DéLana R.A. Dameron’s second collection of poems Weary Kingdom (2017) is part of the University of South Carolina Palmetto Poetry Series, edited by Nikky Finney. Dameron’s debut collection, How God Ends Us (2009), was selected by Elizabeth Alexander for the 2008 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize. She has had essays, interviews, and poems published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, ARTS.BLACK, Storyscape Journal, The Rumpus, Epiphany Magazine, the Tidal Basin Review, and The New Sound Journal. Dameron also consults for small arts & culture organizations and currently serves on the Board of Directors of New York University’s Alumni Association as well as Kundiman, an organization dedicated to the creation and cultivation of Asian-American Letters. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, DéLana currently resides in Brooklyn.
Marcus Amaker is a graphic designer, web designer, musician, videographer and poet based in Charleston, South Carolina. He’s published six poetry books. His latest collection, Mantra, is also available as a free app for iPhone and Android devices.
DéLana R.A. Dameron: Where I’m from, death brings family together and cuts across distance and time. When my maternal grandmother passed away in 2013, I dropped everything in New York City and bought a one-way ticket (I didn’t know when I’d be back, I told my boss) to South Carolina. I had bereavement leave. I wish there was leave-time for times like this. Actually, I will be headed to Charleston, soon, not a one-way ticket, but I told my boss: I need to go Home. And he listened. So here we are.
Anyways, when I got there, I was tasked with organizing the family, and opening up my grandmother’s house so that family and friends could come and “Set-up” as we call it (Like, “Are you going over to Ms. Melvin’s house to set-up with the family before the funeral?” or, “I’m bringing ice tea, and some extra chairs for the set-up so folks will have a place to sit” or, “what days will the family be setting-up in the house before the funeral?”)—that is, gather at the home of the gone and grieve and laugh and love and celebrate a life together. It was an important time for all of us; we were brought together by this common loss. People came by plane; people drove over 20 hours to sit together in her living room. Exactly as she would have it. It was tradition. Family and friends brought food—biscuits, dirty rice, pound cake, fried chicken, sweet tea—for our bodily nourishment, but it was the space that was opened up for us for the stories, the memories, the tears, the anger, and the sharing of it all together in this space that made it a place of healing. Each of the five days up until the funeral and two days after.
Because distance separates us right now, Marcus, I find that this virtual living room that the Los Angeles Review of Books has opened up for us in this time of mourning, action, remembrance is such an important gesture. I hope it will serve as a space for healing. A tragic loss in a community we shared, a brutal attack on a place and people we loved, a place we grew as writers together has brought us to LARB’s living room. I bring with me my home-made macaroni and cheese and my grandmother’s sweet potato pie (only I have this recipe in the family now). Thank you for joining me here.
Marcus, I met you in Charleston in 2005, but can you tell me how you got to Charleston?
Marcus Amaker: Though I grew up in a military family and traveled the world as a kid (born in Las Vegas, before moving to England, Maryland, Japan and Texas), South Carolina is my home. My parents were born and raised in Orangeburg, SC. I graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1999. After a productive stint at the daily newspaper in Anderson, South Carolina, I came to Charleston to work for its daily newspaper, the Post and Courier. I planted roots in Charleston in April, 2003, and worked for the newspaper for eight years as a page designer and editor.
Charleston impacted me and my writing from the beginning. It is a beautiful city with a deep history for African-Americans. It’s called “The Holy City” for a reason. When I moved here, I was bald (by choice). After connecting to the culture, I grew out my hair. It was a symbolic decision, and helped me get closer to my roots.
DDJ: I would love for you to walk me through your Wednesday night, your Thursday (or the point you heard the news). Take me into your interior. To today.
MA: June 17, 2015. My wife and I live in downtown Charleston, 1.9 miles away from Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on 110 Calhoun Street. We were watching Netflix when we received an alert on our phone about, “a shooting in downtown Charleston.” The alert didn’t go away, so I switched the TV over to local news. We stayed up until 2:00 A.M. as the news unfolded. It was a surreal experience. So much confusion, questions, anger, sadness. As a former journalist, I made a point to watch the news through the TV station instead of following every little rumor on Twitter.
The last time I visited Mother Emanuel AME Church, it was for a funeral for my dear friend Jack McCray. Jack was a giant of a man. An inspiration for all African-American writers in country. He authored a book, Charleston Jazz, that is the definitive resource for our city’s role in the history of the music.
I thought about Jack, our city, racism, my parents, everything. It was a very fearful night. We went to bed and barely got any sleep.
The next days were a blur. I took a few days to take care of myself – meditation, music & rest. But I definitely got caught up in anger when I reflected on the reality of what happened.
On Thursday, Charleston City Paper asked me to write a poem about the massacre, so I spent the next few days crafting that piece.
My wife and I stayed active with the community events—we visited the church on Sunday; we walked on the Ravenel Bridge for the Unity Chain, and we took part in a massive worship service in honor of the victims.
I also had conversations with many people in the community about moving things forward—tribute concerts, how to give voices a forum to speak, outreach, among others.
DDJ: We started this conversation before the funeral. You were so patient with me and my requests, and I can’t imagine what it’s like being there, so close, in the city. The day of the funeral, in New York City, I had to sneak away to watch it streaming online. The world kept going. Can you talk about what it was like for you?
MA: The day of Clementa’s funeral was a powerful and somber day. My friends and I planned on lining up for the 11 am service at 8:30 AM, which seems silly now. Silly, because I got a text message from someone at 7 AM who said that the line was already a mile long. I heard stories of people lining up at 3 AM!
There was a heightened sense of urgency and excitement because Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden were coming into town. How awesome is that? All four of them, in one place. They definitely didn’t have to come, but I was proud of them for making the trip. Air Force One was due to come in at 1 PM, so we knew the service would be a long affair. But it was worth every minute.
I watched the whole service with my co-workers from the Jazz Artists of Charleston. Ironic, because Clementa helped us plan the funeral of Jack McCray, at Emanuel AME Church, four years ago.
We watched every minute of the service. We followed Twitter (especially my ex-coworker @celmorePC, who was covering Obama’s arrival) and watched on Instagram people took video of Barack and Michelle’s car drive through the streets of Charleston. We were moved by all of the speakers, and listened to every minute of Obama’s eulogy.
What a eulogy. Barack Obama (now known as “Rev. President”) gave me chills with his words and his voice. He knew exactly what to say, and spoke frankly about racism and the problems we still face. I honestly think it was his finest moment as president.
After the service, I went downtown to get a glimpse of his motorcade as it passed through King and George streets. I took some video, and was asked by two strangers to send that video to them. I’ll never forget that day.
DDJ: The attack at Emmanuel AME Church is not an isolated event, as we know. But the frequency of so many assaults against the black body has, at least for me, altered my psyche. This is a big question: what does it mean to be a black man today? What does it mean to be a young black artist, and now, with the violence and “the enemy” so close to home?
MA: To be a black man today is to be human. It also means that we have an organic connection with other black people because of our strong sense of community. We are all bound by our shared experiences. I hesitate to use the word “special” because “special” means “separate.” But, we have tapped into our specialness from other cultures through our heightened awareness of our shared experience. Our shared experience is racism, especially for the black race in America. We are here because of racism. That’s a hard reality to come to grips with.
Being a young black artist comes with the responsibility to turn that hurt into love. It also means that we need to nurture our community and come up with solutions to the problem. We need to start shedding this hurt through love, education and honest conversations.
Honestly, DéLana, “the enemy” as you say is everywhere, and it takes many forms. It doesn’t take race to make me hate you. Racism is a form of hatred that needs to be eradicated, but so does sexism and homophobia. Racism is special, though, because of its deep, harmful effects. Gentrification and environmental racism are just two examples of how hatred can cause permanent damage to our society.
DDJ: You said as a black artist, you have the responsibility “turn hurt into love.” How do you imagine turning hurt into love? Do you have a model? Where and with whom do we have the honest conversations?
MA: God works in mysterious ways, so hurt can turn into love naturally. Just look at Charleston in the aftermath – the community has come together in ways I’ve never seen before. We should have honest conversations with everyone that we come in contact with. Now is not the time to be silent.
DDJ: What do you think art—or words on a page—do for the artists and community members at a time like this?
MA: Art helps us realize that we are all connected. A good song, painting or poem with a message of love touches us at the core. Art also has the potential to be a voice for a community during tough times. Folk music and rap music are really great at that.
Poets Marjory Wentworth, Ed Madden and I are planning to publish a book of poems about the massacre. We put a call out on Facebook for poetry submissions, and the response has been great. Marjory is connected with Nikky Finney and Nikki Giovanni, so we are hoping to get some poems from them.
DDJ: How do we take care of ourselves? What do we do? What do we say?
MA: We must speak from love, not fear. We must look for solutions to the man-made problems of society. We also need to start focusing on our similarities, not our differences. There needs to be a basis of love for everything. Imagine if everyone based her or his decisions on love—how many problems would we have?
With that said, we also must be honest about issues. Sexism, racism and homophobia are MAJOR egocentric hurdles for all of us to tackle head on. No more small talk. Go big. Everyone should be having honest conversations about race. We shouldn’t be afraid to address that issue.
DDJ: What does the world look like in 5 years? 2020. Clearer vision? Where is poetry & art in it?
MA: Hopefully, the world will be more open to people acting on love and not fear. I think we are inching toward that reality. 2020, just like 2015, will be an opportunity for change. I’ve seen the community here act on love through community events such as tribute concerts, the Unity Chain on the bridge and more. The Unity Chain, for example, was a fantastic event. Thousands of people came together and held hands on the bridge. It was wonderful.
DDJ: I know you’re a newly wed. Congratulations! I’m approaching my second year of marriage, and my family and my married family is pressuring me to begin family planning. But I just don’t know, Marcus. You know? How do you feel about this idea? Can you speak towards violence against our black skins and how it might impact your future life planning?
MA: Marriage life is super peaceful, and really amazing! We feel no pressure in planning a bigger family, honestly. Violence against black people, and everyone, is a frequent topic of conversation in our home. We are both heavily involved in the Charleston community, and are both being active participants in change. We WILL make this a safer place for the next generation.
Randall Horton is an assistant professor of English at the University of New Haven in Connecticut and the author of The Definition of Place (2006) and The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street (2009). He is the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Bea González Poetry Award, and a National Endowment of the Arts Literature Fellowship.
DéLana R.A. Dameron: Randall, since the night a 21-year-old white terrorist waltz into a Wednesday night Bible Study and opened fire, and declared he was waging a race war, and was later caught and waltzed to Burger King before being taken to prison; a 21-year-old white terrorists who even has the President calling him an “alleged killer” in the midst of giving an eulogy for Clemente Pinckney, the SC State Senator and Pastor of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—I’ve been emotionally and physically exhausted and overwhelmed with the other-than-Charleston-shooting conversations on Social Media (that was last week’s news, after all, right?) that I didn’t watch anything, I didn’t read anything. I barely talked to people except a few close girl friends. Even my husband noticed a change and told me I need to get away (I listened. I’m going to Charleston, soon).
What occasion we have been granted to think about The South, ourselves in it. I would love for you to walk me through the point you heard the news….take me into your interior. What it means that it happened in Charleston, in a church. What it means that it happened at all. And your reaction to it.
Randall Horton: Well first of all, you have to understand I was born in Birmingham, Alabama two years before the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. I was a toddler when that bomb detonated and rocked my parents’ small two-bedroom apartment, eight blocks away from the church. You have to understand I grew up in the AME church with a blind pastor who gave some of the most memorable sermons I can remember: part performance, part lecture. He could work a congregation into one poetic sway.
The idea of church as foundation, as hope, was instilled in me early. I also knew that on Sunday morning in Birmingham, at 11:00 am, the city was as divided as it could and will ever be. I also was part of the first wave of students who desegregated Jefferson County Schools. I spent two years at an all white school, was called Nigger everyday; had to fight, everyday. But it was those other years, from nursery school to 3rd grade, from 6th grade until the 12th grade, where I went all Black schools.
I understand Charleston, South Carolina in that it too, much like the state of Alabama, holds on to the Confederacy and any other symbols that would elevate whites one rung past Black people. The shooting of The Charleston Nine took me back to Birmingham when I had to grow up in the shadows of those four little girls. Often, when I was small, I would wonder what if that had been me? And now, another generation of young people will have to wonder: What if that had been me?
DD: I learned from this comedic television show that Alabama took down all four of its Confederate Flags in the wake of the national urge to take down the confederate flag from the SC State house. And then I felt like—an idiot. I didn’t know that Alabama had four Confederate Flags! Whew. That was a lot to take in. Then, I thought, I need to talk to Randall, to see how you feel. Right now the conversation around what happened in Charleston—the massacre of 9 individuals who were studying their Word, including a SC State Senator—is shifting to gun laws, and Confederate Flags and where they fly and I’m not buying it. I thought, I need to ask my brother-man Randall to weigh in. Someone who is (more?) as deep-south as I am. Someone who knows what it’s like to hold a fishing pole, what it’s like to wield a knife & gut & scale a catfish. Someone who might know what it’s like to be called Nigger point-blank and live to tell the tale. Can you believe how quickly the conversation turned away from the 9 Black men and women who were senselessly killed by terrorist, racialized violence to a conversation about the Confederate Flag?
RH: You know what. I went to A. H Parker High School, one of the oldest all-Black high schools in the south with a rich heritage. To put this into context, the first white person graduated from my school in 2003, I think it was. I say this because symbolism of that history has plagued Alabama for so long. I knew kids who went to Robert .E Lee High School in Montgomery, which was the craziest thing ever. How in the hell can any sane Black person go to a school named after a mofo who didn’t even like them? I understood that insanity, even then, in my early stages of Black consciousness.
But that’s the power of the dominant narrative, those who dictate the ebb and flow of how we live. These symbolisms, the symbolism behind the bombing, all have plagued Alabama, almost like an anvil around its neck. And yes, the focus shifted from the “9,” to the flag, which I find interesting. I say this because, if I am correct, the flag has been a common sense issue for decades. Most of the time, when concerning Black history, there is almost always has to be a moment of extreme tragedy to even spark a conversation that should have been ions ago. So, while I understand and appreciate people wanting the flag down, that ish should have never been raised up in the first place. The bigger question is why is the Black body public target number one…
DD: In his conversation with me, Kwame Dawes, said, “This is the time for Essays.” I believe him. I believe this is the time to write, and to read—to return to folks who have lived through similar tumultuous times. I’ve been re-reading lots of James Baldwin & Malcolm X. In The Last Interview, Baldwin spoke of this idea of dehumanization, what I would argue is happening to Blacks in America, still, in 2015. He said, “To be a negro in this country is really—Ralph Ellison has said it best—never to be looked at…As a negro, you represent a level of experience which Americans deny.” Is the idea of changing the conversation, of moving on to the next newsreel, efforts by the media, etc, to continue to never look at us? to deny our experience of racialized violence?
RH: Remember, Angela Davis, in her brilliant book, Are Prisons Obsolete, noted that prison is a structure you don’t notice until it affects you.
I would argue, for most of the dominant narrative in America, the socio-economic/humanistic state of Black people, is, really, of little concern to people who don’t have to interact with Black people. It always amazes me how people can have 500 followers/friends on Facebook, and not one Black person, or person of color. Like, their lives are un-intruded by Blackness, so why invest in it?
Every person who identifies as Black will have to deal with that invisibility. Some try to fade into that privileged invisibility, but are often reminded, there is a limit. Either way, historical racial violence is something we as a society are quick to move from. We will acknowledge it, but for those without a personal connection, or who effected by it, to linger in this violence is often too uncomfortable. Mainly, because one has to explain their privilege in society (if they can), to rationalize it, to feel the guilt of something that they are not connected to.
DD: But would you argue that Baltimore & Ferguson is forcing those folks to look at us? Taking us out—if only temporarily—from behind that invisibility cloak?
RH: Hmmm. Interesting take. Perhaps these events (Baltimore & Ferguson) create a deeper more focused discussion, but through what lens, and what level of empathy do these images produce in terms of collateral and unilateral action, and responsibility? And the ones I’m talking about who fade into privilege invisibility, do so because they can, be it skin complexion, cultural markers, and sadly, cultural amnesia.,.which is a sort of a cultural disinheritance, a purposeful disrobing of the self.
However, I did say that Black people as a whole, are invisible to some because white lives are unintruded by Blackness, as in these people can go about their life without so choosing to engage with other cultures. Now, I, on the other hand, would shrink to a starving skeleton adopting this view. My station in society demands I engage with people outside my culture within the United States of America if I want to survive in the United States of America. But yes, I would agree that, sadly, the only time the dominant narrative is forced to confront, engage, and understand Blackness, usually happens in the most tragic and egregious of circumstances.
DD: I want to turn to Malcolm X with you now. I’ve been reading him something hard, and I wish he were here today. But we have his words. That is the gift writing & books give us, right? I’ve been carrying around Malcolm X Speaks, for the past two months, trying to understand this world we’re in now, the world he was in then, and there’s almost no distinction except, I would argue (and would love to hear your thoughts) that the country had a name(s) for what was going down, that both sides of the battle (“Segregation”/”Jim Crow”/”Civil Rights”) in their own way accepted there was an institution, a system in place against Blacks.
I think growing up in the South, with its vestiges of the institution & system, made me hyper aware of my “place” in society even when the mainstream media would have me believe that we had somehow attained equality. Malcolm X said, in his Message to the Grass Roots: “America has a very serious problem, but our people have a very serious problem. America’s problem is us. We’re her problem. The only reason she has a problem is she doesn’t want us here. And every time you look at yourself, be you Black, brown, red or yellow, a so-called Negro, you represent a person who poses such a serious problem for America because you’re not wanted. Once you face this as a fact, then you can start plotting a course that will make you appear intelligent, instead of unintelligent.” I think, sadly, I faced that fact on the playground in South Carolina when—having just moved back to SC from Indiana—a pre-school playmate told me I was not allowed to play with them on the slide because her mother told her she wasn’t allowed to play with Black kids. I practically walked into the world knowing there were people who didn’t want me here. When did you, as Malcolm said, “face this as a fact”? How does it inform how you walk the world today?
RH: You know, I took a Black Arts Movement Class at Chicago State University with Haki Madhubuti, one of the original practitioners. He told me that you can always tell the history/climate of a nation by the literature that it does, or does not produce. Then, too, Toni Morrison has often said, “there was something lost in segregation.” Within legal segregation, Black people closed ranks. Now remember, this is the magic of Black southern culture. Within that segregation, there was a heightened level of Black consciousness. One could argue that segregation has produced the greatest Black thinkers and literary achievers up until this point in American history, and consequently, American literature.
So here’s the scenario: Like me, you are a kid about ten years old. You are on a playground but the only Black kid among hundreds of white kids running and laughing. You are an integration experiment. Each day the white kids pick on you solely because of your skin color and you ask them to stop, wish they would stop. But you are a kid and the whole world is bigger than you. You use all of your best non-violent rhetoric you learned in bible school. You want to love and forgive like your blind pastor of Bryant Chapel AME church taught you to do. The next day you say I forgive them to yourself. The kids still pick on you and call you nigger with vigor. It will take you years later to learn this hate was learned from their parents, that it is systemic, never-ending—nothing you could have done the change the outcome. You go home and cry and tell no one, because you are only ten. The next day a little white girl kicks you with her foot hard as she can while you are bending down and calls you a nigger, like she is everything, and you are nothing. You rise up with a balled fist from past East St Louis and knock the living shit out that girl. It happens so fast, it’s almost like it didn’t happen. But it did.
Damn near break her little white perfect jaw. You will never forget how she screamed, how she couldn’t believe her privilege couldn’t save her. And here is where the narrative gets scariest. She is a girl. You know you not suppose to hit girls. Five years from now you will let Terry Boykins win a fight because you refuse to hit her. But she is Black and will not call you a nigger and this is another animal. Something happened, something triggered a response to a situation you had to handle. But there is your mother, who teaches at the school where this is going down, who is known for administering corporal punishment on the spot. Yes, you come from family that didn’t play shit. No timeouts, no go tot the corner and be quiet, no let’s breathe. Funny thing happens though. Your mom is in the principal’s office telling the white principal You bet not touch my son. Your dad comes to the school, because he gotta let the white principal know, too, that: Ain’t nobody fucking with his family.
In the midst of tears and being scared, you do somersaults inside your head because your mom and dad got your back. The girl who called you a Nigger will never say the word in her a life, again. Of this, you are certain. Damn near broke her jaw, but you were ten, and you wanted a humanity. You learn early not to beg for your humanity. You take it.
DD: In addition to my not believing this is about where (or how many?) flags fly in or around a statehouse, I do not believe this is about lawful access to guns or not. But can you believe the NRA official, Charles L. Cotton, cited that Clemente Pinckney, “voted against concealed-carry,” and that “Eight of his church members…might still be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church.” And yet, the expectation, neigh the demand, is that Blacks continue to be nonviolent and peaceful and forgive in the face of direct racialized violence. Can you believe this? When Malcolm X said: “It is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself, when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks. It is legal and lawful to own a shotgun or a rifle. We believe in obeying the law,” and also declared: “our right on this earth…to be a human being…on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.” Folks got scared. That was in the ‘60’s. Malcolm didn’t make it alive out of the ‘60’s and many argue because it was his violent stance against seeking justice and equality and human rights for Blacks in America. What do you think happens when (I don’t think this is a matter of if anymore) Black Americans choose the bullet over the ballot?
RH: Actually, I think my last response answered that question, I think. But let me go back a minute to what you pointed out in terms of the NRA. First let me say, I likened the NRA to Donald Trump, which means right-wing-conservative-clowns, except they don’t have to put on whiteface.
Historically, the NRA has used violence against others to strengthen their point. Here, my friend, is where the aversion of the “racial contract” comes into play, meaning the unwritten rule that allows this silent minority to literally run the United States based on its economic and political influences. This is capitalism working at it’s best.
Now, to get into your question, I would first say that I, for one, am tired of begging, praying, holding hands, singing to White Baby Jeezus and asking for forgiveness on my damn knees. In my opinion, whether or not I believe in Christianity, is not the issue. I say this because, I come from a literary background and understand that people deconstruct theology, or any other concept based on their own agenda. My agenda says enough is enough. To be honest, some days I do wish Toni Morrison’s Seven Days in Song of Solomon were an actuality. An eye for an eye. But I know this is impractical, wrong and so some days, I feel helpless. But I know now, to forgive continually and act passive will get you the same results. On your knees asking for forgiveness.
I will offer this. In every nonviolent crusade there comes a moment where violent and aggressive approaches help to get to some kind of understanding. It wasn’t until the Black Panthers came along that America really saw the power of what organized militancy could do. These Negroes were not afraid and didn’t turn the other cheek. What I am really saying is that, at some point in time, a line has to be drawn. Like, while I agree, the flag is a distraction, I do love the image Bree Newsome created when she scaled the pole and snatched the flag down. For far too long, we have been presented too many passive images concerning Black consciousness. Little girls of color growing up need to see that, to know that they have power to change the course of history. It has been the image of the domain narrative that has had the most crippling effect on our nation. Anytime something violence happens against Black people we are immediately given Dr. King’s rhetoric of nonviolence. Have you ever asked yourself, why?
DD: As you are a writer and artist, I want to turn lastly towards art. What can art—the larger “A” art—do in a time like this?
RH: At the very least, art has the capability to bring awareness by merely the creativity that is formed through social/political/economic situations. If “truth” is at the core of an aesthetic, then what nurtures that response oftentimes is a critique/comment through artistic output. The bigger question, perhaps, is what can the artist do? Does the artist feel a responsibility? Can the artist resist the “machine of safe art, of emotionless emotions, awards and prizes that celebrate the safeness, almost like giving us Dr. King instead of Malcolm X. Same thing.
Historically, the literary community, especially, has often ignored art as activism, and when it is acknowledged, it is usually with those they feel most safe with. There are artist right now who have been co-opted, codified and mechanized based on these things. I really wish people would do their literary homework.
Now more than ever, art does have the ability to change, without compromise, and I hope my artistic brothers and sisters continue in the traditions that have always responded to cultural and social crisis. I think back to Gwendolyn Brooks who reexamined her approach to Western aesthetics, embraced a “Black aesthetic,” and basically told Random House screw you and went to Broadside Press and subsequently, Third World Press. She put her art where her heart was. I am hard pressed to find someone to do that today. Perhaps so, but….
This was huge at the time and influenced a generation of writers that paved the way for you and me. At the very least, we should consider where art has gotten us as we continue to create art.
DD: Malcolm X said, “”People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.” What is your one book? Why?
RH: That’s easy. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. That book helped me to understand race in a way that I had never examined. The characters resonated with me, and what happens at HBCUs happened to me in terms of dealing with coonery, in another way but still, coonery. So, every time I reread that book, I still have ah-ha moments, like every other page. Each reading gives me something I missed the first time. I didn’t realize it until years later, that this book was giving me everything I needed when it came to race and my invisibly as a Black man within the fabric of America.
Kendra Hamilton is the author of The Goddess of Gumbo (Word Press, 2006). Her work has been published in the anthologies Bush Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam (Crown Publications, 2001) and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (University of Georgia Press, 2007) as well as the journals Callaloo, Obsidian, River Styx, Shenandoah, and Southern Review.
DeLana R.A. Dameron: Kendra, I have pulled so many of these writers for this conversation series together because Charleston is so important to me, and all of the writers I have invited, I met in the South. I feel some pull, some kindred spirit. I think it was in 2006 that Raina and I drove from Chapel Hill to Monticello for the VA Festival of the book. As I told Kwame, this was the poet-development stage, and I remember a poem that you read, and it mentioned Gumbo—that delicious dish, that cultural iconic dish of the south, of a woman born and raised near the sea—and I knew I had in you a sister.
Thank you for allowing this moment for us to come together so that I may learn more about you. But I know from your writings that you are a gardener, and I want to talk about this moment with our hands in the soil. My grandfather was a gardener when I was growing up, and even in his suburban backyard in Columbia, well over 2/3 of his land was used to produce food that was cooked and consumed in the kitchen. Like you, he grew up near the sea near Myrtle Beach. I found him in the 1940 census recently and he was listed, at 6 years old, as a “farmer”. No wonder. I always loved following him around, holding the cold dirt in my hands (and sneaking a taste), and watching a seed turn into a strawberry, into a cucumber, into a pumpkin. It was his sanctuary when he retired, and my summers were spent outside with him tending the garden, eating the fruits from the vine. I imagine he would be out there now, shaking his head, heaving the hoe further into the ground at the sight of the world right now. Is that true for you?
Kendra Hamilton: DéLana, thank you so much for those gracious words. I felt such a sense of kinship when you talked about your background and about researching your family through the census records. I’ve taken that same journey:”farmer” was what those documents called my maternal grandfather and my paternal great-grandfather, and despite all my parents’ best efforts to convince me otherwise, putting my hands in soil has been a never failing source of pleasure and healing for me since I was also six and trying to plant my first seeds as I had seen Mawmaw do.
So, thinking back to Thursday, June 16, the morning after the shootings, I must confess that the garden was a huge part of my process. I woke at 5:30 AM, the way I always do, stretching, savoring the morning smells of chicory in the coffee—we are Cafe du Monde addicts—but also trying to squeeze out a few more minutes of sleep.
I failed. The vision of everything I needed to accomplish before the heat entered its punishing phase started scrolling against the blank screen of my eyelids and I couldn’t make it stop. I reached toward the nightstand, intending to check the time and temperature on my iPad. But the first words I saw on the screen were the morning headlines from CNN…and they did not make sense.
“Nine killed in shooting at black church in Charleston.”
“Charleston”? I thought: I’m from Charleston. “Nine killed?” Yeah, I left years ago but came back. “A shooting…in a church?” My mind raced. “Where again? Which church again?”
I’d had a year’s peace, recovering from my mother’s death here in the countryside near her birthplace, listening to birdsong, growing a garden. I’d been happy. I was content. And that hard-won contentment had fled with those words: “Nine killed in shooting at black church in Charleston.”
So, dawn was just a whisper on the horizon at 5:30 AM. There was no one I could call at that hour. There was really only one thing I could do, so I did it. I rose—washed my face, brushed my teeth, got dressed for stretching, bending, and sweating—and went out into the garden.
DéLana, I know you love the natural world, but I don’t know if you’ve ever gardened in the teeth of a Southern summer, when the sun rises early and beats pitilessly from the sky. When temperatures average around the century mark, and the humidity suffocates—yet there is no rain. The only hope is to get in early and get out as soon as you can.
So I went because, there, the stakes were straightforward and easy to understand. We had corn and beans and watermelons and six weeks without measurable rain. They needed water. I had Japanese beetles chewing the lovely crimson zinnias I had grown from seed. They needed killing—in the worst way. I had cucumbers and tomatoes putting on a growth spurt because they loved the heat. They needed staking. Everything needed mulching. And it would soon be blazing, stinking, make-you-wanna-holler hot. So I went out and my body performed the repetitive motions needed until my shoulders ached and the sweat was pouring off me in red clay rivulets. I did these tasks methodically and well, and I was nearly done with them before I realized the garden’s daily grace had eluded me. I was not at peace.
I went inside where my partner in all things had prepared a meal of BLTs with garden lettuce and tomatoes and Duke’s mayonnaise. We poured tumblers of cold milk, gulped the food down without even pausing to sit. He was headed back outside—this is the nurseryman’s busiest season. I was done for the day—I had students and parents on my schedule, and needed to hit the showers and head to work. I remember my brow furrowing as I chewed. “I think…I think I’m having some kind of delayed reaction,” I said.
I didn’t actually break down until I was halfway to work. As I slowed the van to cross the one-lane bridge stitching the two halves of my country lane to the main road, keeping a sharp eye out for the neighbor’s geese, which fed on both sides of the road, the words nine dead and Mother Emanuel set off a reverberation deep within and in the rumbling something small and fragile fell off a shelf in my heart and just…broke. I did not care who had done this. What I was desperate to know—what I could not find out because no one at home was answering their phones—was which of my beloved had been sacrificed on the altar of this city’s 300-year-old hates?
The road narrowed to a ribbon, bloodied by memory—red cushions and dark wood, a sanctuary of immense size hosting weddings, baptisms, choir programs, funerals. When I was a girl, Mother Emanuel (I could almost see my mother’s lips forming the words) was the beating heart of a segregated city, the place where all our complex social networks converged: sororities and frats, the Links, the Jack and Jill, the Eastern Star, all the churches with their stalwart names like Morris Brown, Calvary, Morris Street Baptist—the times, the places, the faces all blending into a single image of a time when black Charleston was one family, diverse, brawling, loving, at the center not the margins because “white flight” in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education, Martin Luther King’s visit, and a hospital worker’s strike had made the peninsula ours as it had not been since the Great Migration out of the South, ours as it had not been since Boundary Street was renamed for that architect of secession, Calhoun. Safe? A haven? Violated. In such a heinous fashion…
Drowning in memory, I found myself swerving and clutching the wheel, frantic to keep the van in a straight line as I rocked and sobbed and howled NOOooooooooo! NOOooooooooo!
I made it to the office that day. I did not meet with students.
DD: When I was thinking of poets and the world I wanted to create, fiction writer Randall Kenan posted a Book TV link on Facebook, and I sat down with a cup of coffee on Saturday—three days after the massacre—to listen to the two hour gathering of writers who were standing in solidarity against the legislation for the Confederate Flag to have it’s own memorial on the SC State House lawn. In your moment, you said that so quickly “heritage can slip into hate.” Is that where this is coming from? and I think that is true, but by dating myself, I sort of date you (apologies!)—I want to talk about this idea (if only for a short while) that taking down the Confederate Flag today would have stopped the terrorist from attacking the 9 black men and women in Emmanuel AME Church. Can you talk about this? What to do about the flag?
KH: I would say an unequivocal no to the idea that taking down the flag would have stopped the murderer’s act of violence. There is only thing that could have headed that off—and that is love. If somebody had loved that little half-formed grub of a human when he was vulnerable and a child, he might have had the chance to become a “real boy”—and then a man.
But I also think I would revise those comments I made way back in 2001. With the perspective of fifteen years of living and learning, I would say now that the flag is a heritage of hate. In 2001, I was open to the idea that there could be a sense of heritage divorced from the political connotations of the symbol; I no longer believe that. The flag began not as a cultural but a political symbol. It has accrued cultural meanings over the years, but its message remains essentially political.
The flag was a potent battlefield symbol of a war for the protection of the right to hold slaves in 1865. In 1915, with Birth of a Nation, it became a symbol of “lost cause” pride and a resurgent Klan dedicated to lynching as a tool to purge the South of its black contagion. A century after the war, in 1965, it was a symbol of a Southern “way of life” in which all the levers of government and official power were arrayed to serve and protect the terrorist shock troops of white supremacy.
This is the sesquicentennial year since the end of the Civil War, and the flags meaning has become diffuse and diluted. Boys I teach think it’s only about pride in things like riding around in big trucks, drinking beer, huntin’ and fishin’, and being polite to women. But even that is a “whites only” version of Southern pride—one that hearkens back to the notion that the South is a white man’s country, where Blacks do not fully belong and count only to the degree that they can embrace subservient roles.
You’ll love this story.
Juneteenth fell two days after the massacre, and as my Facebook feed filled with messages and memes about liberation—and pleas to save the red and blue rag—I found myself pondering the place where I had come to live with a sense of savage irony. “Why are they talking about the flag?” asked one bewildered woman on a page devoted to Charleston history. “That’s history!” I just couldn’t believe it. The willful ignorance, the inability to connect the dots. Then things got weird.
A man who shared Clementa Pinckney’s last name—but with a double-digit suffix to indicate the antiquity of his claim to Southern aristocracy—piped up to assure the confused young woman that it was indeed history—heritage not hate—and then smoothly, blithely proceeded to kidnap and co-opt the reverend senator into his own narrative.
Someone asked how Clementa came by his august surname-—basically, a “who his people?” kind of inquiry. And the self-styled aristocrat—I’ll call him “Generation 11”—admitted a bit smugly that Clementa might well be a relative (I promise you, no one was admitting anything of the kind thirty years ago!), then he added this bombshell: “After the war, lowcountry blacks fought to claim the names of the best families. It was considered better to be one of us [emphasis added] than even to have been free before the war.”
And it was at that moment that I knew the flag was coming down. Mind you, only two days had passed—not a single African American of my acquaintance was talking about—not because we didn’t care but because we thought it was futile. I think we fully assumed whites would cling to their dirty little rag forever. I had spent days, literally days at that point, writing to every single member of my Congressional and state delegations, asking merely that the Stars and Bars on the Statehouse grounds fly at half mast.
But when I witnessed that defender, root and branch, of the heritage myth of the Confederacy—brazenly ”t’iefin’” (as the Gullah people say) Clementa Pinckney’s narrative and being congratulated by his sycophants for his pains, I suddenly understood that what I was watching: privilege itself metamorphosing, inventing a new story, so that even in the midst of this great crisis, white identity could remain at the center. Once I grasped that, I ceased to be angry—because I think I understood at that very moment that the mills of God were grinding, and that flag was coming down.
DD: You know, my refrain these days, and maybe you have an answer: Where do we go to live? Where do we go to get free?
KH: Where do we go to live? That’s a question and a half, one that African Americans have been seeking to answer since we got kidnapped to this hemisphere four hundred years ago… I came to live in South Carolina. And nothing that’s happened has made me question that choice. This is where I take my stand. As a woman of the tres sangres—African, Native, European—there is no other place: This is the place.
For three decades, I’ve migrated among prosperous, diverse Sunbelt and Mid-Atlantic cities—bastions of great coffee and opinionated foodies, bustling with the ideas and energy of so-called cultural creatives. In those places, I was among my kind: fun-loving feminists and anti-racists—writers, scholars, and activists. We danced and made love and made art, and it was cool, but there was no ground beneath my feet. I couldn’t garden, too much concrete; I could start to make change, but never feel I could finish, because I was always temporary.
This place, South Carolina, is permanent. I may not have kind, but I have kin. And I have a home place in my family’s land, a 150-year-old legacy purchased “when peace declare’ ” and about to be handed, intact, to a fourth generation. Some would choose “great loft space” over that—but I tell you what: The woman who would make that choice is not a Southern woman.
Of course there is the consideration that South Carolina is a place of atrocity—but what place is innocent of the crimes of history? I take my stand here because at least seven generations of people of my blood have made their homes here. My ancestors did it in the teeth of election riots, land-stealing, lynch parties, and the run-of-the-mill murders, rapes, and daily indignities that made life in the South a “miracle of affliction” for people of African descent. They made it—and I shall, too.
You also ask, DeLana, my poet-sister, where do we go to get free?
I’m convinced that we already are free. It’s the whites who are enslaved.
That boy, the baby assassin, is in fact the third young white man to “snap” and try to go out in a blaze of glory since last September. Looking at his blank-eyed photographs, he ain’t nobody we haven’t seen before.
In the 1820s and ’40s, men like him were “pattyrollers”—in the 1860s, foot soldiers and border state partisans. They were “whitecaps” during Reconstruction, Klansmen during Jim Crow as, in every generation, in raw human clay like him, the demons of the Southern white psyche were turned loose to loot and pillage. That is the reality which the flag-wavers seek to romance away.
In olden days, the baby assassins had many friends—and a whole superstructure of Southern society to bless and support them and woe be to any whites who dissented, because they’d get what we got, and worse.
The sheer numbers and viciousness of these tools of the power structure forced Black folks to take to the road; set the brown stream flowing by divers routes, to New York, Chicago, Kansas City, L.A. Places where there was at least the promise we could be free.
The old people I came from were of a different mettle—the you ain’t runnin’ me, Mr. Charlie kind of mettle. They built churches, farms, and businesses, some even becoming rich. They built schools for their children and, in those segregated schools and the churches that supported them, taught those children pride in who we were. Yes, folks “from off” might laugh at our speech, call us rice-eatin’ Geechees, but we were from Charleston—and proud. Not the first black community—nothing so slight a claim to fame as that: no, the mother of a nation. Fully one-quarter of the native black population of the United States in the ‘70s was estimated to be descended from men and women who entered the nation through our port. Other regions—Virginia, New Orleans, the Delta—have been significant in our heritage, but no city or region played as large a role in the making of Black America.
The baby assassin was aware of at least some of this history. In choosing Charleston and the most historic of its black congregations, he sought to aim a knife at our hearts, he sought to sow the seeds and reap a harvest of hate…But…did you know the Bible verse under discussion that night was the Parable of the Sower? My eyes filled with tears and I just had to sit still a moment when I learned that…
Truly the spirit moved that night. And even though the assassin took nine lives, nine is a sacred number—did you know that? A number of completion. The way I imagine it, the nine entered the other world together, and, as Spirit, they saw all things that had been and all that were to come and here’s what I believe happened. They recalled the lesson they had been studying, in all its deep significance; they grasped the wheel of Time, all nine pairs of hands…and they turned it. And though the knife cut deep and left our dreams full of smoke and blood, the assassin found no victory, not over Emanuel AME church, not, ultimately even, in the hearts of his white brothers and sisters. They, after all, have been the loudest voices here clamoring to bring that flag down. I’m told the governor has the votes she needs: a better than two-thirds majority of the House and Senate. That public opinion could shift so decisively so rapidly, well, it’s not hard for a Geechee girl to believe something more than human had a hand in that.
DD: It brings me back to the image of the garden, and this idea of burning down to make room for new blooms. I ask this of my own contemporaries, the writers and thinkers who came of age in 9-11, during the War on Terror, and now, what I am calling for the students I teach, “The age of Ferguson”—do you think the axis has shifted? what does the year 2020 look like? Clearer vision?
KH: Yes, I do believe the great wheel of history has revolved on its axis. 2015, we must recall, is the sesquicentennial of end of the Civil War, an event that in 1915, the nation was celebrating by embracing Birth of a Nation, the perfect blueprint for writing African Americans out of the history of the nation and the war. The film’s opening titles blamed Africans for sowing “the seeds of disunion,” then transmuted the noble “Tom” figure of popular culture into the rapist “Sam”—a common enemy whose menace loomed so large that North and South could forget even their quarrel to fight him. The movie also provided a “scapegoat narrative” that was hungrily embraced by the nation because it explained away—and allowed the expansion of—the scourge of lynching.
What ensued from 1915 to ‘65 was a period of shamelessness, the era of “Strange Fruit.” And while today we find it difficult to fathom the scope of the racial terror our ancestors perpetrated—or were forced to live with—the reality is that the regime of terror persisted because it worked. It allowed communities to identify and purge themselves of a perceived source of contagion and it gave them a righteous story to tell, too.
Since 1965, that narrative of the noble knights of the white magnolia defending hearth and home, has taken a beating. And now Mother Emanuel murders appear to have burned it to the ground. White South Carolinians are now willing to do what was, on June 15, unthinkable—they will sacrifice their little rag, even if it means abandoning all the whites for whom it’s the only thing left of the false promises they’ve swallowed over the years.
The magnitude of the gesture is an indicator of the depth of guilt they need to expiate, but the flag, ultimately, is about white people; it’s about their conversation with each other. I bet if you asked most African Americans in South Carolina, they’d tell you they cared more about jobs and closing the school-to-prison pipeline, action to protect people harmed by gentrification, criminal justice reform. The flag might, before this, have made the top ten—but maybe not the top five.
So these two weeks has been like the burning of the cane after the sugar harvest, which is something that goes on for weeks in the South in the fall. There’s been a storm of smoke and fire, and now a layer of ash sits on the earth waiting for the rains. The seed that’s being planted—will it fall in the ruts beside the path or among thorns or on thin soil? Or will it take root in deep earth and bear fruit a hundredfold, as in the parable? We won’t know for a season or three. Fortunately, our ancestors were a patient people who taught us how to wait on a harvest.