“A Worrying Exhale of an Ache” by Professor Mari N. Crabtree

“The sigh is a pathway to breath; it allows breathing. That’s just self-preservation. No one fabricates that. You sit down, you sigh. You stand up, you sigh. The sighing is a worrying exhale of an ache. You wouldn’t call it an illness; still it is not the iteration of a free being. What else to liken yourself to but an animal, the ruminant kind?”
–Claudia Rankine, Citizen

As I reflect back on the fall semester, which has already lost some of its sharpness in my memory, I find myself punctuating so many of my thoughts with deep sighs. I think back to the article I wrote about lynching in the American West and the public lecture I gave about James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates—those thoughts are punctuated with sighs of satisfaction tinged with exhaustion as much mental as physical. I also return to a few particularly heartening moments: the student who began a comment in class with the words, “well, as bell hooks would say…” followed by what bell hooks would say…the book club meeting when a student quite pointedly remarked that so much in her political theory class would have been clarified had they read the Charles Mill book we were discussing…the song a student wrote about weeks one through four of Introduction to African American Studies (and attached to a shy “if you have time…” email) with the Du Bois-Crabtree shoutout, “Crabtree says I may be double conscious.” But my thoughts settle the longest on a few heartwrenching moments I had in the classroom, and ruminating over those moments draws out the deepest of sighs, sighs that curl out of corners of my guts darkened by the shadows of too much to despair over in 2016. I think about all of the carefully prepared notes I penned on yellow legal pads that detailed which passages from which assigned reading I would use to shape discussions of texts with my students, and I start to count how many sets of notes I had to scrap or modify so we could collectively pause long enough to remember the lives of Terrence Crutcher, Tyre King, Keith Lamont Scott, Walter Scott, and others. Three, or was it four, or five?

In place of those discussions, we read poetry—Elizabeth Alexander’s “Smile,” Kamilah Aisha Moon’s “Perfect Form,” Langston Hughes’s “I, Too”—and studied paintings by Emma Amos and installations by Kara Walker, for, in my experience, art has a remarkable capacity to unlock what we otherwise can’t quite express. At its best, art leaves a residue on one’s consciousness and even on one’s face—a furrowed brow, a stunned look of realization, the awestruck expression that comes with a glimpse of the sublime, a devastating shudder, a mischievous smile—and that residue remains, clings to us most stubbornly, when the artist succeeds in illuminating something of human existence we may have seen before but not really understood. From years of writing about representations of lynching and, more recently, from reading Teju Cole’s “Death in a Browser Tab,” I knew better than to replay images of death for my students. I have no interest in joining ranks with CNN and feeding into the media’s sick fascination with turning violence against black bodies into a spectacle to be consumed on loop. Through art, through disentangling the difference between “obsequious” and “safe” as we did when we discussed Alexander’s “Smile,” the rawness of these deaths that touched too many of my students too close to home unleashed, for some, tears, for others, stories of sisters and brothers and cousins and friends whose experiences rhymed too closely with those of the deceased.

My students find few spaces on campus for these conversations, though I know such spaces exist, but I also know that having this discussion in a classroom during a class led by a professor—in place of, but also alongside, the material on the syllabus—mattered. The discussion provided recognition of these experiences, and although recognition remains important, recognition alone, especially if that recognition only occurs in small, marginal pockets of an institution, is insufficient. For, even though all of the students who take Introduction to African American Studies with me come away knowing how to distinguish between the “mere inclusion” of the African American experience and the transformation of master narratives (my everlasting gratitude to the inimitable Nathan Huggins for writing “The Deforming Mirror of Truth”), an institution can render courses and whole academic programs mere tokens when it fails to distinguish between the two. And the space in between is a space no sigh can breach.

The moment from the fall that I return to with the most frequency, however, is from three days after the election. The morning after, I didn’t know what to say to my students, but some wise words from a colleague at Brandeis, Chad Williams, provided the clarity I needed. Just before class started that Friday, I wrote a paraphrased version of his thoughts on the board: “We are on the verge of a Second Redemption. Beware of what you concede in the name of peace and reconciliation.” Placing the election in the broader context of the 150 years since the end of the Civil War, I retraced the political compromises and calls for (white) unity that led to Reconstruction’s demise, and I asked whether the rhetoric of the Confederate “Redeemers”—they were trying to “redeem” the Old South after emancipation and military defeat with terror and death—had a familiar ring in our times. Redemption slashed through that brief experiment in democracy, cutting the path that led directly to Jim Crow: lynching, disenfranchisement, segregation, chain gangs, the indignities of sidewalk etiquette and back doors, and the rest. All the rest.

After a long silence, a student asked, with an earnestness that both tore me up inside and made me feel the full weight of my limitations as a scholar, “What can we do?” The question came from a place so genuine that I faltered because I could hear in her voice the urgency with which she needed an answer. But how could I answer such a question when I had been struggling with the very same feelings of stunned confusion and something between grief and disgust for days? Not that I ever understand my role as a professor to be the source of “the answers”—I ask questions, challenge assumptions, draw connections between texts, shape discussions by fleshing out broader scholarly debates, clarify complex ideas, and help students hone arguments—but I found, as she and the rest of the class patiently waited for my reply and looked to me for clarity and guidance, that I was about to provide a disappointing answer. After a long pause, I looked up at her and told her, “That is a very difficult question to answer. I don’t know. I don’t know…except that we must fight.”

In the weeks since that class, I finished teaching my three courses, organized a teach-in on the United States post-election with some other faculty, and continued to work on my book manuscript, all of which, I hope, constitute a “fight” of a certain kind. But, for self-preservation, renewal, and, most importantly, inspiration, I have returned to art. I have immersed myself in beauty, in Claudia Rankine, James Baldwin, Yusef Komunyakaa, Toni Morrison, Paul Beatty, Billie Holiday, Akira Kurosawa, Kerry James Marshall, Teju Cole, Kara Walker, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tanizaki Junichiro, Jesmyn Ward, and Marlon James. Artists like these don’t provide an escape or simple answers. (Teju Cole says that “[his] goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think,” and I am inclined to agree with his approach in novels, in teaching, and in life.) Artists provide a reprieve, though often a perplexing one, and maybe, just maybe, through the worlds they create, we can see a way forward in our own.

During this too-brief pause in teaching misleadingly referred to as “break,” I look back, but I also look forward. In the spring semester, I am offering a course, “Remembering and Forgetting: Race, Violence, and Memory in American History,” and I wonder, in this brave new political world—the Memory Studies scholar in me can’t help but ask, how “new” is “new” anyway?—, will the present let me catch my breath long enough to save me from revising my syllabus every couple weeks to accommodate new stories of racially motivated violence? As I teach “Mass Incarceration and Its Roots,” will I have to scrap my carefully crafted notes again and again as the criminalization of blackness grows unabated? Probably. I have already given up writing the epilogue to my book on lynching and memory until the rest of the manuscript has been completed because fresh bodies keep piling up and contemporary representations of lynching return too frequently for me to write cogently. My responsibility as a professor, however, cannot wait for the next iteration of my courses. I have preempted these probable disruptions with Rankine, Komunyakaa, Morrison, Beatty, Basho, Kurosawa, Cole, Walker, Ward, and others already scattered throughout my syllabi, but if my notes must be scrapped—and if the past has anything to tell us, then some will be scrapped—I may let out more deep sighs to open up “a pathway to breath” as Rankine says. And then, with airways freed of bad air, I will again turn to artists to sustain me and to sustain my students too.

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Meet the New Director!

Dr Kameelah Martin will be joining us in Fall 2017 from Savannah State University where she has been teaching in the Department of English, Language, and Cultures since 2013. Dr Martin’s academic pedigree includes a BA in English (with a minor in Africana Studies) from Georgia Southern University, followed by an MA in Afro-American Studies from UCLA, and a PhD in English from Florida State University, where her dissertation won the 2006-7 J. Russell Reaver Award for Outstanding Dissertation in American Literature or Folklore. Dr Martin’s work on the performance of African spirituality by women of color in visual media and literature has already resulted in two published monographs (Conjuring Moments in African American Literature: Women, Spirit Work, and Other Such Hoodoo [Palgrave, 2013], and Envisioning Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics: African Spirituality in American Cinema [Lexington, 2016]) and multiple articles. With family roots that she has traced back to Kingstree, SC, Dr Martin is currently engaged in research that combines genealogy with more standard academic analyses of literary history and cultural studies.

We are delighted to welcome Dr Kameelah Martin to the College of Charleston as our new permanent Director of African American Studies.

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African American Studies Faculty Respond to the Michael Slager Trial

In the wake of the mistrial declaration on Monday in the murder case against former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, we reprint below a letter that African American Studies-affiliated faculty at the College of Charleston sent to the editor of the Charleston Post and Courier expressing our concern that local newspaper coverage of the trial stirred too many echoes of prior narratives in which murderous violence against African Americans went unpunished.

Here is the text of our letter, published on November 15th under the heading “Looking back at racial injustice,” followed by some additional remarks on the trial and our letter’s reception. The letter can also be found at http://www.postandcourier.com/opinion/letters_to_editor/letters-looking-back-at-racial-injustice/article_ae4b918e-aa85-11e6-916a-e77d2a787060.html

* * * * *

Eighteen months after his arrest, former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager is now on trial for the murder of Walter Scott, a black man shot to death after a routine traffic-stop. Although the police department and SLED initially concluded the shooting was justified, a bystander’s video of the shooting led to Mr. Slager’s arrest for murder. We all have become witnesses to Mr Slager firing repeatedly into the back of the fleeing Mr Scott.

As Mr. Slager’s trial unfolds, we watch with concern and sadness, knowing that the North Charleston shooting is one in a horrific series of recent police killings of unarmed African Americans. The recent P&C headline, “Was Slager justified or overreacting?” stirs echoes of too many prior narratives that blame the victim—who should not have run, should not have talked back, should not have somehow looked threatening.

As professional scholars in a range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences with expertise in American and Southern cultures, we are equipped to comment on the assumptions, stereotypes, and historical and cultural circumstances that have contributed to systemic problems in our policing and criminal justice systems. We wish to remind readers that Walter Scott’s killing is not a new outrage. Our state and our nation have a long and well-documented history of wrongdoing against people of color by police and government officials who have not been brought to justice. Sadly, many whites have seen these acts as justified. Years after having participated in the murder of African Americans (the 1876 Hamburg Massacre), Ben Tillman continued to boast about the killings on the floor of the U. S. Senate. During the century after the Civil War, of the thousands of lynchings recorded, many occurred publicly while government officials stood idle or even participated. In 1955, the murderers of 14-year-old Emmett Till were acquitted by an all-white jury after lawyers told them, “Every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.”

These historical facts are a few of many examples we might cite. More recently, statistics collected by our own law enforcement agencies have shown that a much higher percentage of our citizens of color are being stopped by police, just as Mr. Scott was, for traffic violations. Mr. Slager’s attorney has noted the police department’s quota of three traffic stops per shift. A local interracial organization, the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, has collected accounts of many of its members of color who have been stopped, and has joined the NAACP and the ACLU in calling for a public and independent audit of police practices in Charleston County, North Charleston, and Charleston. Even the North Charleston City Council has now voted to create a “Citizen’s Advisory Commission on Community-Police Relations.” However, many in our community are concerned that this gesture will not guarantee greater transparency or accountability in the city’s police practices.

Our academic expertise compels us to conclude that concerns about the Slager trial are thoroughly and sadly justified, and that the systemic problems this case has exposed will not be solved when the trial is over. We urge our fellow citizens and our elected officials to listen to the concerns being voiced and to take actions that will contribute to greater justice and safety for all residents of our communities.

Julia Eichelberger,PhD, Director of Southern Studies, CofC
Simon Lewis,PhD, Director of African American Studies, CofC
Vivian Appler, PhD, Theatre Studies
Mary Battle, PhD, History
Richard Bodek, PhD, History
Kristi Brian, PhD, Anthropology and Women’s and Gender Studies
Mari Crabtree, PhD, African American Studies
Matthew Cressler, PhD, Religious Studies
Adam Domby, PhD, History
Mike Duvall, PhD, English
Hollis France, PhD, Political Science
Valerie Frazier, PhD, English
Anthony Greene, PhD, African American Studies
Jon Hale, PhD, Teacher Education
George Hopkins, PhD, History
Gary Jackson, MFA, Poetry
Bernard Powers, PhD, History
Steven Profit, MLS, Research Librarian
Shari Rabin, PhD, Jewish Studies
Rebecca Shumway, PhD, History
Vincent Spicer, PhD, Psychology
Joy Vandervort-Cobb, Theatre Studies
John White, PhD, History
Patricia Williams Lessane, PhD, Anthropology

At moments over the last week, it looked as if the pattern of prior narratives of impunity might finally—historically—be disrupted, but with the news on Monday afternoon that the jury was deadlocked and that a mistrial had therefore been declared, we have once more seen a deferral of justice. Prosecutor Scarlett Wilson has said that she will retry the case, and there is still a federal case open against Mr Slager for depriving Mr Scott of his civil rights, but the failure of this jury to reach a consensus verdict is, as Ms Wilson commented, profoundly disappointing. We in the African American Studies program will continue to watch as this case unfolds further.

It is worth remarking that our letter prompted at least two responses published subsequently in the Post and Courier, taking us to task for being a “group of liberal professors” making armchair decisions. We had in fact deliberately drawn attention to our status as people with academic expertise in African American and Southern studies and had deliberately limited the number of people invited to co-sign the letter to professors with such expertise in order to offset just such a knee-jerk response. Racial injustice is not—or should not be—a partisan concern. The fact that it might have been so in the 1870s, 1920s, or 1950s when white supremacy was sometimes explicitly, always tacitly backed by law is part of the historical record. Our fervent hope was—and remains—that one day it will be only a part of that historical record, not a factor in contemporary life, and that one day, finally, this nation will live up to its ideals of providing liberty and justice for all.

In addition to the two published counter-letters in the Post and Courier, Julia and I received a couple of e-mails from an irate member of the public whose rationale for critique was perhaps even more disturbing than the entirely predictable critique that we were merely liberal academics. This correspondent had obviously gone to the trouble of Googling Julia and me and in a very telling phrase wondered why we were even concerned with the case since, as he said, “you have no skin in the game—you’re white.” I suspect the author was unconscious of the implicit denial of fellow-citizenship in his statement. Ava DuVernay’s film 13th has rightly been getting a lot of attention in recent months, but it seems as if the Fourteenth Amendment also needs to be re-emphasized:

Section 1: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Finally, we would like to reassert that as academics who study African American and Southern cultures, it is our business to tell the truth about our shared history and to point out links between the past and the present. We will continue to do so. As human beings we have “skin in the game.”

*****

Simon Lewis

 

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The Black and White Views of Charleston’s Racially Charged Murder Trials

Two courts in the city of Charleston are currently overseeing high-profile, racially charged murder trials–that of Michael Slager and Dylann Roof–and although the cases differ in their particulars, both of these crimes speak to the pervasiveness of white supremacy locally and nationally. In an interview with Brandon Patterson, a reporter with the nonprofit news organization Mother Jones, Professor Mari N. Crabtree discusses the meaning and significance of the Slager and Roof trials. She also cautions against complacency in the wake of the verdicts, for the best memorial that Charlestonians could erect for the victims is not carved into granite but forged out of a serious confrontation with the systemic issues that produced these heinous acts of racial violence in the first place.

“But from past conversations I’ve had, I don’t think many black people here believed Slager’s trial was going to be a fair one. They weren’t surprised by the fact that the jury is nearly all white. It reaffirmed for them that the justice system is racist. But I don’t know what they anticipate the outcome to be. There’s a desire for Dylann Roof to be held accountable. But for many black people there’s also a trepidation that when his trial is complete, that will end any conversation about race. Or that if Slager is convicted, that people here will get the feeling that they are absolved of dealing with the issues that many black people believe produced Slager’s behavior.” – Professor Mari N. Crabtree

View the full interview here.

 

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Freedom Schools: Student Activists in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement

On Friday, December 2nd at 12pm on South Carolina Public Radio Prof. Jon N. Hale, author of “The Freedom Schools: Student Activists in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement” will be discussing with Dr. Edgar the history of the Freedom Schools and their modern legacy. They will be joined in the conversation by Barbara Kelley-Duncan, CEO of the Carolina Youth Development Center and a board member for The Children’s Defense Fund.

More information on the organization and the airing can be found here.

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Publications by Dr. Anthony D. Greene

We are proud to announce the two following publications by Dr. Anthony D. Greene, an assistant professor in the African American Studies Program.

The first publication is “You Must Learn: How Racial and Ethnic Socialization Affirms Black Identity among Black Americans and West Indians“, a chapter Dr. Greene wrote in the upcoming book “Contemporary African American Families: Achievements, Challenges, and Empowerment Strategies in the Twenty-First Century” (Eds.). Routledge.

The second publication “Aligned or Misaligned? Similarities and Differences between African Americans and Black Caribbeans’ Opinions on Affirmative Action” an article that will appear in the Fall/Winter 2017 edition of The Journal of Race and Policy. Dr. Greene co-authored the article along with three others:
Dr. Maruice Mangum
Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice
North Carolina A&T State University

Dr. LaTasha Y. Chaffin
Department of Political Science
College of Charleston

Dr. Jason E. Shelton
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Texas-Arlington

 

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Faculty in the News

Dr. Bernard Powers spent time with Pharrell Williams earlier this month during Williams trip to Charleston. Check out the ABC 4 News article here http://abcnews4.com/archive/during-tour-of-charleston-pharrell-realizes-ancestors-probably-came-through-harbor-during-slave-trade

bernie-williams

Pharrell meets with Dr. Bernard Powers at Aquarium Wharf. (Source A&E)

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Wearing Smiles, Wearing Masks

Wearing Smiles, Wearing Masks
Prof. Mari N. Crabtree
assistant professor of African American Studies

I am a historian, and so I have no illusions about whether the past often rhymes with the present or whether the past intrudes upon the present. It does. Often rudely. As a scholar who writes about the legacies of lynching, I have seen in the past and in the present the indifference and tacit approval with which so many Americans look upon violence against African American bodies and spirits. Recent coverage of police violence has simply revealed stories that have been told in African American communities and other communities of color for centuries, stories that didn’t need video evidence to be recognized as truth. In my courses, I want my students to see through what Charles Mills calls “a certain schedule of structured blindness and opacities” in order to connect past violence to present violence and to see how violence is but one way in which the West has sustained centuries of systemic exploitation of non-white people. So many of my students already know this reality all too well. They see it in their own lives.

I started all three of my classes yesterday with Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, “Smile.” We talked about the poem and Terence Crutcher and double consciousness. We talked about the lessons parents pass on to their kids to protect them from destruction—keep your hands on the steering wheel, no sudden movements, cooperate. We talked about the limits of such lessons in a nation in which an unarmed man with hands raised is shot and killed by the police. We talked about what is lost—what part of the soul is crushed—in that space between obsequious and safe. Two of my students were brought to tears. I would like to think their tears came from a place of catharsis, not pain, but it was, in all likelihood, pain. Raw pain—pain that they so often mask behind smiles in different company around campus.

Smile
by Elizabeth Alexander

When I see a black man smiling
like that, nodding and smiling
with both hands visible, mouthing

“Yes, Officer,” across the street,
I think of my father, who taught us
the words “cooperate,” “officer,”

to memorize badge numbers,
who has seen black men shot at
from behind in the warm months north.

And I think of the fine line—
hairline, eyelash, fingernail paring—
the whisper that separates

obsequious from safe. Armstrong,
Johnson, Robinson, Mays.
A woman with a yellow head

of cotton candy hair stumbles out
of a bar at after-lunchtime
clutching a black man’s arm as if

for her life. And the brother
smiles, and his eyes are flint
as he watches all sides of the street.

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Summer ’16 Student Spotlight

During the Summer 2016 Aisha Gallion, who is double majoring in African American Studies and Anthropology, participated in the Moore Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (MURAP) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This program is a graduate-level research experience for highly talented undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds who are interested in pursuing doctorates in the humanities, social sciences or fine arts. Each summer MURAP selects 20 rising juniors and seniors in college to participate in their intensive, ten-week research experience. Aisha decided to research authenticity and masculinity in hip-hop beefs. She specifically, focused on the recent Drake and Meek Mill beef. Aisha submitted a paper titled, “Gettin’ Bodied by a Singin’ Nigga: What’s Really Real? Questioning Authenticity and Masculinity in the Drake and Meek Mill Beef”.  She also presented her work to her cohort and other mentors (professors at UNC Chapel Hill).

African American Studies is very proud to share the exciting news of our majors and the events in their lives.

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The passing of Dr. Conseula Francis, Professor and Associate Provost

Some words from Brian McGee, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs.


 

Much time will rightly be spent reflecting on Conseula’s many accomplishments at the College.  Like many of you, I mourn her loss as a friend, as a tireless and energetic force working for the good of this institution, and as a constant voice of reason.

Conseula’s talents were many.  She was a formidable intellect who could make a hard day shorter and a difficult meeting easier.  There was no burden she could not lighten, no path she could not straighten, by applying her unique combination of good humor and keen insight.  Conseula was patient when patience was productive, impatient when action was needful.

Conseula first came to the College of Charleston as Assistant Professor of English in 2002.  In 2007, she was appointed Director of the African American Studies Program and played a critical role in the growth of the program and the development of the African American Studies major.

Conseula’s scholarly work focused on American and African American literature, with a more recent focus on romance novels and popular fiction.  In 2011, Conseula earned the College’s highest honor as an instructor, the Distinguished Teaching Award.

As Associate Provost, Conseula had essential leadership responsibilities for the College’s curriculum and for our complex web of obligations to accreditors and to state and federal agencies.  We are a much better university because of her good work.

More information about Conseula’s career was posted earlier this morning on Yammer by Professors Claire Curtis and Larry Krasnoff, along with their first thoughts on Conseula’s passing.

Dr. Scott Peeples, Professor and Chair of the Department of English, has offered the following reflection: “Conseula’s humor, her candor, and her dedication to students inspired us all in the English Department and across campus.  I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a teacher whose classroom instincts were as strong or who had the kind of impact she had on students.  I can’t tell you how many times I heard or read the words `changed my life’ in reference to Conseula’s teaching.  The word `passion’ is a little over-used these days, but Conseula had more of it than anyone I’ve ever known, for her students, her family, her friends, and for life itself.”

To Conseula’s family and friends I can only convey my sorrow at this profound loss.  Our community has lost one of its great voices.

Brian

Brian McGee
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs
College of Charleston
66 George Street
Charleston, SC 29424
o 843.953.5527
f 843.953.5840


To assist the family going forward, college savings funds for Conseula’s and Brian’s daughters, Frances and Cate McCann, are now being established.

To contribute to those funds, please send a check made out to “Future Scholar 529 Savings Plan.” In the notes section, please write “50% Frances, %50 Catherine McCann.” That will ensure that the funds can be split between the two accounts. Checks can be sent to Larry Krasnoff in the Department of Philosophy, College of Charleston, Charleston SC 29424. Feel free to forward this notice to those who might also want to contribute.

Future Scholar 529 oversees the South Carolina 529 college savings plan. If you are a South Carolina resident, your contribution is fully deductible on your South Carolina state income tax return – even if the beneficiary is the McCann children rather than your own child. No federal tax deduction is permitted for this contribution.

Please share your condolences in the in comment section below.

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