I’m in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s my home town. I’m here on Calhoun Street, outside the Emanuel—“Mother Emanuel”—AME Church on Tuesday morning, June 23, just a few days after the slaughter that took place in the basement of this church where a young man came in and shot to death nine members of the church holding a Bible study, in hopes of starting a race war, which did not happen. There is a lot of justified pain among black people in Charleston. It goes back a very, very long time. For all the good wishes and good feelings in the hearts of, I would say, most white people in Charleston today, we can never understand what it’s like to have that much pain in the past on behalf of your mother and your grandmother and your great-grandmother and those who were unjustly raped and murdered for a couple of hundred years. That pain takes a long time to die, and we know that as Christians, of course, we’re called to forgive even terrible wrongs like that. I think white people have to be careful about rushing into an assumption that all that pain is gone, because it’s not gone.
But it is peaceful here this morning, this Tuesday morning in front of Emanuel AME Church, and the display of flowers, of cards and wishes and banners… There’s a couple of opportunities to sign your name to a canvas that’s been propped up. In each case, the canvas is entirely covered with tiny, tiny lettering by now, and the entirety of the wooden stand made to hold the canvas has also been covered with writing.
This is a very old Christian community here in Charleston. That historical marker on the front of the church says, “Emanuel AME Church was founded in 1818 by the Reverend Morris Brown, closed by state law in 1834”—that’s a story I don’t know—“reopened in 1865.” The present building, which is a nice, sedate, gothic building, goes back to 1891. It’s right here on Calhoun Street. There’s the major streets that delineate Charleston. I should say Charleston is a peninsula. Charleston’s shaped like a thumb pointing out into the Atlantic and points pretty much east and west, so the north side of the peninsula is defined by the Cooper River, the south side by the Ashley River. The local saying is that Charleston is where the Ashley and the Cooper rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean. That gives you an idea of Charleston’s sense of grand self-importance.
My family, the Green family, came to Charleston just before the Civil War in the 1840s. My husband’s family, the Mathewes family, came to Charleston in 1680. My husband’s father, Benjamin Mathewes, was, I believe, the seventh? eighth? ninth? Benjamin Mathewes in Charleston. So we go back a long time here, and we have to admit with shame that you can look up the wills of these ancestors and see that they included slaves that were being passed down to the next generation—with such a sense of helplessness when you don’t even know that and you look it up and your heart is broken and there’s absolutely nothing you can do, and that wrong just exists. It still exists, and it’s still painful.
The feeling here today is obviously very peaceful. [There are] a lot of people walking by, a lot of people silent as they read the many good wishes, scriptures written on posters. The display of flowers is just overwhelming. There are all different kinds of racism, and there is a kind of racism that is based on hatred and contempt. I have to say, when I was growing up—I’m 62, so this is now a long time ago—I never did see that kind of racism. That kind of racism, I think, is based in not knowing the other and fearing and hating the stranger because the stranger’s different. What I experienced growing up was that in fact we were, black and white families were very closely mingled together, and there was not unfamiliarity and there was not fear of the stranger; that we were very close.
Speaking in my own experience, it was because of the black woman in our home—Mary—it was because of her kindness, her tenderness and affection toward me, that I even knew what love was like, because my mother was a very cold woman and she didn’t like children. When I was a child she didn’t like me. She never wanted to hug or touch or hold her children. She didn’t smile at her children. She just didn’t want to be around us. If that was all I had known, I think I’d be a very different person than I am today. But I thank God for Mary, who had her own home and her own children, her own family, but she came to our house every morning and she took care of me and my sisters. It was in her face that we saw what a motherly smile could be like. We had an example of what motherly love was like, though obviously she didn’t love us as much as she loved her own children. We knew second-hand that motherly love was possible. She made that possible for us.
That’s not to say there wasn’t racism. I would say the flavor of racism in Charleston was a flavor of condescension and of—perhaps because families tending to mingle closely together, there was a very strict social boundary that when I was in high school and had a lot of other high school friends who went to different high schools than I did, but were black, my parents would not allow them to come in the house. Black people could only come into the house as servants. But as servants, they were rubbing elbows with us. It was not a revulsion or not a sense of disgust. They were very close to us and very much loved affectionately, but loved with condescension and in a patronizing way, and with the assumption that they were just not very smart and did not have much capacity. That is what black people experienced when I was a child growing up in Charleston. I think it must be very different today.
Charleston is in the South, among other Southern cities. In the midst of South Carolina, it’s a fairly liberal city. Another one of the strange things about me growing up was that my parents had good friends who were gay. We had friends who were gay couples: would come for parties or come from out of town and stay overnight. Being gay was totally acceptable; being in a gay relationship was totally acceptable, but black people were not allowed socially. They were allowed as friends and very beloved as servants in a condescending way, but for some strange reason being gay was totally acceptable at that time, and I’m sure it still is. It’s an intellectual and artistic sort of a city, Charleston is.
Anyway, here we are outside the Emanuel AME Church on this Tuesday morning in June. It’s not too hot. There’s a nice breeze flowing. Charleston can be pretty insufferable without a breeze. A nice quiet, very polite, prayerful crowd today.