Right now as I write this, smoke from fires in the southeastern Appalachian Mountains haze the morning. We’re under orange alert—the air quality bad enough that schoolchildren will stay indoors today. This morning the coastal flooding is up again thanks to the powerful tidal pulls of the recent supermoon. On my errand this morning, I had to crisscross the Charleston peninsula to avoid the closed roads and the large salty pools reclaiming the asphalt. Right now in Charleston, officer Michael Slager’s trial for the murder of Walter Scott is underway. Jury selection for the trial of the terrorist Dylann Roof who murdered nine innocents in Mother Emmanuel has been temporarily halted as Roof’s competency is examined. For me, as someone who grew up primarily in the Midwest, Charleston has always felt like a strange place, but post-election, as our peninsula registers the weight of this climate of crisis, it feels stranger still.
Post-election I checked the results published by our city paper of how Charleston neighborhood precincts voted. The results were not too surprising: affluent coastal communities, the booming suburban city of Mount Pleasant east of the Cooper River—all red. The area to the west of the Ashley River was dappled both red and blue, with streams of red along the inter-coastal waterways and rivers where people have long docks, boats, big houses. North Charleston and, where I live, the Charleston peninsula, were blue, save for the preserve of antebellum mansions south of Broad Street. These results did not tell me anything I did not already expect, and yet it still somehow made me feel a mix of pride and wariness to be in the middle of a blue spot in a red city in a very red state.
My blue-spot neighborhood on the Charleston peninsula, Wagener Terrace, is built on lands that used to belong to Lowndes Grove plantation. The plantation house is still there, perched on the Ashley River at the end of my road, a popular venue for weddings. Flanking the southern boundary of my neighborhood is Hampton Park, named after Confederate General Wade Hampton III, once one of the largest slaveholders in the South and a key figure in the Red Shirts who used ruthless violence to suppress the black vote in the post-Civil War years. Even with this history that haunts our neighborhood, I feel I live in a good place. When Hurricane Matthew threatened Charleston in October, neighbors kept tabs on each other and on the houses of those who evacuated. My neighbors are nurses and doctors, artists and students, small business owners and municipal workers, professors and teachers. The kids on my block zip up and down the sidewalk on their scooters; they play together in front yards.
Yesterday, as I went out in the smoky afternoon to take a walk with my daughter and dog, my neighbor, a former serviceman, was out too. We waved hello, and he walked over with his fifteen-month-old boy in his arms. “How are you doing?” he asked. I admitted I was feeling pretty low; that I was losing faith in people’s sense of decency; that I worried about what will happen in the coming years. He nodded, “It seems people did not vote.” He went on softly, “I’m scared for my children, you know. All I can do is pray.” My neighbor, it seems important to say, is black. He has five children, four boys. His mother, a retired custodian for the College of Charleston where I work, owns the house and lives there still. Her mother lived there, too, and the family cared for her until she passed a few years back. He works hard, just as his mother did, and yet despite this, his family is not financially secure.
When he said this—about feeling scared for his children—there was nothing I could say back that would be good enough. I’m scared for my child, too, but for him and his family—his sons growing up in a world where it’s possible that Slager, despite all the evidence otherwise, might be acquitted; where we now face an inexperienced White House administration stacked with racists who seem to think people like him live in one monolithic inner city—the stakes are so much higher.
When my neighbor said this, all I could do was nod meaningfully and hope that he knows I’m on his side. And then, because I feel I am awkward at chitchat, especially when silences enter a conversation, because my eyes grew watery in the thick air, all I could do at that moment was coo at the baby and touch his little hand. He’s beautiful, laughing with delight as my dog’s wet nose tickles his feet.