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Charleston preserves its beauty and its flaws in amber

Living History



Once again, I'm tasked with the prospect of writing some sort of year-end retrospective for inclusion in the City Paper's final issue of 2015. I've done this twice before now, each time with mixed results. Like every other holiday that comes and goes, there's a weird pressure to say just the right things to both celebrate the occasion but also put it in perspective. Mostly though, people want what they read on the holidays to be "nice." I don't care for nice, as it rarely correlates with being honest.

And honestly, it's probably going to be hard for anyone in Charleston to write a "nice" piece on 2015. Sure, there were highlights, but they are overshadowed by the legacy of violence and racism, both institutional and overt, that continue to plague this city despite the platitudes put out there by so-called New South politicians.

You see, Charleston is a city whose own inherent problems with race are evident in one of the major selling points of its brand. After all, Charleston is a city in love with its own history and that would be fine except it seems that Charleston's history ends somewhere around 1865.

For instance, I was struck on a recent trip to The Charleston Museum by how the museum gives visitors an in-depth look at all the minutiae of life in the Holy City, up to a point. From the moment those unfortunate second or third sons from Barbados landed here until the middle of the Civil War, the exhibits are rich with history and yes, they address the facts of slave labor. But anything on the years after the Civil War is scant and nothing seems to address the legacy of slavery. (To its credit, the Museum plans on adding post-Civil War and Reconstruction exhibits after renovations in 2017.)

By this point we should all understand that slavery was a massive crime against humanity. This is why I hope that exiting Mayor Riley's neo-liberal dreams of building a museum to the legacy of the slave trade does more than just remind us about the past. Making excuses might be one thing, but outright presentation of a bizarre nostalgia for slavery is something else entirely. Enter the plantations.

Middleton Place, for instance, regularly hosts an event called "Christmas 1860 at the Edmondston-Alston House," billing it as a look at "the last opulent Christmas before the Civil War." Opulent. You might as well say, "the last of the good times before those damn Yankees made us give up our free labor." It is at the very least a totally and completely tone deaf exercise in the best of times and, from this year forward, is a blatantly atavistic money grab from Americans who want to experience all the "opulence" of owning other human beings and grotesquely profiting from their forced labor.

For reasons unknown Middleton Place doesn't host a Christmas 1865 event. Perhaps the final collapse of what author Colin Woodard calls "a system so despotic and cruel that it shocked even 17th-century English observers" is simply too much to bear. One might offer up the fact that they also offer visitors to this particular set piece an opportunity to see an authentic Gullah performance during the evening, but that's pretty much exactly like every other white person's "black friend" granting them a "Get Out of Being Called a Racist" card. It doesn't work that way. We all need to stop pretending that it does.

It would be wrong to assign any blame either to the museum or Middleton Place for these oversights and grotesque lapses in judgment. These aren't necessarily conscious exclusions or inclusions. They're simply examples of the lingering effects of America's abhorrent treatment of its black citizens from the time the first ship of slaves landed here up until today, and the abject failure we are all part of in not recognizing how we've failed to redress that legacy.

This year showed us that Charleston, and the rest of the country, is still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of the slave era. Next year should be the year we finally say goodbye to celebrations of the past and to the idea that it's time to "have a conversation." The time is up to talk, it's now time to act. If this city refuses to do that, it is doomed to sink in more than just flood waters over the next 100 years.

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