To Steward a New Charlestonian Identity for My Daughters–Katherine Matthews

[{In this essay Katherine Matthews directly addresses the way in which the “Narratives of Slavery” course disturbed her sense of self as a white Charlestonian, raised, as she says, “in the environment of cotillions and country clubs, of family plantations and secret societies.”  Her deeply thoughtful essay covers a lot of ground before ending by referring to the distinction between an antiracialist agenda and an antiracist one–the former encouraging amnesia, the latter requiring active engagement with history (here, the legacy of slavery). SKL]

Reflections on Dr. Lewis’s class “Narratives of Slavery”

I’m from Charleston. Not from one of the places around Charleston that try to lay claim to the Charlestonian identity. Not “from” Charleston in the sense that I moved here 30 years ago from “off.” I’m a native Charlestonian.  I grew up in downtown Charleston.  South of Broad. I could see Fort Sumter from the front porch of my childhood home.  This is my inner voice of five months ago, portraying my attitude as a  native Charlestonian. There is a certain sort of arrogance that native Charlestonians have that is tied directly to the city. Charleston is a special place: quietly charming, oozing southern hospitality and refinement. Native Charlestonians are members of an exclusive club with societies, traditions, and a way of life that is religiously preserved and fiercely protected from outsiders. I was raised in the environment of cotillions and country clubs, of family plantations and secret societies.  My playmates shared their names with prominent streets and buildings. From birth it was instilled in me that being from Charleston was a unique asset that only a small group possessed.  I was always proud to be a Charlestonian. I’m not so sure anymore.

Somehow I made it through the entire public education system in South Carolina without fully recognizing Charleston’s role in the slave trade. I can, however, tell you about Civil War battles ad nauseam. The requisite field trip to Fort Sumter was cloaked in pride as the site where South Carolina started the War of Northern Aggression.  Where was the discussion on Charleston’s role as a slave port? Where was the shame? The brief spurts of activism in my youth were all centered on feminist ideals and how sexist Southern society could be. I remember protests about Citadel admission policies and a brief period of defiance where I refused to go to the Yacht Club with my dad because Club policy refused membership to women. It never occurred to me to protest the fact that the Yacht Club lacked even a single African-American member.

I grew up in a city that was built on slave labor. Charleston plantation owners could afford to build such grand houses because they were not paying the workers tending their crops. Historic preservation is critical to the character (and economy) of Charleston, but it is more than just pretty houses and quaint gardens. It is a vacuum where the reaches and implications of the slave trade can be explored. Unfortunately few take advantage of this.  Everyone wants to see the Aiken-Rhett family’s art gallery; not everyone wants to see their slave quarters.

When I decided to take a Graduate level English class, I wanted to find a topic that had not been overdone in lower-level English courses, and I wanted to think. As a mother of two young children and a full-time employee, my mind is often exhausted by the grind of everyday life. I missed being pushed to think critically and being exposed to topics outside of my comfort zone. I got all of that and more from this class.

I sat down the first week of class to read I Belong to South Carolina, and I was immediately engrossed in the narratives of slaves who lived and worked in my home state. That was the perfect text to kick off the course as it made slavery very real.  Reading these testimonies and recognizing the places the slaves lived in and escaped from drove home the fact that South Carolina was intimately involved in the repression of human beings.  The narrative that I remember most is “Recollections of a Runaway Slave” where he describes the “Sugar House” in downtown Charleston – a torture chamber for slaves for masters who didn’t want to do the dirty work themselves. I immediately researched the Sugar House and found that it was located in the same area as the “Old Jail.” This was the same “Old Jail” where I had attended numerous company Christmas parties without any idea of the legacy of that site. Reading the first-hand, local narratives really brought to life the pain and oppression that slaves endured at the hands of white South Carolinians. This was not the slavery of Gone with the Wind.

Along the same lines, the discussions and readings about the Zong massacre also made the reality of slavery very vivid and real. Everyone has seen the diagram of the Brookes slaver with bodies lined up almost on top of each other. Discovering the story of the Zong brought that picture to life–I could envision how dark the slave quarters must have been, and as the slaves’ eyes adjusted to not being able to see, their other senses must have been heightened, making the moaning of their fellow captives and the stench of death and disease even more unbearable. A crack of light perhaps promises fresh air, or a trip above deck, but in fact is the doorway to their death.  I couldn’t help trying to get close to what the victims of the Zong must have experienced. The idea that living human beings could be recklessly murdered without repercussion still causes me great distress, and the fact that this incident has not been widely publicized shocks me. After class that week, I had family in town including three nieces of high school and college age. None of my family, including those studying American history, had ever heard of the Zong. How can I change this?

In addition to bringing slavery out of the abstract and making it very real, this class has expanded my idea of slavery being a “black and white” issue. Books like Equiano’s narrative and even the much maligned Someone Knows My Name provide a global narrative of slavery that exists outside of the American South.  Recognizing that slavery is a global issue, not a regional one, is important as it is a tie that binds many cultures and countries together (not in a good way).  Coming to terms with slavery is not uniquely a “white Southern/black African-American” issue. It involves the larger group of colonial nations and even Africans who held slaves prior to the arrival of the Europeans.  The dialogue around slavery and the education about the lasting effects of the slave trade must include everyone.

Equiano’s narrative also demonstrates the longevity of the slave trade. I don’t know why I always boxed in the issue of slavery into the 5 years pre- and post-Civil War.  The slave trade existed more than a century before the Civil War, and it exists now more than a century after.  The long history of slavery is a scar that seems to be covered up. To understand the depths of the impact of slavery, we must realize the long history of humans owning other humans. This was no flash in the pan, and the effects are still felt in the exploitation of class, race, sex, and gender.

This class has also pushed me to revisit topics that I thought I already knew. I was surprised at first to see Beloved on the reading list. All of the other books in the class were so unique and unfamiliar, that reading something I already covered in high school English class seemed strange.  It’s odd that my memory of the storyline of Beloved consisted of matricide and ghosts. Nothing about slavery bubbled to the top. How could we have had a class discussion in AP English about Beloved without diving deep into the topic of slavery? We had a lot of heated debate over whether Beloved was a ghost or not, but I don’t recall anything more than a cursory discussion of slavery. Reading Beloved at the end of this course was disturbing; the accumulation of everything we had read and discussed as a class made reading Morrison’s classic novel uncomfortable and sad.

One of my favorite supplemental readings was the excerpt about Judge Waring from Caryl Philips’s Atlantic Sound. I fully recognize after reading Seddon’s article that my affinity for this reading is probably the result of my searching for a white hero somewhere in the bleakness of white characters in all of our other readings.  I will need to spend some more time thinking about what this implies about my white female perspective and how I can push myself even further to abandon what Appiah would call my “tightly scripted identity” (Seddon 47).  However, I again found it surprising that as a Charlestonian I would have never heard of this local hero.

In wrestling with my shame about the huge hole that slavery represented in my knowledge of history, I found both comfort and unease that I am not alone. I had not recognized until now how the history of slavery is covered so narrowly in American history (mostly around the Civil War) and had not realized the impact that this has on everyone. I found the discussion in Seddon’s article about antiracism and antiracialism very appropriate as I thought about why such a global issue is effectively swept under the rug. Seddon cites David Goldberg’s definitions of the two terms: “Antiracism requires historical memory, recalling the conditions of racial degradation and relating contemporary to historical and local to global conditions…antiracialism suggests forgetting, getting over, moving on, wiping away the terms of reference…rather than a recounting and redressing of the terms of humiliation and devaluation” (Seddon 40). Antiracialism is what I have experienced; antiracism is what we are striving for as members of this class.

How do I feel?  I am now very conflicted in my identity as a white Charlestonian. The pride I had in my Charleston heritage has tarnished, and I am ashamed by my city’s role in the horrible institution of slavery. I now realize that many of the traditions and institutions that I was brought up to admire link directly back to the oppression of other human beings.  It would have been much easier to remain in my safe bubble of elitism, but I am so thankful that I have been forced to be uncomfortable and really think about my role in historical and ongoing slavery. In almost every discussion we have had on the class readings, Dr. Lewis has asked the question “Is it OK for this author to write about that topic?” i.e., “Is it OK for a Canadian male to write in the voice of an African female?”  I have asked that question back to myself – is it OK for a southern, white, female to dive into a class on slavery and attempt to gain empathy with the plight of slaves, and I think the answer is a resounding “yes” and more people should be doing this.

Where do I go from here? I am sad that class has come to an end, but I am inspired by what taking this class has done for my awareness of such an important issue. I am motivated to continue to explore the complex web of the global slave trade through further reading but also through opportunities like speakers, movies, and cultural events where I can be part of a collective group exploring these issues.  I have a responsibility to my daughters to make sure they do not fall into the same trap that I did and to steward them to a new Charlestonian identity that is balanced and historically comprehensive. I will need some time to work through my dilemma of my Charleston identity, but I feel fortunate that I now recognize the need to reconsider it.


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