We left Princeton on the cold, cold morning of the 25th. Several hours later, we were in Durham, North Carolina, where we stayed with a wonderful woman with six cats and an insane piano; several days in, we walked by the bittersweet pastel homes of Charleston, South Carolina, before meandering below the sprawling embrace of Spanish moss in Savannah, Georgia.
Our ten day trip to the South was an interesting mix of moments both happy and troubling. In the evenings we would cook haphazard ‘international’ cuisine — like bibimbab or pre-packaged Thai curry — and eat ice-cream straight from the tub as we talked or watched TV. In the daytime, we explored neighborhoods that were at once quaint and somewhat eerie, not least because of the slave history that haunts many of Charleston and Savannah’s streets.
Amidst the colourful façades of the townhouses along the Battery in Charleston, for instance, we learnt about the slaves who ran these homes; at Drayton Hall, an old plantation, we walked the grounds wondering how the traces of slavery had all but disappeared (the old barracks had been torn down for reasons not fully explained); and in an indoor ex-slave market we experienced narratives of the harsh conditions many faced as they trudged in chattels down to the South.
It’s fitting that February happens to be Black History Month. As someone who grew up in an ethnically homogenous environment, I’d never been exposed to black culture before coming to live in the US. I didn’t know what ‘soul food’ was, nor the significance religion has in many black communities. Historically speaking, slavery was also something I’d thought about in Brazil, but never really delved into; still today, I can’t grasp the gravity of the pain caused by forced displacement and harsh labour to people who did nothing to deserve it.
Still today, I have a lot left to learn about the African influence in the US — but I’m grateful that I had the chance to experience a small part of it on my trip to the South.
(Recently, I’ve been experimenting with keeping my pieces more succinct… and I’ll try to make this one such experiment.)
Ten days later, what remain with me?
- The significance of religion and community. On our Sunday morning in Charleston, we attended a service held at the Mother Emanuel AME church — the site of the tragic Charleston shooting in 2015, where nine churchgoers died after being shot by a white supremacist. Being in that space, albeit as an outsider, was incredibly moving. As it was incidentally the birthday of Susie Jackson, one of the victims, there was a special liturgical dance performed by young members of the congregation. By the end of it, many were in tears; one particular dancer had to be chaperoned off stage. I found it difficult, and amazing, to think about how the congregation continues to worship in the same space even after what happened.
In Savannah, we visited the First Baptist Church, a significant site for African American churchgoers— and allegedly part of the Underground Railroad. We visited the Pin Point community, the birthplace of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, and not only learnt about its crab and oyster businesses but also the strong community values — often strengthened by religion — that makes it what it is. Observing all of this made me question my engagement with my own spirituality, and has inspired me to seek out spiritual spaces back on campus.
- The eerie shadow of what isn’t said. Cities like Charleston and Savannah (and perhaps Durham, although we didn’t stay for long) are haunted with a troublesome past. Yet in many spaces we felt like the reality of the slave trade was glossed over, if not ignored: on our tour of the Drayton Hall grounds, for example, more time was spent talking about the design of the house ceiling than the working conditions of the slaves who were owned by the Drayton family. As mentioned earlier, the slave barracks no longer exist; when asked why, our guide told us that the Draytons were ‘big recyclers’.
Later, the operations manager of the Old Slave Mart Museum in downtown Charleston would tell us that there are still many spaces that fail to fully confront the region’s slave history. I wonder when, if at all, this will change… and also what significance slave history has here at Princeton, and whether or not we gloss over it more than we should.
- Southern food. Now I get it. Many a BuzzFeed video later, I finally tried the dense, gooey, butteriness of Southern soul food — and survived to tell the tale. The very first time we ate soul food, we ate at a roadside establishment named Martha Lou’s Kitchen where we were served huge portions of fried chicken, mac and cheese, lima beans, bread pudding, and the like. Suffice to say, we couldn’t eat more Southern food for the next two days. Biscuits and cornbread were a hot commodity on our trip, and grits became a thing towards the end. I ate okra for what felt like the first time since Brazil, and it was interesting to see how African cuisine feeds in to food in the South. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it a lot.
There are a lot more stories to tell: the eclectic hosts of our Airbnbs, the friendliness of convenience store clerks, the long walks, the long drives (and even longer podcasts). But I’ll leave the photos to illustrate more of that.
(Note: hyperlinks are included for reference only.)