A Sense of Place – and Race

When planning a trip to the shore, one usually worries about which towels to bring, bathing suits, sunscreen.

I did.

I thought of all the fun we’d have.

I also thought of what was outside the idyllic beach town to which we were headed.

See, we were headed south.

Where the weather is warm and the palm trees sway easily, but there is an undercurrent of racial tension that never went away and now pulls taut and bursts at the seams.

I didn’t want to bring my children to the whitest part of town and let them think these were the only faces that made up the fabric of place. This place. That this place, its history was all sunshine and roses – everywhere, for everyone.

Unable to curb the [English] teacher genes in me – no matter how many years remove me from the classroom – I dug up book lists, fiction and nonfiction, free verse and narrative, poetry and expository, picture book and novel, to give my girls a sense of this place to which we were going. Graeme Seabrook, a fellow Warrior Mom, posted Sara Makeba’s blog about her experience as an interpretive guide at a plantation that actually tells the story of the slaves’ experience. That became a destination and informed book choices for my girls to prepare them. I happened upon the online teacher’s guide of African American Historic Places in South Carolina. I read article after article. I planned discussions to have with my girls.

A week out from our trip, Charlottesville happened.

I’m not naïve enough to think that all the ugliness of our racial story is in the past. In my thankfully expanding circle, online and real world, it becomes ever clearer that, overt or insidious, racism is and has been alive and well. But in my bubble of privilege, I was still insulated from it.

As much as I wanted to open my children’s eyes to the injustices around us, my husband and I actually discussed revising our route to stay clear of Charlottesville in our drive south. How lucky, how privileged we were to be able to make that choice. It is my duty as a parent to keep my babies safe, but time and circumstance shouldn’t preclude all parents from having that choice.

I was headed back to the history of today’s problems, but still didn’t have a sense of the ‘unbending line’ between the two until our guide at the plantation finished his interpretation. He pointed to the rows of Sea Island cotton growing behind us, to the shore far behind the trees where slaves were expected to dig and drag mud to fertilize the soil, to the barn where they would’ve tended livestock, to the places they’ve would’ve picked seeds from cotton and jumped down into a huge sack of it to tamp it down. He described how nearly the very same jobs were expected of them as tenant farmers and share croppers. How ‘freedmen’ could be arrested for vagrancy while looking for jobs for which no one would hire them and then have a criminal record which would preclude their freedom. To the subpar education that followed even desegregation. To racial profiling. To white supremacy come full circle.

I approached him afterward with tears in my eyes and thanked him for speaking the truth. That it isn’t all history – even if some people think it is. That my friends are scared for their babies. He said he is, too; that he checks his friends’ tail lights before they leave meetings at night so they won’t have the chance of being the next statistic.

After the tour, my ten year-old daughter told me she understood all he said, but didn’t know what to say about it. I thought that was about the wisest thing she could have said.

On our way home, our highway route took us through Charlottesville. There was no sign of the violence two weeks earlier. In fact, the sun filtered through the clouds in an unworldly way. I hoped that meant God’s protective and healing powers were also shining down.

And yet, as I looked at those gorgeous green hills, I no longer saw just the beauty.   I saw the evil beneath the surface. Just like the palms and oak allees in the miles behind us, the natural beauty was tempered by the horror that took place right alongside it, within it.

I will never be able to unsee it.

It makes my heart ache for the injustice – and for the easy ignorance I’ll never regain.

But it’s a pain that people of color have been feeling and keep feeling everyday. With no choice. No chance to look away or deviate route.

Where I was born and the skin I’m in have given me the opportunity to not even realize there were atrocities happening all around us in the name of race. Without even realizing it, I’ve committed wrongs. I thought simply by giving my family a sense of the place to which we were travelling, I was helping us not to come in and exploit the area and people, but we were still privileged tourists – albeit sensitive ones, but tourists just the same. We drove through Charlottesville, but we continued on home where I can let my girls roam our street without fear of accosting or questioning. Where neighbors and even strangers won’t think they’re too loud, too much, too dangerous. Where I can sit behind the safety of my laptop and think this post will do anything to change anything.

Like my ten year-old daughter, I understand, but don’t know what to say.

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Driving through Charlottesville, August 2017, Jennifer Butler Basile

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4 Comments

  1. I completely understand your daughter’s sentiment. I get it and I see it and I can never unsee it… and it pains me, but I know I also don’t have the solution.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • Jennifer Butler Basile

       /  September 27, 2017

      I know we’re not helpless to do anything. Just trying to figure out where to start. The unseeing has at least placed the desire.

      Thank you for reading and your comment.

      Like

      Reply
  2. This is such a beautiful post, Jennifer. I’m sitting here holding my breath as I read each line. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  3. Jennifer Butler Basile

     /  September 28, 2017

    Thank you, Andrea ❤

    For your reading, your support, your witness.

    Like

    Reply

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