The South terrifies me. It always has. It seems like a region steeped in suppressed violence. All is politeness by the light of day, but when the Sun sets I worry about the things unsaid. The South seems like a place where ghosts linger, awaiting the gloam to finish work left undone.
So this week, when I traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, for a sentencing hearing, I was apprehensive. I was as confident as I could be that my client would not go to prison, and my confidence was not misplaced. After a nine-year odyssey, my client’s case ended with a sentence of probation. He was to remain at liberty, more or less.
But I harbored other apprehensions, apprehensions about the meaning of freedom in a region that fought bloodily to retain the right to enslave other human beings. I cannot walk a Southern street without feeling the blood of others sloshing about my ankles. That blood still felt warm in Charleston, especially when I found myself the morning after the sentencing hearing in the Old Slave Mart Museum on Chalmers Street.
A decade or so, my wife and I went to a party thrown by a good friend on an antebellum plantation in southern Mississippi. On the first night of the event, we sat beside an open fire. A few men were boiling turkeys in peanut oil. We lingered, enjoying the twilight and the exotic sense of being in a foreign place. We were among the first guests to arrive; friends from around the United States planned to turn out for the bash.
Soon, one of the men tending the turkeys started talking in a slow, languorous drawl. I had trouble making out what he was saying. But one word hit a clear note: “Nigger.” Soon the men made clear where they stood on the matter of the color line. Did they know that some of those coming to the old plantation were persons of color? Was this a rearguard of those who fought a war against Northern aggression? We left the campfire and went for a walk alone along a country road. I was afraid suddenly. Afraid of lynch mobs and dark hatred.
“How do you live down here, among the ruins of slavery?” I asked the lawyer with whom I was working the South Carolina case this week.
“It’s worse in the North,” he told me. “At least here, people are open about it. I know what I am looking at and I can accept that. I know how to fight it here. I never know who to trust in the North.”
His remarks cut me, and made me own my uneasiness about race. I represent many people of color in conflicts with the criminal justice system. Rhetoric about the new plantation system housed in prisons flows easily from my lips. But how comfortable have I become with the new Jim Crow? I live in the country, in an area of large properties expensively maintained. If the prisons and criminal law represents a new means of asserting something like racial hegemony, then what role do I play sitting in my white palace?
The Old Slave Mart silenced me. It was one of the sites of the slave trade in the deep South. This was not a market that specialized in Africans who survived the Middle Passage in ships crammed full of stinking bodies, with sharks trailing after the boats eager to eat the many who perished along the way and were thrown overboard. No, this market was for domestic slaves, folks bred on these shores and then sold like so many animals.
I was not alone in the museum. A black couple was also present. As I watched them sit in stunned silence reading museum displays and listening to spirituals over the loudspeakers I felt like an interloper. What must this museum look like to a person whose ancestors may well have been moved throw these very rooms like so much cattle? Where does the anger go?
I am a criminal defense lawyer. Far too many times I have stood in a market of a different sort bidding on black souls. A white judge carries a gavel, much like an auctioneer. A white prosecutor and I argue about what value to place on the black men and women in our midst. The defendants stand silent, often chained. They are led away in chains. In the dark of the museum’s halls, I recognize myself and my fear. I am a slave trader.
I worry about the fire next time. Indeed, just weeks before going to the slave mart, I reread James’ Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. How is it that when I last read it I missed his call to love, to passionate engagement in the world? Why is it that the great minds, the great souls, the authors who sustain always come down to the simple proposition that forgetfulness of self by immersion in the other is the only salvation we will ever know?
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without,” Baldwin writes, “and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace -- not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
I stood in the slave mart hating the role history had assigned to me. Yes, I am no descendant of actual slave masters. My family arrived here only this century. Yet I enjoy daily the social benefits of skin. It is an advantage I would not voluntarily yield, but enjoying it yields something like bad faith. Race still matters.
“The only way [the white man] can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become a part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveler’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark.”
I stood in the slave mart, in the South, fearing not so much the other, as the uneasy conscience within myself. I sit now days later wondering whether love along can ever erase scars century deep, and still rubbed raw and daily in a land that professes a commitment for equality to all by day, but which too often sings a different sort of song under the cover of night.