- Two Journeys:Honoring Charles Joyner
Like all of us, no doubt, I remain enthralled by Down by the Riverside and am delighted to join in celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Two journeys are my topic. Simplifying greatly, I term the first "the black journey" and the second "the white jouney." The first, the black journey, is illustrated in a commentary Chaz Joyner wrote this year, attached to the announcement of the 25th anniversary edition of Down by the Riverside. It is entitled "A Gullah Family." It traces the journey of Michelle Obama from a rice plantation ten miles from the community Chaz studied in Down by the Riverside, All Saints Parish on the Waccamaw. Michelle's ancestor was nine years old in 1859, a slave on a plantation named Friendfield. His descendant and Michelle's father, Fraser Robinson III, was born in Chicago. Michelle Robinson Obama earned a law degree from Harvard, married another Harvard-trained lawyer and in January 2009 moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, "carrying with her," Chaz notes, "a feeling of deep obligation to fight for the world as it should be," a feeling that embodies the long reach of the Gullah culture that her ancestors helped to create in South Carolina so long ago.1
Barack Obama had also undertaken a journey to reach Chicago. I know something about that, because I was in Indonesia when he and his mother were there, though I did not know them. Barack attended an Indonesian school in Jakarta between the ages of six and ten, and his stepfather was Indonesian.2 My wife and I lived in an Indonesian slum, before, after, and during Obama's life there. We believe he absorbed his remarkable abilities in what Indonesians term mensuakan diri—to adapt flexibly—in part from this stage of his journey. He is a global person; the Gullah world that Chaz knows so well is a global culture.
So here is one epochal black journey—to the White House.
The second journey, the white journey, also begins in the Lowcountry. This entails the journey of the U.S. South into the wider world. Chapter Two of my book Grounded Globalism: How the U.S. South Embraces the World begins by quoting a Lowcountry acquaintance of Chaz's: James McBride Dabbs. Dabbs once wrote, "Of all the Americans, the Southerner is the most at home in the world. Or at least in the South, which, because of his very at-homeness, he is apt to confuse with the world."3 Parsing this statement, I argue that it recognizes the localized but also global dimensions of the South, the Southerner, and southernness. This dualism launches an analysis of "how the U.S. South embraces the world," which bears on much that must be understood by historians and others of the past and futures of the U.S. South.
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Chaz Joyner's journey also begins in the Low-country, both in his background and in his scholarship; and from there he moves out into the world through his anthropological, folkloric, and historical research as well as through his civic concerns. In Down by the Riverside, though, he returns to his home space, but within that space he journeys deeply across time and race to comprehend the world of slavery.
Crossing this racial divide is perhaps the most difficult journey for many reasons, social as well as intellectual. One persistent fallacy about this journey can be crudely stated as: "It takes one to know one." That one must be the thing one studies is a logical impossibility, since even if one studies oneself, one separates oneself as knower from oneself as known. Despite the logical fallacy, the prejudice persists, and shrill voices decry Orientalism—colonialists studying colonized—and its variants domestically, which include whites studying blacks, heirs of slave owning studying slaves. In anthropology this critique has been dominant for several decades.
As a thought experiment on this question, I recommend David Payne's Back to Wando Passo.4 Set in the Lowcountry...