So for the past week I’ve been sitting by the pool in my parents’ gated island condo community reading deeply and widely in Black Power and revolutionary theory, coming to grips with the intricacies of Pan Africanism and ruminating on the essence of diasporic identity. In my strange world, irony, it seems, is immortal. I guess I could interrogate the contradictions and all–privileged environs, white boy doing Black history, reading the revolution bathed in sunscreen–but the hell with it. I’m too tired. And the place, on Hilton Head Island, is one of my favorite places to hide, something I like to do quite a lot.
To a certain degree, I write for effect. The community where my parents’ condo stands is actually pretty diverse. Black, Latino, and Asian families are well-represented. It is a kind of “beloved community” for the upper middle class set; the kind that capitalism churns up sometimes. Entry is guaranteed if you’re fortunate enough to have the price of admission.
My parents started bringing us to Hilton Head back in the early 1970s. We shared a condominium with two other families and each had a month during the summer to visit. No surprise the island was different back then. Very different. Most of the development was on the southern end of the island–Sea Pines Plantation. The enormous growth of island-wide construction was just beginning. I remember the Driessen family general store and gas station near the bridge on the north end of the island. (Danny Driessen played for the Cincinnati Reds back in the 70s.) There was a more delineated native island community–or at least that’s the way it seemed. Visitors to the island were predominantly white. If you saw a Black face, it was the person doing the landscaping or working in the kitchen at the restaurant. You never saw a Latino family.
I was a little busy in the 1990s but when I returned to the island in the early 00s, the world had changed. The first thing I noticed was the number of African Americans in the shops, restaurants, and on the beaches–reflective of the general expansion of the Black middle class post-CRM. That diversity has only increased. Is that a good thing? Of course. It is certainly preferable to the exclusionary society that existed before that. But there is another element to that story–to the transformation that time and capitalism have wrought–that is more difficult to track. It is the way that the history of HHI and the rest of the SC and GA Sea Islands has been commodified, modified, sanitized, and/or erased.
Maybe it is all the reading I’ve been doing, perhaps it has something to do with the tragedy in Charleston and the subsequent debate over the Confederate flag. But as we enjoyed the gorgeous beaches, wonderful weather, fine restaurants, I began to think about the place Hilton Head had prior to the Civil War as a linchpin in the plantation complex of the Sea Islands. I thought about the hundreds of slaves that lived, toiled, and died to grow the indigo, rice, and cotton so important to the lowcountry economy. Honestly, it is hard not to think about those things as so many of the condo and hotel complexes reference the names of antebellum plantations. Port Royal, Marshland, and Spanish Wells are all represented. Place names matter. Naming is a function of power. If those names reflect affluence and comfort today, or conjure up Gone With the Wind imagery of antebellum opulence, those perceptions mask the historical and social costs of such affluence. Braddock Point might be Harbortown today but, with streets named for prominent planters and slaveholders, it still has the exploitative feel of the past. Commerce, I guess, is commerce. Blindly celebrating success while blithely ignoring the foundation of that success is as American as apple pie. Then when it all goes bad, we wring our hands and gnash our teeth and wonder how such a thing could happen in the “home of the free?”
The Confederate flag is hate speech pure and simple. It is arguably the most odious symbol of past and present racism. But drill down just a little and you find that this same racism is, to paraphrase the writer Charles Chesnutt, the very marrow of our American tradition. It is exactly who we are as a people and society. It is as mundane as the streets we drive on and the places we lay our heads while on vacation. We invent alternate realities that mask or erase that central point but it stands just the same. We all in some way partake of it; it belongs to all of us.
As I said, I’ve been reading about Black Power in preparation for the upcoming semester. That got me thinking about Mitchelville–the effort by Union general Ormsby Mitchel to establish a self-governing Black community among the freed population of Hilton Head Island. Consider it a footnote to the larger Port Royal experiment. With Mitchel’s blessing, 1500 freedpeople set about building a town, creating a governance structure, electing representatives, building housing and businesses. This experiment in Black empowerment was so successful that Harriet Tubman made a special visit to Hilton Head just to witness the phenomenon. Eventually, however, Mitchelville ran aground on the shoals of post-Reconstruction South Carolina politics. Now local preservationists are working diligently to commemorate that history. Heritage not hate. But what does it mean that to get to the Mitchelville site, you have to roll along byways named for the Southern planter aristocracy? In ways that barely register, consumption perpetuates racial conflict. Efforts to preserve our history of struggle and resistance, are too often–and too easily–steamrolled by the sham histories that are more easily marketed to an unsuspecting public just looking for a little rest and relaxation.
People like myself who think and write about the South for a living often extol the “sense of place” among southerners both Black and white. As someone who has bounced all over the country in search of a place to call my own, I admire that attribute. To a point. In our land, racial conflict and unbridled consumption waltz arm in arm, and our sense of “place” ain’t no benign thing! It is a political formation as contested as any other and shaped by the asymmetries of power that define our nation. We live the contradictions daily as surely as I plot the revolution while sitting poolside. We allow these competing histories to exist side-by-side as so many alternative realities and we do so at our own risk. The chickens, as Malcolm reminded us so many years ago, always, ALWAYS come home to roost.