The Holes in the Church Floor

I can't imagine the actual shooting. Sure, we see people shooting each other constantly on one screen or another, but this was a church. The Ministers would have been sitting around, perhaps in the sanctuary, and discussing, what I don't know because I've never attended a bible study session, but it could have been Matthew 5:44…"You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."

Maybe when they saw the hyped-up youth in the shirt that displayed symbols of racist regimes, they thought it an opportunity to practice this gospel. I imagine them sitting in the sanctuary and motioning him forward. Come on in, son. I don't know if anyone actually said this, but I imagine it so. The church itself is a sanctuary and a symbol, too, just like the First African Baptist in Savannah, where Preacher Little welcomed a few visitors, including me, to join the congregation and invited us to participate in the Sunday service.

I attended out of curiosity. Having been disappointed by the commercialism that seemed to accompany the performances of the Harlem Gospel Choir -- at least where I saw them, in Quebec City's towering St. Roch Church-- I was looking for authenticity in Savannah. Like Mother Emmanuel, First African Baptist is an historic African-American church. It too has holes in the floor that aided the breathing of runaway slaves who hid out there, a stop on the underground railway. And the music was fine. Those voices! Most impressive, though, was the pastoral spirit I sensed in the preacher. I doubt he knew personally all the members of the congregation, but he spoke to them as if he did, and when he called to the front anyone who knew of someone who needed help, I joined, on behalf of my niece. He looked at me directly and asked her name and the nature of her suffering. I was standing in a crowd of strangers, all African-Americans dressed in their Sunday best, and those nearest hugged me when Preacher Little asked everyone in the church to stand up for Brigid.
Old Slave Market, Charleston

That warmth, that welcome, that genuine concern for others is what got the twenty-one year old killer into the church where the late Reverend Pinckney was the pastor.

What the confederate flag stood for is more complicated than racism, and yet, no doubt incapable of seeing complexity, bigots have reduced its meaning to serve their own cruel purposes. I learned on my trip through the south a couple of years ago that what we call the Civil War is known there as The War of Northern Aggression. The industrial northern states wanted the federation to have more control. The southern states wanted to keep their rights to do what they wanted, including owning slaves. But slavery was also practiced in the north, by men as integral to the country as Thomas Jefferson. As a visitor to the south, I found it odd to see the flag still so prominent, hanging from porches, displayed on bumper stickers, used for advertising, and as a common symbol on tombstones in graceful old cemeteries like Bonaventure in Savannah. The history of the civil war is a major tourist draw. I visited Thomas Ryan's slave market in Charleston and a former indigo plantation outside of town, where slave cemeteries were located well beyond the sight of the main house.

People still re-enact civil war battles, like author Tony Horwitz describes in his book Confederates in the Attic. It's a little like those jousting contests other people stage, their hobby being to re-enact battles and battle styles of the past. A sort of living history, but still history. The past. Relegating the confederate flag to museums instead of flying it prominently over the state capitol building will declare that the nation-dividing battles of the 18th century are indeed long over. Instead of decorating tombstones, the flag itself must be buried so not to to goad the easily confused into thinking that times have not changed. Times have changed, even if not enough.

As Pastor Little taught me in Savannah, I stand up for those nine families who lost those wonderful individuals, and also -- in the spirit of compassion they represented -- for the family of that pathetic young man who gained power he thought was his right only because he could buy a gun.

Low country Carolinas

Not fair to pair the Carolinas when one is north, the other south, and when I have just skirted them, brushed up along beaches, and slipped into cities and smaller, pretty towns, like the colonial capital of N.C., New Bern, and the lovely seaside Beaufort. But it is true that people talked about shagging in both places, and not what the British mean when they use the word shag. Dancin, dancin, said Isle of Palms (S.C.) Dolly, who shags and does ballroom and takes lessons to improve both; and nephew Mark listed dancin along with guns, religion and football as the cultural lynch pins of his low country section of North Carolina.

In North Carolina, one bumper sticker said, " I'll keep my guns, my faith and my freedom, and you can keep the change," referring to the change Obama promised. Oh this president is not popular here, unless perhaps with the many black people, the African American population.  The lovely soft voiced Helen, for instance, who comes from the low country but taught in Washington for 30 some years; or the Preacher and his wife from Midway, Georgia, who invited me to their church in Savannah, or the young attendant whose eyes widened when she welcomed us to Thomas Ryan's old slave mart in Charleston with the reminder that "Human beings were bought and sold here." Or all the many others on the train, who laughed and called out across the aisles as we slowed and then stopped for track work just before Wilson, and one woman bundled up her things and her sons and almost got off at the wrong stop. Wonderful conductor on that run, so perfectly patient with the overweight young white woman who asked, "When w'all gonna get to Fayetteville? When? Are we gonna get to Fayetteville at 7:30?"

"M'am, I'll tell you when we get going again." White woman, black people. Well, it is a way of describing, to say black or white, Caucasian, African American, whatever.
 We have so few black people in western Canada.  Here I look and look. In fact I am pure-t momucked as some life long low country folks might say, at least I believed that I was mommucked when I thought the word meant amazed. Actually it means harassed or bothered, and I am not bothered at all by this broadening of experience with African Americans. Perhaps instead I am gob smacked (a phrase Irish might say to indicate amazement or shock) by my own ignorance, assumptions, because one has a tendency (even if she knows better) to generalize until experience becomes personal.

I might could research that word mommucked and other distinctive phrases, such as saying, "Can you carry me to the store?" which reminds me both of the song, "Carry me back to ole Virginny" and the French word apporter, to bring.

 Mud. Oh yes, we sank into pluff mud on Carrott Island, and I almost lost my niece's shoe, but we did see wild horses far off and horseshoe crabs and egrets and the wonderful spartina marsh grass, and it was warm enough that we could have been wearing swim suits, which we did the next day, on Atlantic Beach, watching the surfers, the surf, the jet trails in the sky.

Charleston! Elegant, with its own French quarter, Vendue Range, which originally could have meant selling street or row; and street after street of graceful houses, the sweet grass basket weavers on the street, the boys selling palm frond roses that remind me of Palm Sunday, and then the other world of the Islands with their newer graceful houses, some of them sprawling testaments to the hubris of owners who must feel they can defy hurricanes. Conversations employ Hugo as a reference point, as in pre-Hugo, post Hugo. Squadrons of pelicans cruise just above the water. Clusters of ibis poke their curved red bills into the sandy soil edges of the golf course.

Across the Inner Coastal from friend Susan's place is Goat Island, where a father of three young children recently hung himself. Adding to the tragedy for the family, is the fact that he hung himself from the end of his dock, the one that juts out into the Inner Coastal where barges and sail boats and yachts of all kinds can navigate from the Gulf of Mexico off Brownsville, Texas, all the way to the Manasquan Inlet in New Jersey. What did they think, all those navigators who passed, if they looked, if they saw.

On this rail journey south, my view encompasses the immediate side of the track, usually the right side, and the places I stumble upon or am shown. I can say only what I see, saw.