I am a Black Woman Living in the American South and I am Not Leaving
People often ask me when I plan to move out of the American south. I’m an indignant, disenfranchised, educated black woman – and they wonder what kind of future South Carolina can offer me. I tell them that it isn’t perfect, but it’s my home. I choose to make it so. I’m staying because I want to help fix what I can.
I’m not exactly a southern belle: I belong to a league of women who made a way out of no way, who bought houses by selling fried chicken and who taught themselves how to drive. We aren’t the type of folks to wait around for life to give us a fair shot. We were taught from an early age that justice and the law weren’t the same. That knowledge explains my propensity to root for the underdog. I’m still rooting, actually.
As a fourth generation South Carolinian, the struggles of my ancestors still permeate my consciousness. They were people who were worn down by work so quickly that they never lived to see their grandchildren or realize their dreams. Thanks to them, I have more options today than I would have had in the past and I won’t leave their contributions behind if I can help it.
I made my family’s struggles (and the struggles of African Americans living in rural towns in South Carolina) the subject of my master’s thesis. I spent my time collecting oral histories, scanning pictures and copying recipes. I heard what it was like to pick cotton and peaches. I wanted to know how they felt when they saw the aftermaths of a lynching – or when they had their teeth removed by the veterinarian, because “colored people” weren’t allowed in the dentist’s office. I collected, sorted and catalogued those moments. It was my way of saying “I won’t forget, I promise”.
I may not live to see the positive result of my attempt to educate the world about my home state, but I do it anyway, in the hopes that the local children will understand their history and have more pride in the community that they come from. I want those around me to have more opportunities than I did. The concept of delayed gratification is not lost on me.
Older people lament that young, educated, ambitious artists like me are fleeing to northern cities as soon as they’re old enough to drive or have a high school diploma. I can’t blame them – I did the same thing. At 15 I went to a residential arts high school so that I could fast track my way to an Ivy League degree. I thought that sheet of paper would catapult me to fame in New York City.
I returned to my home state when my father, a local entrepreneur, fell ill. Now that he’s passed, I’ve decided to stay, even though as a woman of color I feel I’ve already got two strikes against me. It’s easy to believe in progress, it’s another thing to attempt to initiate it.
I want to stop worrying. I worry about the people in my life that still reside here: aunts, cousins and childhood friends that just like me have two strikes against them, simply for existing. I lose sleep thinking about the children I see playing in the street because there are no libraries nearby and the recreation center they used to frequent has been closed due to a lack of funds.
Many of my white friends in the state don’t understand the challenges faced here by people of color on a daily basis. I’d call it psychological terrorism. I did a long run with my running partner and the subject of Walter Scott came up. She was scared of riots. I tried to explain to her in between ragged breaths that the cluster of anxiety that she felt is what I feel all of the time. In stores. In my car. In my home.
I couldn’t explain the heaviness of carrying the primal knowledge that as a person of color, at any time your number could come up and your struggle could be reduced to a hashtag trending on Twitter.
It’s easy to be disappointed but it’s harder to create change, and to foster community. I’m not sure South Carolina can live up to its hospitable reputation. I wish it did, but on my way home from the store recently I counted four different trucks flying the Confederate flag.
There are so many things that I find great about this state, but what does it mean to be loyal to a place that doesn’t have your best interests at its core? Who will ever take our concerns into consideration if we don’t speak up?
I’ve spent some time thinking about the small acts of resistance: deciding to fall in love, to move forward with life and even start a family feels radical when there’s a target on your back.
It takes a certain amount of resilience and grit and I have decided to cling to that resolve because I believe the potential outcome outweighs the cost. I’m sure I’ll have to re-evaluate my stance at some point further down the line as I get older, but right now I’m staying because I refuse to let negative experiences breed fear. I refuse to be controlled. I want to have the hard conversations and I’m going to keep betting on the underdog.