Polite rites will not absolve Charleston of lingering wrongs

Passersby stop to look at memorials placed in front of Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 16, the day before the first anniversary of the mass shooting there. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

We Charlestonians are proud of many things: our city’s past, its beauty and the way of life we find worthy of defending.

We are voted best of just about everything. For generations, just as Rhett Butler left Scarlett O’Hara at the end of “Gone with the Wind,” he and others have come our way seeking the last place of graceful living in a fast-changing (and some would say declining) country.

Some have argued that it is our density — the closeness of single houses — that has prompted us to act so civilly.

And manners are taught here:

Social graces are drilled into us as rigidly as Citadel cadets learn to march in formation. For many, Charleston was, Charleston is, and Charleston will always be not just America’s most historic, but also America’s most polite city.

On these points, I have to politely — but vehemently — disagree.

I instead put forth the proposition that it has not always been the case. If we are now, it comes with consequences, some we should not be hoping to achieve.

Many may think I should be sent to Bull Street for such heresy. (This is the passé way South Carolinians used to politely call people crazy: The location of the state mental hospital, now closed, was on Columbia’s Bull Street.)

To others, these might be fighting words. But fighting has always been in our nature.

Yes, ancestors have worn silk dresses and wigs, and bowed and kissed ladies’ hands and danced quadrilles, but they also beat slaves, started a war defending the ownership of human beings and challenged people to duels for saying silly things. We have refused others a place at the table while crooking our pinkies, stopped others from speaking while we recite poetry, and not worn white before Easter, while denying blacks their dignity.

If we agree civility and civilization share roots and goals, then politeness is not just a veneer, a code (or coat) of behavior we put on when we dress up but something in our bones, more than skin deep, whatever hue (and resulting cry) our skin color might be.

But, ah, that’s the bigoted and bygone past, you say. Look at us; Charleston is changing.

I agree; but with all due respect, I suggest we examine ourselves and our current “smiling faces beautiful places” mentality. Perhaps we have been shaped by our single houses after all, turning as they do discreetly from the street, instead of facing others squarely and directly.

While there is little Victorian architecture in Charleston (because we were poor after the Civil War, and could not follow trends) we still often behave as if Victoria were ruling. We may not be prudish and no longer swoon glimpsing more flesh on the street that you’d expect to be revealed on the beach. But from other more important things, we avert our eyes, and also our speech. If I am found disagreeable, “Well bless his heart,” someone will say — which, everyone knows, is the sweet Southern way to say the nasty word that gets bleeped on tasteless TV shows and cannot be printed here.

Bless his heart — and may he meet his maker sooner than later. Instead of the code duello there is the code of duality — saying something other than what we mean.

We in Charleston have been in the national spotlight of late, and not just because of our culture and cuisine or our visit-ability. No, we have gained national attention because of what happened at Mother Emanuel, and the flowing of mercy from some of those murdered families.

We have been praised for our forgiveness and our grace; but “we” have not merited it.

Only those who have been injured beyond repair have. And it is ironic that those of our population who have been historically mistreated are the ones turning the other cheek. Their according of respect and grace for an errant member of the human family should leave us astonished.

It’s time we put down our forks and spoons and the correct wine glasses, and let the conversation turn from polite dinner party chatter to more important topics.

Race, it may be rude, but true, to say, is at the base of so much of our society and our city, but because it is so painful we do not often speak of it. Newspaper and television interviews have featured testimonials from some who were once proud of the politeness and traditions of this city, now realizing they had been wrong to adhere to the rites of convention.

They confessed that they turned the other cheek not in grace, but in cowardice. They refused to speak up when they heard racist jokes or witnessed unfairness.

Out of misplaced respect, we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings for saying outrageous things; we roll our eyes, say bless his or her heart, all in the attempt to keep calm and carry on, and not disturb the peace. In the past, a man with the wrong word could be called out to fight a duel by someone for a perceived impropriety. Today, we toady, we keep buttoned up, while the most outrageous comments and behavior endanger others.

I’m not suggesting we challenge people to duels, but cannot we challenge their ideas and assumptions?

I am as guilty as anybody for running from such confrontations. Recently when discussing my neighborhood, a cocktail party conversationalist told me how he regretted how it had changed; he used to love to visit as a kid and buy fish from a “colored” family; the kids on the street were so happy; and now they are all sullen and wear droopy drawers and hoodies.

To my shame I said nothing.

I suppose I fell into the trap that many of us do. We think we are using manners to avoid problems. But we are really often using manners to avoid solving them. I could have said, yes, those kids may not dress as nicely as you remember, or be as polite as they used to be, but their parents can vote, and are equal not just before the Lord on Sunday, but before the law all days of the week.

We speak of how rude and pushy Yankees are. They interrupt; they do not smile; they get right to the point and do not dress things up with flourishes, as we do. So much so, we often never get to the subject at hand because we are always discursive.

How are you? And the kids?

We stay on the threshold and never let anyone in. That so many of us could not see that the Confederate flag could be offensive to others shows our utter lack of politeness and civility. For doing unto others is the crux on which politeness pivots. The best host or hostess will make you feel welcome if you come underdressed or if you pick up the salad fork instead of the fish.

The argument cannot be summed up on bumper stickers; heritage or hate is not the argument. It’s hurt and humanity.

If others feel bad at what I display, I need to stop displaying it. I need to be sensitive to what is offensive to you. It’s not about rites, but rights. Instead of admiring and applauding victims of injustice who have turned around and granted forgiveness, we need to ask for it ourselves. Civility, the Civil War and civil rights are all parts of our civilization. Certainly we can rank them, can’t we?

We revere the past in Charleston, but we need to profit from it — not just in tourist dollars, but in overcoming it.

We should not mourn the fact that Charleston is changing; it has to, for an organism is either dynamic or dying. One nugget of Charleston history often overlooked is the place our city has played in the development of the theory in which most of the world believes — natural selection.

William Charles Wells, a loyalist not treated so well after the Revolutionary War, came up with the theory, scooping Darwin by decades.

He first theorized on how species adapt to survive best in their surroundings. In an evolving, changing world we now can see that social justice is more important than high society and that fixing the problems that drain our humanity are just as important and maybe more so than fixing drains on the Septima Clark Expressway.

Can’t we embrace a common humanity and speak out for what we believe to be right even if it makes waves and is not polite?

Can’t we stop thanking politicians who come and cry crocodile tears for people killed in a church and instead ask them why won’t they work for what Sen. Clementa Pinckney believed?

For the sake of civilization and our city, can’t we put substance first instead of civility?

Pretty please?

Harlan Greene is a Charleston archivist, historian and novelist.