By Meakin Armstrong
I’m not proud of this story.
It was graduation night from the eighth grade at Citadel Square Christian School in Charleston, South Carolina. The ceremony was in the church’s cavernous sanctuary, a place with ornate carvings, a pipe organ, and a giant tub for baptizing the saved. Above us were galleries we’d explored many times. In the old days, those galleries were used by slaves.
Citadel Square Baptist Church (along with its adjoining elementary school) was an imposing neo-gothic building located on the black-white borderlands of Charleston, just off the tourist track. It faced Marion Square, the former parade grounds of The Citadel, the Military School of South Carolina. The Citadel is a direct successor to a military post set up by the state of South Carolina. That post had one mission: to put down potential slave insurrections, like the one planned by freed slave, Denmark Vesey. But at Citadel Square Christian School, we used that park for playing kickball. We ran around beneath a memorial dedicated to John C. Calhoun, former Vice President of the United States, a hero of the Confederacy.
It’s important to know that Emanuel A.M.E. was located at the top of a tall stairway. It wasn’t like the other churches we knew. It was something of a fort, a place one didn’t enter casually.
The buildings around the park were a white veneer: right behind us was the historically black part of Charleston. That was where Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, “Mother Emanuel” was located. Emanuel A.M.E. had a steeple like Citadel Square Baptist, only shorter. It was painted white, while ours was two-tone yellow. Emanuel A.M.E. was where Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King had once preached. It stood tall on that part of Calhoun Street, a beacon among the vacant lots, run-down buildings, and a Continental Trailways bus depot. One of Emanuel’s founders was the insurrectionist, Denmark Vesey—and that was why The Citadel was located nearby: to keep an eye on Emanuel.
Like Emanuel A.M.E., our building was a landmark. I remember a hulking steepled complex with a musty, old smell. I’d arrived a little late for the graduation ceremony: instead of showing up on time, I’d gone to a screening of Adam’s Rib at some local community center. My mother was already there. It would have been in late May and for Charleston, that meant it would have been hot and humid—even in the shade, even at night.
Despite the heat, I would have worn my wool three-piece suit. I wore that suit to all special events, because I thought it was something Errol Flynn would have liked. Back then, I was lost in old movies: I stayed up all night on weekends, watching Bogart, Gable, and Garbo. They knew me at the Arcade Theatre, where they played films from The Golden Age. I had a kind of netherworld life: I lived in the tumbledown, old part of the city where I wandered in and out of the rotting old stores that sold antebellum antiques and gimcrack junk.
I don’t remember much about my graduation from the eighth grade. I only recall taking the diploma from the pastor. He wasn’t the preacher I’d known for most of my time at Citadel Square, though: that particular man had apparently absconded with a mistress. The replacement pastor had an uninspired delivery, like he was selling insurance. That pastor had one advantage, though: he was far too stolid to run away.
After the graduation ceremony, the students separated. I looked around for something to do because I didn’t want to go home. I took my mother around the school. The education buildings were haphazardly adjoined: you might walk up some steps and reach a wall. Everything was beige, brown, and gray. Voices echoed among the surfaces. I loved the confusion of the place, its strange stairways and numerous, never used classrooms.
Taking my mother around, I spotted other students. We were like ghosts, haunting the school we were about to leave. We eyed one another: the boy who’d once showed me his belly; his locally famous father had beat him so badly he was bruised all over his stomach and chest. There was the girl who ruled the class, basically because she was blonde. There was also the girl I flirted with; a highlight of my life at Citadel Square Christian School was going with her to Kerrison’s, on King Street. In that old, rotting department store, she modeled bikinis for me, doing a twirl each time. I got to pick which one she bought.
Then there was this particular girl I ran into, whom I’ll call Carol. Years later, Carol ended up a society matron. She now gives money to charities and sits on nonprofit boards. Carol had been the first girl in our class to develop breasts and her progress in that area was discussed with a great deal of fervor by all of the boys. I didn’t care that much, though: I was still burning a torch for the ballet dancer who’d transferred to a different school the year before. Carol and I were good friends, though, perhaps because neither of us was Southern Baptist.
That night, she and I somehow got away from our parents. Eventually, we picked up some other student whose name and face I can’t recall. In the movie of this scene, that person would be a bit player. Did we then get drunk? I don’t see how. But I remember the three of us laughing and getting increasingly manic and careless.
Sitting In the school parking lot, we laughed and talked about our futures. Carol was going to attend the Catholic high school down the block. I wanted to go there, but my mother wouldn’t allow it. She was worried I’d confuse my being an Episcopalian with being Roman Catholic—or something, I was never certain of the logic. I was destined to go to First Baptist. I was also destined to have a miserable time there, eventually transferring out.
But that night was filled with hope. Carol and I (and our third wheel) promised each other we’d be friends forever. We wandered to the swing sets the little kids used. Carol and I used to swing high there, and then jump out into the air, landing in the sand. Behind those swing sets was Emanuel A.M.E.
Carol and I jumped out from the swing sets, probably on a dare, one last time. And then at some point, she decided to up the ante. We would walk out into the city while Carol pretended to be mentally disabled, what we would then have called “retarded.” Our third wheel and I were supposed to pretend that we were taking care of Carol while she waved her arms and flailed her legs. We all thought it sounded hilarious.
We went into a hotel and walked up and down the lobby, Carol putting on a show. Security eyed us. They probably thought we were three stupid kids. We left. We’d taken our show on the road, and it was a hit. Carol wanted to take our act to Mother Emanuel.
It’s important to know that Emanuel A.M.E. was located at the top of a tall stairway. It wasn’t like the other churches we knew. It was something of a fort, a place one didn’t enter casually. The church was probably designed that way to keep out the angry and the dangerous. There was, after all, a long history of burning down black churches in the South, Emanuel included: its first building was burned to the ground after the Denmark Vesey revolt.
I’d wondered what services were like there, but frankly, that church intimidated me. I’d seen the dignified men and women going in and out of it, wearing elaborate Sunday clothes and ornate hats. I decided they had ferocity. Ferocity wasn’t something you saw at St. Philips Episcopal, where I went.
In Charleston, the races were kept separate, even though we lived side-by-side—that was our way. I lived the Charlestonian life…
During the languid summers at St. Phillips, when most of the congregation was off somewhere on vacation, our priest joked about turning the church into “The Steeple Steakhouse.” In his sermons, he quoted Thurber. For gatherings, he played jazz piano. The men wore blue blazers and khaki pants. Their belts were usually fabric and imprinted with whales. The women wore bright lime or yellow sundresses and open-toed shoes. It was a garden party, every week. John C. Calhoun was buried in our graveyard, beneath the live oak trees: we were a top dog church in Historic Charleston, the one with the dead VIPs.
At St. Philips, we knew our lives would go on, well enough if we behaved as we should and followed all the rules. The congregants at Emanuel, though, seemed more serious. I often wondered what was inside Emanuel A.M.E., but the truth is, I had no idea. I didn’t know anyone who went to services there. And still much worse, I had no African American friends—none at all.
In Charleston, the races were kept separate, even though we lived side-by-side—that was our way. I grew up on Motown and Curtis Mayfield, but I lived the Charlestonian life, even though, strictly speaking, I wasn’t a Charlestonian: I was a WASP born in South Korea and raised in Japan, the child of a diplomat. After my parents divorced when I was in fourth grade, I lived with my mother and sister in Charleston.
We moved to Charleston because my mother’s side of the family had been from the area for generations. Rumor has it we’re descended from many Rebels who’d fought and died in the War Between the States. Every January 19th, family members honor the birth of Robert E. Lee. However, at home my family never made derisive statements about African Americans. That would have been indelicate and wrong. We didn’t fly the Confederate battle flag, but we did have a one as a beach towel.
Given that I’d spent part of my childhood in Japan, I knew from experience that people treat you differently when you’re “the other.” I made a point of always defending civil rights and equality whenever some white kid made a racist joke. And when I was younger (and I won’t get into how, because it’s complicated), I had even been among the first to be integrated into a “separate but equal” school in a small town in South Carolina. That school was so poor that tests were given orally, to avoid printing costs. The kid who sat next to me had to blow his nose into his hands because he couldn’t afford Kleenex.
But still, as a child, I wasn’t allowed to go in the black areas, day or night. If I wandered into a black neighborhood out of curiosity, someone would stop me and check if I was lost. Once, a police car even rolled up to me and an officer leaned out the window and asked, “Do you know where you are?”
Somewhere along the line I was also trained to cross the street when two black males were coming my way down the sidewalk. In Charleston, it was ingrained: black males were dangerous. We were told they mugged “our boys” and raped “our women.” That belief dates back generations in Charleston, to when slaves were subject to a nighttime curfew. It’s a belief that continues. It’s a myth that drove the recent act of terrorism at Emanuel.
Carol flailed her arms, a grim parody of the mentally disabled. We followed her up the steps into Emanuel. In the narthex, we were greeted by a well-groomed man. He eyed Carol seriously.
There was a gathering of some kind in the sanctuary, perhaps a service. If I remember right, many of the people inside turned around and looked at the three of us—three white fools who felt like they had the right to be there because our whiteness gave us an all-access pass.
Regret and fear took over and I wanted to pretend I didn’t know Carol. I stared at the service inside, the stained glass behind the altar, the vaulted barrel ceiling, the arched, gothic windows, and the men and women dressed in their best. It felt magisterial in there, but not grand. This was not a show-off place built by the wealthy, but a church constructed by people of rock-hard faith.
I wanted to crawl into the carpet. A woman in white came up to us and said, “You’re welcome here. Everyone is welcome here.” She motioned us into the sanctuary, Carol included, who kept on with her act like a road-show vaudevillian.
I couldn’t go into the sanctuary. Instead, I ran outside and bounded down the stairs. Carol and the third wheel joined me a few moments later. They were laughing—it was hilarious. That woman called after us from the top of the stairs, “Everyone is welcome here.”
No doubt those church members knew that skinny white kid in a bowl haircut was a mess inside, just as they’d known my friends and I were privileged jerks who should have been taken out to some old-style woodshed until we saw the errors of our ways.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded during the age of slavery. It was a key part of the Underground Railroad and continued through Jim Crow. The churches were intended as safe places for everyone, despite the bullets, burning crosses, and lynchings. I don’t count myself as a Christian, but I hope to God Dylann Roof didn’t rob Mother Emanuel from remaining a fearlessly welcoming place.
That terrorist (I won’t minimize what he did by calling his act a hate crime) took advantage of that welcoming spirit. No doubt those church members knew that skinny white kid in a bowl haircut was a mess inside, just as they’d known my friends and I were privileged jerks who should have been taken out to some old-style woodshed until we saw the errors of our ways. They decided to love him anyway, just as they’d actively decided to love the three of us.
During that full hour when Dylann Roof sat in Mother Emanuel, both terrorist, pastor, and congregation knew love wasn’t bulletproof. It wasn’t a shield. I can’t imagine what that last hour must have been like for the members of Emanuel A.M.E. while Dylann Roof sat among them.
But Dylann Roof doesn’t matter. His “manifesto” is irrelevant. I don’t care about his friends or his suicide watch. No matter what happens to him, he’s about to learn something about American Apartheid: most of his fellow prisoners, the people he will have to share his space with, will be African American.
Both sides in this race war (and it is a war, the longest in American history) have been fighting for generations. White people are in denial of it, perhaps because it’s too hard for us to see it. And when we we’re told about, we wish it would just go away. We find it a boring topic because our privilege allows us to be bored by it. It’s our privilege to be bored. And yes, it bores me. It’s boring because people like me swim in privilege, like a fish swims in water. Often, I only see the hard work that got me where I am, not the extra boost I got along the way because I am white.
I’d like to think the better side is winning (albeit slowly) but the war won’t end on its own. It won’t be won by good people who stand along the sidelines and say soft things. It has to be fought without bullets, but at great risk to one’s own safety. And more people need to join in that fight, to counteract what Martin Luther King once called the “appalling silence of good people.”
Racism can’t be wished away, especially if you’re white. Because if you’re white, you’re a part of the problem.
“Good people” who do nothing need to know that doing nothing means they are in consent with what happened at Mother Emanuel. They are also guaranteeing the continuance of terror. It could even mean, on some level, they’re happy with it, too.
Racism can’t be wished away, especially if you’re white. Because if you’re white, you’re a part of the problem. Failing to acknowledge this only guarantees that racism will remain completely intact. Bull Connor and George Wallace are both rotting in the ground somewhere, but racism is still here. Racism is mostly coded now, but there are plenty of Dylann Roofs out there.
Whenever I visit my family in Charleston and I walk past Mother Emanuel, I still feel ashamed of what I did. I don’t remember how Carol and our third wheel and I separated that night. I’m sure we hugged and laughed and considered that night among the best ones ever. In any case, we went on using our white, all-access badges. And we’ll continue to use them for the rest of our lives.
But now, I keep thinking of what that woman said from the top of the stairs at Emanuel A.M.E.: Everyone is welcome here. On the first Sunday after the massacre, Reverend Norvell Goff, presiding elder of the Edisto District of the State Conference of the A.M.E. Church, told the congregants, “No evildoer, no demon in hell or on Earth” can close the doors of Mother Emanuel.
I hope he’s right. Because the race war continues.
Meakin Armstrong is Senior Fiction Editor at Guernica and can be found at meakinarmstrong.com or on twitter @meakinarmstrong.