Tag Archives: Charleston

The South Carolina Dylann Roof Knew

When Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah first began to cover the trial of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine parishioners of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in June 2015, she initially assumed her feature for GQ would focus on Roof’s victims. But as Ghansah began to report on the trial, and specifically on Roof himself, she realized the thrust of her piece would have to focus on the murderer.

Over and over again, without even bothering to open his mouth, Roof reminded us that he did not have to answer to anyone. He did not have to dignify our questions with a response or explain anything at all to the people whose relatives he had maimed and murdered. Roof was safeguarded by his knowledge that white American terrorism is never waterboarded for answers, it is never twisted out for meaning, we never identify its “handlers,” and we could not force him to do a thing. He remained inscrutable. He remained in control, just the way he wanted to be.

And so, after weeks in the courtroom, and shortly before Dylann Roof was asked to stand and listen to his sentence, I decided that if he would not tell us his story, then I would.

To do so, Ghansah had to confront the history of South Carolina. This was a journey that Roof had also undertook in the days and years before he entered Mother Emanuel with 88 bullets — one that ended with a perverted viewpoint of the antebellum period before the state became the cradle of secession. What Ghansah finds as she crisscrosses the state — visiting Roof’s own place of worship in Columbia, walking along “Slave Street” on Boone Plantation — is that South Carolina prefers its history viewed through a heavy-handed filter.

Dylann Roof was educated in a state whose educational standards from 2011 are full of lesson plans that focus on what Casey Quinlan, a policy reporter, said was “the viewpoint of slave owners” and highlight “the economic necessity of slave labor.” A state that flew the Confederate flag until a black woman named Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole and pulled it down. A place that still has a bronze statue of Benjamin Tillman standing at its statehouse in Columbia. Tillman was a local politician who condoned “terrorizing the Negroes at the first opportunity by letting them provoke trouble and then having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable…to rescue South Carolina from the rule of the alien, the traitor, and the semi-barbarous negroes.”

Roof is what happens when we prefer vast historical erasures to real education about race. The rise of groups like Trump’s Republican Party, with its overtures to the alt-right, has emboldened men like Dylann Roof to come out of their slumber and loudly, violently out themselves. But in South Carolina, those men never disappeared, were there always, waiting. It is possible that Dylann Roof is not an outlier at all, then, but rather emblematic of an approaching storm.

I took a road trip last week down the Atlantic coast and spent a few days in Charleston. It was a somewhat shocking experience to be in a city that purports to treasure its history but so openly glosses over the gritty details. Boone Plantation is one of the few sites to feature slave cabins dating back to the 1700s, but as Ghansah notes, the majority of the cabins are staffed by odd-looking dummies, which she writes “are supposed to represent black people in their deepest ignominy…there were no dummies that were supposed to represent the masters or the mistresses of the plantation.”

It is also at Boone I first learned of the “compassionate” slave owner, mentioned in one of the cabin’s audio tools. To enslave another human being immediately disqualifies anyone from being described as compassionate, no matter that person’s other qualities. This was closer to historical fiction than history. This distinction continued through the tour. The text in one cabin explained the significance of an archaeological dig on the property, an effort undertaken by a private firm which suggests Boone Plantation was forced to review the land (so as to not run afoul of Historic Preservation Act) rather than act on of any sort of archival inquisitiveness.

That a site like Boone would include these fallacies only confirms what Ghansah discovered during her time reporting on Roof:

In Charleston, I learned about what happens when whiteness goes antic and is removed from a sense of history. It creates tragedies where black grandchildren who have done everything right have to testify in court to the goodness of the character of their slain 87-year-old grandmother because some unfettered man has taken her life. But I also saw in those families that the ability to stay imaginative, to express grace, a refusal to become like them in the face of horror, is to forever be unbroken. It reminds us that we already know the way out of bondage and into freedom. This is how I will remember those left behind, not just in their grief, their mourning so deep and so profound, but also through their refusal to be vanquished. That even when denied justice for generations, in the face of persistent violence, we insist with a quiet knowing that we will prevail. I thought I needed stories of vengeance and street justice, but I was wrong. I didn’t need them for what they told me about Roof. I needed them for what they said about us. That in our rejection of that kind of hatred, we reveal how we are not battling our own obsolescence. How we resist. How we rise.

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‘See What Y’All Can Work Out’: The State of Empathy in Charleston

Shani Gilchrist and Alison Kinney | Longreads | January 2017 | 31 minutes (7,836 words)

 

The sentencing phase of Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof’s trial for racially-motivated mass murder is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, January 4th, 2017. The white supremacist’s trial brought together two writers of color—Shani Gilchrist, one of a small group of black reporters in the press room, and Alison Kinney, an Asian-American living in New York—who, prior to the trial, knew each other only from Facebook. Here they write about their experience in Charleston. They write about banding together to get better access to the story; about resisting white supremacy with creative collaboration and strategic silence; about working together to figure out the ethical responsibility of storytelling now—and to find hope and friendship in their conversations.

1. We write:

On June 17, 2015, a Bible study group met at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Their text was Mark 4:16-20, the parable of the sower, a narrative of words scattered, heard, received, or failing, of deep-rooted faith that withstands trouble and persecution. The parishioners welcomed a newcomer, who sat down with them, listened, reflected, and then opened fire.

Of the twelve parishioners, three survived: Felicia Sanders, her little granddaughter, and Polly Sheppard. Nine died: their names were the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel W. Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., and Myra Thompson.

A year-and-a-half later, at Charleston’s J. Waties Waring Judicial Center (named for the civil rights judge who first declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional), the two of us, Shani Gilchrist and Alison Kinney, would briefly note the scripture. We were at the courthouse, listening for the most incidental revelation, not only on the trial of Dylann Storm Roof, who would be found guilty on 33 counts of federal hate crimes, including hate crimes resulting in death, but also on the national crisis of bigotry and empathy. From the courtroom arguments and testimony, we gleaned bits of procedure, too: when Judge Gergel told the counsel for defense and prosecution to reach a resolution on the evidence, “I would direct you two to sit down together today and see what y’all can work out.”

We heard it as a directive to the nation, and to us—two writers who’d met through a Facebook group, whose prior interactions were limited to reading each other’s work there—sitting down together for the first time in real life, in coffee shops and in the courtroom, to work it out. We’d already found that we were both people who knew within five minutes if we were going to like someone, both people with loquacious, goofy senses of humor that masked our shyness. As writers on race, social justice, and culture, we were also figuring out how to participate in our country’s post-election dialogue. Some of the people we’re supposed to interview and interact with pose dangerous threats to us—although the invitations and threats we receive are not commensurate, as Shani is black, and Alison is Asian-American.

Another random moment: on the day before opening statements, Roof, who’d chosen to self-represent, reinstated his attorneys. While the courtroom deputy, Eunice Ravenel-Bright, a dark-skinned woman with a serious face whom everyone referred to as Mrs. Ravenel, readied a Bible for him to swear upon, he stood up casually, unshackled, as he’d remain for the duration, and started to make his way to the podium. There was almost a sideways swagger to his walk. Mrs. Ravenel’s body stiffened. The consummate professional, she said what sounded like, “No, Mr. Roof. You wait. Will the U.S. Marshal accompany the defendant to the podium?” But what the entire gallery heard in their heads was probably more like, “Hell no. Don’t get near me or my judge without someone with you who can legally knock you on your ass if you even look at me funny.”

An accused mass murderer. An entitled, lazy kid who was a proven danger to society. Unshackled and unaccompanied. In a courtroom. It’s an image that does not set right. An image that shatters the illusion of safety: safety depends here not on the law, but on rebuke, minding, and vigilance—not by the marshals, but by the person subject to the greatest threat. Read more…

‘We Have to Do Better’: A Reading List on the Charleston Church Massacre

Yesterday, Marc Lamont Hill tweeted, “I’m going to need all White people to denounce this ugly act of racist domestic terrorism.” This reading list is me denouncing the actions of a white supremacist terrorist, who visited a Wednesday night Bible study at one of the most important, sacred sites of Black religious and political freedom with the exclusive intention of killing attendees in cold blood. White people: we have to do better. We can’t deflect responsibility for this tragedy; we can’t blame this on mental illness (many of my friends and I deal with mental illness every day; none of us have murdered anyone). We have to demand accountability from one another and stand up for people of color—in the streets, in our Facebook feeds, in our offices and homes.

1. “Charleston Church Massacre: The Violence White America Must Answer For.” (Chauncey Devega, Salon, June 2015)

White Americans will not have to look in the mirror and ask, “what does it feel like to be a problem.” In the aftermath of recurring mass shooting events, and right-wing domestic terrorism, it is essential that they start to practice such acts of introspection in the interest of the Common Good.

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Confessions of a Weary Restaurant Critic

After a seven-year-long stint as a restaurant critic at the Charleston City Paper Robert F. Moss is bidding the profession—or at least the beat—adieu. But before pushing away from the table for the last time, Moss has penned an essay about the difficulties of eating dinner for a living. In the excerpt below, he discusses how the writing itself can grow tedious:

Writing formal reviews is difficult. And by “reviews,” I mean it in the plural form. Composing a passable review or two is challenging enough, since it takes practice to get the hang of the form. But what’s even harder is churning out one after another, month in and month out.

There are only so many ways to describe food. You become hyper-aware of your own clichés. If you’ve gotten tired of reading “lovely,” “tinged,” and “delightful” in my reviews over the past seven years, all I can say is that you should have seen the first drafts.

Then there’s how you structure a review. It’s easy to lapse into such a rote pattern that you almost fall asleep while you’re writing.

Want to pen a textbook B-grade review? Here’s the template. Start with a capsule history of the business (“A new hook-to-table seafood restaurant that opened in May in the strip mall location once home to McGrubby’s Greek Deli.”). Next, march lockstep through the food offering. (Spoiler alert: we’ll start with the appetizers, then move on to entrees, and — surprise! — finish with the desserts.). Toss in a brief description of the interior (exposed brick and brown wood, of course), then wrap it all up with a paragraph that passes final judgement on the place.

If you do it right, the gist of that final paragraph will be that “it’s the kind of place you’ll like if you like that kind of place” and “time will tell whether local diners will embrace it,” which is reviewer code for “it doesn’t totally suck, but I give it three months tops.”

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