Monday, July 13, 2009

Day 38 - Charleston, South Carolina

I know that I declare practically every day to be my "favorite day so far," but I really think that Charleston needs to be counted among those favorites. I woke up groggy, a bit disoriented, and skeptical about the 80% humidity, but listening to Paul Simon's "Rhythm of the Saints" album on the way to our first stop helped me wake up and smell the roses.
Once we arrived at Drayton Hall I knew it was going to be a great day. I'm tempted to say that I love learning about architecture, and I did today, but it would be misleading to say that I'm an architecture enthusiast. I really just love learning about anything that's at hand, anything that I can touch, feel, listen to, or experience for myself. And I especially love learning about things like this from people who are either experts on the subject or obviously very passionate about it.

The kind, gentle, elderly woman who led us about the plantation this morning was more than passionate about it; I could tell that it meant everything to her. Seeing her pride in recounting the stories and revealing all the little quirks about the two-and-a-half-centuries old home and its occupants was very touching. Her stories swept me back in time and made walking through the beautifully preserved three-story brick building an incredible experience. As I climbed the right side of the symmetrical grand staircases in the front room, I could almost feel the swish of a colonial-style sweeping gown brush my legs. I gazed upon a piece of the tile that once adorned the outside of one of the upstairs fireplaces and could practically see the servants stoking the fire, adding another log every so often. I felt the winds of a great hurricane as our guide demonstrated how the storm shutters worked. I smelled fresh-baked bread and soup simmering in giant kettles as we walked past the 15'x8'x3' oven in the above-ground basement.

The other night, as a friend and I were comparing our different experiences in Williamsburg, he started talking about the "prescence" of the place. I think it's something that is easier felt than described, but I've witnessed this intangible, often peaceful prescence in a few different places during this trip. It's a reminder of the past, a reminder that the world is so much bigger than I often perceive it to be. And it's awe-inspiring, something that continuously reminds me not to take life for granted -- especially these precious 40 days that are devoted to pure discovery.

Among these inspiring locales:
  • the Lincoln Monument
  • the Grand Canyon
  • the cemetary at Wounded Knee
  • the Library of Congress
  • the Eastern Oregon/Nevada desert
  • Breendonk Concentration Camp (Belgium)
  • the courthouse in which Abraham Lincoln practiced as a Circuit Court Judge before being elected President (moved from Springfield, IL to the Henry Ford Museum)
  • the Old State House in Boston, where the Declaration of Independence was read publicly for the first time
  • the church in Williamsburg at which George Washington worshipped regularly, and where the colonists prayed and meditated for a day after hearing about the Boston Tea Party. At the end of the day they returned to the capitol building and voted unanimously to revolt and fight for their independence.
  • and, the Drayton Hall Plantation.
To say that these places are peaceful doesn't mean that they always were. Some of them once witnessed immense human suffering -- I'm thinking particularly of Breendonk Concentration Camp and the old plantations of the South. But there's something to be said for making peace with a place.

This leads me to two quite interesting experiences from earlier this afternoon.

  1. Pierce's parents generously bought our lunch at a delicious restaurant in Charleston called Gullah Cuisine. The Gullah culture originates primarily in Sierra de Leone, Africa, and evolved with the people who were brought here as slaves.*** A friendly Gullah woman, Kesha, who runs the restaurant spent an hour or so with us this afternoon, giving some interesting insights into the Gullah culture that I was so unfamiliar with. One of Kesha's stories was about a cousin who was recently married on a plantation. "I don't like to talk about plantations, I just don't like to talk about them," she said. So she was at first upset that her cousin was getting married there, but eventually "got over it." Some of the older family members didn't let it go so easily..."Did she forget she's dark-skinned!" they raged.

  2. After leaving the restaurant we headed downtown to a farmers market of sorts, complete with jewelry, Christmas ornaments, touristy t-shirts, fake leather bags, Chinese do-it-yourself acupuncture-simulating vibrating massagers, matted paintings, homemade candy, and hand-woven baskets for sale. After having learned about the traditional Gullah style of basket weaving during lunch, I quickly noticed the numerous basket weavers selling their wares around the perimeters of the market.

    As we walked up the street from our van, approaching the market, I couldn't help but comment on how the open-air indoor market was set up in three large barn-like buildings with no doors, lined up consecutively and positioned in a way that conveys their important role in the community. They were markedly different -- in color, size, and style -- from the buildings on either side of the street and I turned to Dr. Spring, looking for some explanation. You can imagine how my jaw dropped as he told me that these buildings were built to be a market: a slave market. A place where one man would come to inspect others--just as I was there to inspect the wares--and perhaps barter, finally setting on a "fair price." It's hard for me to imagine putting a price on a human life.

    There were so many questions I wanted to ask the merchants there; about half of them black and half white. I wanted to ask, "How does it feel to sell your products here, in the same building that your ancestors were once sold as product? How do you deal with that reality? Is this something that crosses your mind every day as you set up shop? What have you done or what conclusions have you come to that have allowed you to make peace with this place--at least enough to be able to work here yourself?" I wanted to ask all this and more; a million questions were running through my head. But I was too scared. I was scared that I would offend someone. I was scared of what answers I might get. I was scared that someone would occuse me of not being politically correct.

    But those are horrible excuses and I regret not having had the nerve to approach a vendor. Ignoring the situation--walking through there and pretending like nothing had ever happened, pretending that I wasn't uncomfortable--is what perpetuates this "touchy subject" and prevents an important dialogue from taking place. How are Americans supposed to come to terms with their history if discussing some events is taboo? Am I the only one who feels the tension in the room when slavery is addressed?
I want to come back to this notion of making peace with a place. Kesha made peace with the plantation. The Gullah seem to have made peace with the slave markets. And while I was at Fort Breendonk, formerly Breendonk Concentration Camp, I heard that several Jewish people journey to concentration camps to remember the past and then make their own peace.

I haven't really come to any conclusion on this yet: it's just an interesting concept, one that's new to me since I've been blessed with a life involving little to no hardship and no devastating injustices against me. And thus another day throughout which I'm reminded to count my many blessings.

***Gullah dishes are derived from the products that slaves (and later, poor freed African-Americans) were able to obtain; I would describe it as a mixture between the famous Creole food from New Orleans--gumbo/jambalaya/rice dishes, etc.--and Soul Food--corn bread/mac'n'cheese/green veggie stews (collard greens perhaps?). (If these are really poor descriptions, I apologize. I've only had one Creole meal and one Soul Food meal, so my sample size is unacceptably small.)


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