Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Visit to South Carolina

It took me all day and three airplane rides to get to Charleston, South Carolina. When I left Minneapolis at 4 am, the streets crackled with slushy ice. In Charleston, I immediately removed my jacket and leggings as I relaxed in the warmth. My first taste of the south was the local bus driver calling and waving to people we passed along the street, ramshackle houses crammed together in meandering neighborhoods, and the ubiquitous strip malls of national chain stores.

At the Not So Hostel, I was shown the top bunk. I wondered how I would get myself down if I had to get up in the middle of the night but I had decided that on this trip, I would accept whatever came my way. I had decided to travel without expectations and without a plan, except to show up on time for David Whyte's reading and workshop. I would follow my intuition and inner compass, sit quietly in sunshine, eat well.

I was in the middle of teaching a class at Stillwater prison on the topic of remorse for Victim Awareness week. This is the sixth class I have taught in the MN DOC. I have never wanted to know my participants' crimes but in this class, the men used the word "murder" and wondered if they could ever be forgiven or redeemed. Our writing structure started with writing about their own experience of intimidation in order to tap into their own emotions, then went on to write about the impact of the crimes on their families, the victim's family and the victim. They were working on their healing stories and how they have changed, their transformation. The class was emotionally intense and I wanted to nourish, inspire and restore myself through both taking a break from the cold and the culture of the Midwest and with the presence and poetry of David Whyte, whom I have heard speak twice before. He has had quite an impact on me. His insights shifted my perception of myself as a poet and opened me to a wider, wilder horizon, as well as left me in exultation, the elegance of his thoughts transforming me as though my very molecules were infused with light.

I dropped ten years sleeping in a top bunk surrounded by young people and left the hostel energized and ready for adventure. The air was soft and warm and after breakfast, the free trolley took me through the shopping district crowded with tourists to the cobbled streets of colonial America and the Slave Mart Museum.

The small building felt like such an understated whisper to the heart-wrenching horrors of slavery; families brutally torn apart; back-breaking, life-claiming work for the wealth of others. Here hundreds of thousands of African-Americans, mostly first born slaves, were  traded, bought and sold. I read about how they were instructed to present themselves to drive a good bargain. How slaves went out into Charleston to work, then were locked up at night. The rating scale of best workers to trouble makers. Examples of bills of sale and first person narratives. Charleston has gorgeous gardens behind colonial homes and beautiful plantations, but I could not get past the fact that they were built, tended, and nurtured by the sweat and blood of slaves. Charleston is also the first city to secede from the union in support of slavery. It seemed to me that waiters, sales clerks, concierges, bar tenders were white and maids, bus drivers, janitors, grocery store clerks were black. Charleston has several colleges and I hope they reflect a new story of opportunity through education. I thought about the incarcerated men I teach. With a reputation as a progressive city, the availability to move up economically, affordable health care, a variety of secondary schools, a cultural mega-spot and melting pot, Minneapolis has been touted as a miracle city. It also has the highest incarceration rate for black males in the country and a black community decimated by loss of their men.

I strolled through the crafts market but to tell the truth, there is not much I want to buy these days. I discovered a spice shop, the jeweled colors and exotic fragrances of the spices arranged in glass jars along the shelves. I stopped for lunch, shrimp and grits as recommended by someone on the plane. The meal was fabulous, the grits creamy and salty at the same time, accompanied by a blackberry moonshine drink.

But enough to temper the taste of injustice in my mouth, the thought of beauty built on such ugliness? The Slave Mart museum also exhibits the determination for freedom and the long journeys and risks and sacrifices to escape slavery. I know slavery has a historical perspective: the Egyptians, the Romans, the Africans themselves. And I know freedom is the most precious thing to me, a driving force in many of the choices I have made in my life. I think about the white women who demanded abolition in order to stop their husbands, brothers, uncles, fathers from raping slave women. I think of the courage to say enough. I think of the price we continue to pay in shattered communities: the shooting that occurred around the corner when I lived in North Minneapolis, the slow crawl towards stability in that neighborhood, the gangs and fear, the foreclosures and neglect.  I think of the incarcerated writer who wrote how his mom beat him as a child because  he didn't divide the crack she was selling the right way. I think of the voices of the forgotten and the invisible, how I want to hear them, and pass them on for others to hear. I think of hope. I think of change.

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