I was in Charleston, South Carolina recently, a place that I once called home. A place that echoes a mysterious call to me. The food, the Charleston drawl, the landscape – the secrets.
Walking around in the older parts of Charleston, I can almost hear the whispers of hundreds of years of history. I can also hear and feel the pain of those whispers. Some of those whispers are my own.
On that trip, I ended up on a boat with some friends and friends of friends and some older white men and women who were obviously from money, or trying to seem like they were from money. Some were dressed in Polo shirts and khakis that were ever so crisp, others layered with beautiful linens and looked ever so “done”. Makeup, hair, clothes all in perfect alignment.
We were surrounded by beauty, the inlets off Morgan Creek, the scent of pluff mud, the green grasses and marshy water, the sun high overhead with a cool breeze. As the booze flowed and we made our way through fresh oysters and beaufort stew with shrimp caught that very morning, conversations broke off into groups. Music and a little dancing began, it was exactly as Charleston should be.
I sat on the edge of the boat looking off into the marsh, remembering other days, other times and was sinking into happiness, when off to the other side of the boat I overhead a man, late 60s early 70s say something about “some nigger”. My heart dropped and my chest puffed out, did I hear that? And then he said it again. I thought to myself “I’ve got to say something right now. He cannot say that.”
Instead of jumping right up and marching over there, I was paralyzed. I’m on a boat with people I do not know, some are colleagues of one of my friends. I want to go say something to this man and let him know it is not okay to say that in front of me, in front of anyone. And yet, I cannot move, I’m a character in this story, this is not my story. It’s not my place, my people, I do not have to work with these people, my friends do.
It reminded me of a time when I was in college as a Sophomore at the College of Charleston, it was a Friday, I was in my dorm room and there were parties going on out on the breezeway and in some rooms. My roommates and I were having beers. I went out on the breezeway and was smoking and just down the way were some Citadel cadets, obvious because of their haircuts. I didn’t know them, but one called out to me “Hey dyke!” I looked and said “What? What did you call me?” he said “You’re a dyke right?” I was seething, but what could I say back? I didn’t identify as a dyke, I’m definitely gay, but I’m not all that butch or anything. I’m also a Sophomore in college, still trying to figure things out in life. What do I say?
From out of nowhere Brandon, a former Citadel Cadet that I knew through his girlfriend appeared and called these young cadets to attention and pressed them against the wall.
“Hey! You apologize to her, right now. That is not behavior appropriate for a cadet.” He barked.
The Cadet apologized to me.
Brandon told the rest of the guys that he’d be sure to see them back on campus and they should head there now. They filed past me, nodding and apologizing, shame holding down the bold words they said before.
Brandon had the courage to say something and it made a difference to me.
This is the South I remember, this is the South I left behind, the good, the bad, the courageous, the ugly.
On that day on a boat in Charleston, the whispering of old Charleston sat right beside me and I said nothing. I didn’t have the courage to speak up in the same way that Brandon did. It wouldn’t have mattered, to anyone, but me. It would have mattered to me. And I have to admit, I let myself down that day.
With everything going on in the world today, from Furgeson, to Peshawar, to Sony executives, to Bill Cosby, to change any of it, I have to start with myself and what I bring to the world everyday, not just what I say I am, but who I truly am. The things I allow in my life, the way I speak in private, is who I am.
I have more work to do. We all have more work to do.