- Charleston is a Small PlaceLiterature and Tourism in a Season of Horror
a season of horror
If you enter Charleston from the outside, this is what you will see: If the century is eighteenth, you might first be struck by signs of ruin in the riverine space between the city and Sullivan’s Island, two sites of devastation during the Revolutionary siege that left the city in British hands. If you are a nineteenth-century traveler, so much depends on the decade: perhaps you sigh at the imperial splendor, flinch at the lazarettos on Sullivan’s Island, or hold your breath at the militarized oceanic boundary of Fort Sumter. But if you enter Charleston now, long after the growth of U.S. car culture, you are as likely as not to travel through its twin city, differentiated with the marker of a cardinal direction and a decided economic gap. I refer, of course, to North Charleston, where, in April 2015, police officer Michael Slager shot Walter Scott as he fled from the point of the Taser and the gun, initiating an endless televisual replay of devastation and death on twenty-four hour news channels.
Those of us who study the city, those of us who grew up proximate to it, those of us who occupy both categories—aware of the ways it is simultaneously over- and under-written by the national imaginary, a tourist destination but seldom a terminus for critical consideration of American identity—were, I think, ready to cover our eyes and eager to see if these sites of mediated meaning-making would learn to differentiate between Charleston (unmarked) and Charleston (North) or, for that matter, learn to see the place at all. The early Euro-American travel [End Page 57] writer J. Hector St. John De Crèvecœur called the city “the Lima of the North,” declaiming rice and indigo slavery in the Carolinas and blaming its cruelty on tropical temperament among whites, before returning to his own farm (also powered by slave labor) in Upstate New York where, I’m sure, cooler weather ensured no human rights or human bodies were violated by the requirements of his economies (166). Three centuries later, many wondered if media coverage of Scott’s shooting in the crumbling suburbs would begin on a veranda in the city’s historic district. Would it mention spring break or Spoleto? Would it be attuned to the distinct social problems that attend this small place: the hellish sprawl into unstable drained swamps that begins just north of the city, the gentrification that ends there (for now), the extractive enterprise of tourism that both fills city coffers and ensures limited social mobility for the people who work in its service, and the ways that race is intimately tied to all of these phenomena?
Perhaps you are one of these sojourners, traveling from the rest of the South or elsewhere in America in search of a favorable location for an academic conference at which you will attend one or two panels before hurrying toward King Street and dinner reservations at one of the ever-new restaurants in this emerging southern culinary capital. Last year, you had a conference and dinner in New Orleans. You paused to ask a waiter or a tour guide about Katrina. You won’t ask about Hugo here in Charleston because, of course, that hurricane did not happen on television and Wa Chee Dimmock did not write about it in the pages of Differences—though it certainly leveled historical neighborhoods and created that prized “blank slate” ripe for developers who seemingly exist to shred the lawn signs now appearing in New Orleans: BLACK LAND MATTERS.
A certain kind of tourist—a liberal one—might skip the spectacle of the City Market and adjacent Custom House to avoid the specter of slavery, though certainly there are those who “visit . . . heaps of death and ruin and feel . . . alive and inspired at the sight of it” (Kincaid 16). But the tourists of the former persuasion are as likely as not to race toward the beautiful—the wild oceanic wall near the Battery and Fort Sumter and the grand and...