T he College of Charleston announced on Monday a Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston, an unprecedented opportunity for us to engage in academic research, teaching and service to deepen our understanding of slavery and promote social justice. Faculty, students and staff at C of C have long been engaged in this work, but the center will create new synergies, facilitate richer collaborations with community members and organizations, and help make a stronger impact on the Charleston area.
Why should we study slavery in Charleston, or anywhere? Why focus our attention on a painful past? I thought about that question while teaching an English class called “Coming of Age in the South.”
We’re reading Faulkner’s “The Bear,” in which the teenaged Ike McCaslin becomes a skillful and honorable hunter through his deep understanding of the “Big Woods,” old-growth forests of northern Mississippi. He understands how to conduct himself in the wilderness, but wonders how he can live honorably in the late-1800s South. At 21, he’ll inherit his late father and grandfather’s property, but he believes owning land is wrong, just as owning people was wrong. His grandfather impregnated women he owned; the children became McCaslin property. Ashamed and determined to end a cycle of inhumanity, Ike renounces his inheritance.
Ike moves off the family lands where descendants of enslaved people still live; he won’t use income from their farming. He becomes a carpenter, owning nothing but his tools, a cot and a rifle. Never directly exploiting anyone’s labor, Ike tracks down nonwhite relatives to give them McCaslin money.
Was Ike right to renounce his inheritance?
My view is that he can’t renounce it. It still exists, no matter how he conducts his life. Ike owns not only his tools and rifle; he also possesses his whiteness. Although he never asked to be born into this identity, this time, this place, he cannot renounce these conditions. And the land Ike thinks nobody should own is, nevertheless, owned, by others; laws and economic conditions perpetuate white supremacy and injustice, with or without Ike’s participation.
Charlestonians these days are brooding about our inheritance, our shared past. What should we do with it? We’re happy to claim many byproducts of Southern history: multicultural foodways and folkways; brilliant works of literature; music that soothes and delights; religious institutions that uplift and inspire courage — myriad artistic expressions and cultural traditions that enrich and bless us today. But we’ve inherited more than that.
Facing the darkness in our past is hard, and making our society more whole, considerably harder. Whereas destruction and cruelty are easy to accomplish, building a sustainable, just, healthy community is terribly difficult. It won’t come into being just because we want it. It must be built — and continually rebuilt — out of patience and determination and humility and compassion and generosity and deep understanding (the qualities that made Ike McCaslin a great woodsman). It won’t get built by renouncing our inheritance, ignoring it, pretending it no longer exists.
This summer I listened as Charleston City Council discussed a resolution apologizing for Charleston’s participation in slavery. I was in the gallery of our astonishingly lovely council chamber, built with unfree labor and financed by profits from human trafficking. Downstairs, dozens of people spoke in favor of an apology, encouraging council to promote reconciliation and acknowledge the city’s past wrongs. The resolution finally passed, by one vote. I was saddened but not too surprised when some white council members said they and their constituents shouldn’t apologize for something they hadn’t done.
Right: no one alive did it. Long before we came on the scene, without getting our approval, our white predecessors used black bodies and labor to “bring forth upon this continent a new nation.” Enslaved people shaped our landscapes, fashioned our built environments, created Charleston’s handsome streets and structures. Enslaved ancestors extracted wealth from across North America at the cost of their own liberty and lives. This centuries-long crime against humanity, causing untold suffering, also significantly increased the personal wealth of slaveowners, of other participants in slave-related enterprises, and of their descendants.
That’s what happened. That’s every American’s inheritance. It can’t be unmade, and it can’t be renounced.
For some Americans, slavery — our shared past, our ongoing legacy — manifests itself everywhere, in social interactions, racist violence, disregarded civil rights, barriers to self-determination, personal and generational trauma. For other Americans, that legacy remains invisible, seemingly nonexistent.
It’s long past time for all Americans, particularly in this region, to own our shared inheritance. We must claim it if we wish to transform it.
Julia Eichelberger is the director of College of Charleston’s Program in Southern Studies and a professor of English.