The Dustbin of Charleston

I was in Charleston, SC, just once. In November 1983, I flew there for a conference interview with a search committee from the department of History at UNC-Charlotte. I had a job at Illinois State University, but it was a long commute from Chicago via the Greyhound that left at 4:30 AM, and tenure was out of the question. So, I paid for the trip to Charleston.

The interview went well. I was in a good mood when I went looking for my friend Harold Woodman—he was the guy who got me the on-campus interview at Princeton in February 1981, my first ever, where I unintentionally convinced the department that I was an intellectual historian rather than what it wanted to hire, an economic historian.

Hal and I met up in the conference hotel bar. He had driven from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he had a fellowship at the National Humanities Center. We drank and laughed for an hour or so, and then he offered to drive me to the airport in his rental car.

My flight was at 9:30 PM, eight hours away. I said, “How about you drive me toward the water, drop me where I can walk through old Charleston, and get a look at Fort Sumter?” It was my first time in the South since I was 10 years old, driving through these benighted places on a family vacation, knowing nothing of slavery, race, or Jim Crow except that the N-word was verboten.

I wanted to experience the epicenter—walk the streets, sit on the benches, and finally see the Fort as Edwin Ruffin, “white-haired and mad,” might have in April 1861, when he fired the first shots at it, and, according to W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction (1935), freed the slaves. I got to the water pretty quickly, but I turned back without even knowing what I had seen.

To me the place was already a museum. Everything looked preserved, or rather embalmed.

So I kept thinking of C. Vann Woodward’s epigraph in Origins of the New South (1951). It’s from Arnold Toynbee, as he remembers the Diamond Jubilee. “There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all that. I am sure, if I had been a small boy in New York in 1897, I should have felt the same. Of course, if I had been a small boy in the Southern part of the United States, I should not have felt the same; I should then have known from my parents that history had happened to my people in my part of the world.”

I was wrong, it wasn’t a museum. But then Toynbee was wrong, too, and I suppose Woodward would be without an ironic twist. History hadn’t been memorialized in this town, or in this part of the world, it had been systematically erased. Everything was a monument to a moment that had passed, as if 130 years of subsequent growth and development—what happened after the Civil War—could be forgotten.

I thought, this is what repression looks like as a material, physical manifestation. This is what denial will do. These people don’t want to remember, they want to forget, and everything they see in this place, every edifice and every artifact, allows and then forces them to do so.

I thought, the adults who run this place are insisting that they will remain small boys, just like Toynbee felt himself to be at the Diamond Jubilee. They’re announcing that maturation, separation, individuation—all the goals we have as people on our way to the genuine selfhood we associate with modernity—are dangers to be avoided.

They’re saying, history didn’t happen here.

I stopped into a park on my way back from the water. It was lovely place, light swells of grass criss-crossed by narrow sidewalks. Still, it felt like a cemetery to me because it was enclosed by concrete walls in which three-by-five foot reliefs of Civil War heroes had been carved—J. E. B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, the usual suspects.   The space enclosed was empty except for the Confederate flag in the center, flying thirty feet above them.

There was a tiny sidewalk leading up to the flag, a strip of concrete the caretaker used when he wanted to raise and lower the thing. I looked around, feeling as guilty as an atheist in a church, but it was just me in this moldering place. I walked up the slight incline, hoping to read the inscription, but I stopped halfway because the wind rose just then, the grass flattened out and the flag’s tether started rattling.

“All right, all right,” I said, raising my hands. “Sorry, I don’t belong here, on my way. Just curious. I’m an historian, you know what I mean?”

I got that job at UNC-Charlotte, by the way.

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