New Voices

It’s 1,300 miles from Minnesota to South Carolina. With our trailer in tow, we are learning that transit days are slower than we expected. You can’t drive as fast. If you stop, it takes longer to park. It gets dark early this time of year, and as we get used to setting up camp, I’d prefer to do it in the daylight.

There are other lessons, too. In our first week, we’ve learned how long our battery will last on a cold night when we don’t have access to electricity (not long enough). We now understand that 110 outlets don’t operate off a 12-volt battery. Our water heater won’t heat water if we forget to turn on the propane tanks.

We’re still smiling. It’s all good, and it’s a part of the learning curve. The full time RV-ers that we’ve already encountered on the road assure us that the learning never ends.

Truth be told, that’s how I like it, and that’s what has brought us to South Carolina. I’ve been thinking about how we tell our stories, how we select the voices that we elevate, and how we craft the narratives we choose to believe.

The city of Charleston has a complicated history when it comes to race. 40% of the people who were enslaved in America were brought through the port of Charleston. The fruits of their stolen labor was the economic engine that drove the city to be the wealthiest in colonial America.

That’s not the story I heard when I was growing up. I learned about slavery, of course, but it was an incomplete history. And even as I continue to read and understand that history in new ways, there is no better teacher for me than being in the physical presence of that history and talking with people who are deeply engaged in the telling of that history and are impacted by the ways it ripples into today.

So when we were offered the chance to spend a couple nights in the writers’ cottage at Magnolia Plantation, it did not take long to say, “Yes, please.”

Established in 1676, Magnolia is one of the oldest plantations in America. Slave labor cleared the tupelo swamps to cultivate rice and wealth for the Drayton family.

We walked the property in the early morning light, following rice patty dikes that slaves toiled to produce centuries ago. We passed beneath mossy live oaks that were witness to the Revolutionary and Civil wars. The cottage we slept in was a few hundred feet away from four restored slave cabins. When a hurricane damaged them years ago, Magnolia repaired them so they could tell a more complete history of that place and who we are as a nation.

I had the chance to interview Joseph McGill, who works as an interpreter for Magnolia. Joe is also the founder of The Slave Dwelling Project. Over the last decade, Joe has spent the night in more than 150 different slave quarters across the country. He uses that experience to build conversations around the importance of preserving our honest history. To honor the people who built so much of our country, and our need to have a full reckoning with the past, in order to move forward into a more just future.

I talked with Alphonso Brown who runs Gullah Tours in Charleston. As a retired music teacher, he loved showing people around his city. He studied to be a tour guide, took the city-sanctioned test and got his permit. He was leading a busload of tourists when one black woman asked, “Why don’t I hear about any black people in your tour?”

The stories Alphonso had studied to pass the city test told only the white history of the city. He quit that job, did his own research, and started a new tour company that told the black history of Charleston as well.

I’ll be sharing these stories and more in the coming weeks. We have come here to learn and as I often say, there is beauty and wisdom all around us, if you take the time to see it. If you take the time to hear it. As Alphonso told me during our conversation, “When you know better, you do better.”

And we can all do better, together.

7 comments

  1. Helen Hartman

    It’s really fun to keep up with your travels and read what you’re learning about. This book is informative about the early history of the area. By Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First to Centuries of Slavery in North America (1997)

    Like

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