From A Resident Alien [Letter 11]

Letter 11

The picture above is Charleston, picture-perfect as ever.  When I first came, in 2006, I was here about six weeks; I got about, observed the natives, and felt like I'd seen the place for what it was.

A year or two later (when living in Edinburgh), it suddenly struck me that in my time visiting Maria's family I'd not really met any black people.  I'd seen them around now and then, but I'd never met any.

My guess was that African Americans (ooh get me with the adjusted terminology!) make up about 5-10% of the population, but I decided to look it up anyway, because I'm into demographics and stuff like that.  And when I did it made my head spin: in Charleston, 40-45% of all people are black.  Nearly half. And I hadn't met ANY of them.

Where the frick were they all?

Now maybe I was just wildly naive or whatever, but I had no idea that this is exactly what racial segregation looks like in practice: large, mutually-exclusive populations getting on with their lives in virtually parallel worlds.  Black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods; black restaurants, white restaurants; black churches, white churches.  It's not about hate, just separateness.

Around here, the races are so socially unmixed that sometimes they actually speak different languages: black people (especially amongst themselves) often speak Gullah, a Caribbean-style creole named, apparently, after Angola, where many slaves were brought from.  It's a beautiful language.


So, segregation – albeit informal – is alive and well.  I remember last November having lunch at a fast-food place here called Arbie's (they do curly fries!) and being slightly stunned that the manager was white and ALL the other staff were black.  But no one from here would bat an eyelid at that – it's the absolute norm.

The obvious foundational background for all this is slavery.  Over 40% of all slaves in North America arrived via Charleston, and Charleston, if you did not know, was the place where war kicked off over the rights of Americans to own other Americans.


South Carolina seceded from the United States because white people wanted the liberty to own black-skinned property.  And when the Confederates lost the war, the underlying issues were never dealt with – I've searched and searched and can find no record of any reconciliation work in Charleston, whatsoever.

And I love reconciliation work.  One of the great things about being English is that wherever you go in the world, there is always someone to apologise to (whether Zimbabweans, Maori, or Scots).  I would love to see reconciliation in process here, but it seems pretty unlikely, since people are so accustomed to the situation that they don't even know that there's a problem.

Like me when I was finding all this out, you are probably thinking something along the lines of, 'Those dumb, racist, Southerners!' and there is some validity in that.  But only some.  I researched into the heritage of this place from January to May this year, and one fact became very apparent very quickly: it was all caused by the English.


It was the English who set up Charleston and the state of Carolina to be the seat of commerce for the South.  It was the English who kidnapped, bought, tricked, and captured Africans, and shipped them to America.  It was the English who prioritised wealth over goodness, and turned brothers and sisters into property.

It was us.  It was my people.

Maybe someday there will be racial reconciliation in Charleston, but I have the feeling that it might very well require the English to take the first step, in recognition of what we started.  And that makes me glad that I'm here, because I'd love to be part of that.