse’s does when a sandfly lands. Because suddenly, whatever tragedy was happening “over there” was mine too.

During the vigil last night as we walked from one church to Mother Emanuel, a neighbor said she had asked the pastor, “Why here?” and said she was not comforted by his answer: “Why not?” She was trying to understand the meaning. But maybe that vigil of black and white, young and old, was the meaning.

Whether or not I have standing, I will be standing – next to the mourners, arm in arm with those who stand vigil and show unity, behind those who lost family members and the first responders who will never erase the images they encountered.

Because despite the rage, despite the hatred, despite those who might shrug off my comforting hand because I could never understand, I’m joining Charleston – suddenly and irrevocably my home and not just where I live – in standing for the strength of love over hate.

Photo Credit: Ferris Kaplan

Photo Credit: Ferris Kaplan