A year ago, almost to the day, the City Paper published a column in which I openly questioned what we had done to deserve the #CharlestonStrong moniker. In the comments of that column and on Facebook, I was criticized for having the nerve to question Charleston’s resolve. The way I saw it: It wasn’t our families who were murdered while sitting in church, it wasn’t us who were tasked with having to forgive the monster that committed the crime, nor did we have to find the will to continue to live after all of that happened. Yet we had no problem with basking in the praise that came along with the increased media exposure.
We were the ‘Caroline’ that Andre 3000, one half of Outkast, spoke of in his The Love Below single, “Roses.” We were the one all the news outlets called “mighty fine” for our poise under pressure. We like to think that our “shit don’t stank” but years later, when it came to apologizing for our role in slavery, we found ourselves scraping foul smelling stuff from the bottom of our collective shoes.
Media all over the world have reported on how Charleston finally accepted and acknowledged its role in chattel slavery. But what’s missed in those headlines is that it wasn’t a unanimous decision. Five of the 12 city council members found reasons against saying sorry for the city’s sanctioned mistreatment of Black bodies.
Make no mistake, there is reason to apologize. Charleston didn’t simply turn a blind eye to those who participated in chattel slavery, it made laws to ensure that it could squeeze every last drop of money that coursed through the veins of the enslaved. From its complex slave tag system to a tax law that required money to be paid for each slave owned or sold within its city limits to the free labor that quite literally built many local buildings, for over 200 years Charleston benefited from its dependence on the slave trade and, for 100 years, was among the richest cities in the colonies.
Even today, the area benefits. We’ve been labeled one of the best cities in America — a place with some of the best food, most beautiful architecture, and friendliest people. And those superlatives have translated into big bucks. According to the College of Charleston’s Office of Tourism Analysis, in 2016 an estimated 5.44 million people visited the Charleston Metro area contributing a total economic impact of $4.2 billion. Billion. Forgetting that very, very few people of color are able to share in the spoils of these economic windfalls, you have to be willfully ignorant to discount that even 150 years after slavery was abolished, Charleston is rolling in the dough from a foundation laid by the enslaved.
Speaking of willfully ignorant, I was completed floored by the comments of 22-year-old City Councilman Harry Griffin. Even though he helped write the resolution, he voted against it because apparently many of his constituents didn’t feel it was necessary to apologize for something they had no part of. That and, in his opinion, a real apology would address the flooding on Huger Street — a place where many of the Black folk who haven’t been gentrified off the peninsula still live. I was sitting directly behind him in council chambers when he made that comment and legit laughed at him. Well, not really “at him” but, rather, at the absurdity of his comments. This was the first time, in my life, where I felt the physical manifestation of white privilege wash over me. It was as heavy as it was assured. It ignored the purpose of the resolution while simultaneously daring anyone to say anything about it. It brought up infrastructure improvements while ignoring that much of the infrastructure was built by ancestors of the very Black people on Huger Street that Griffin is suddenly concerned about. His ability to ignore the fact that we all have benefited from slavery or to lump this resolution with other stuff (see: flooding), puts into question his, or any of the other council members’ who voted against this resolution, ability to lead.
Let’s be clear: this was a non-binding resolution, meaning that whatever was put forth in this document would not become a law or an ordinance. It wasn’t asking for a specific amount of damages for anyone. It was essentially a race-related dog and pony show, akin to when governments pass resolutions to support our troops — nothing more than a show of good faith. But their pride or egos, or the combination of the two, wouldn’t allow it.
I’m the last person to say that this area isn’t great. I’m a native who has stuck around to see the many changes that have occurred and have benefited from them more often than not. But I believe my love for Charleston affords me the right to both defend us and offer my critique when we step out of line. The handling of this slavery apology is one of those ‘out of line’ moments. This column should not serve as a total condemnation of everything we are, just a reminder that as beautiful as our city is, sometimes our roses can really smell like poo poo.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.