Recently, I set out on an undertaking to crisscross the United States, my home country, by Greyhound Bus. The impetus for this project was rooted in a curiosity about American cities, many of which had existed only in my imagination. My intention was to replace those myths with insights, and to come to some form of understanding of what it means to be American today. From the beginning, the intention was to share those impressions in the form of a documentary film. I started cutting short video essays combining footage and photos of each location, with the voice and words of one local resident. Accompanying the video essay is a written piece explaining how the interviewee fits into their city, and how the two of us came to meet.
Charleston, South Carolina, has been in the news a great deal, recently for a whole host of reasons: everything from your typical American mass shootings, your typical American police violence, your typical American flooding, your typical American racism, to your typical American style ‘praying and healing.’
But for me, the word Charleston and my imagination of the city – one of the American South’s oldest – evoked a Disneyland ride through American history. And indeed, the city comes equipped with a quaint and charming downtown, including a plethora of high end shops, and, of course, a preserved “Historic Charleston.” Choose to see beyond the Disney facade, however, and your feet may move you a muggy 600 feet from the Starbucks on the corner of King and Calhoun Street to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was here, during a Sunday service in the middle of June 2015, that a 21 year-old man with white supremacist leanings, who was born about 180 kilometers away, opened fire on the congregation killing nine of its members.
Dig deeper and you may find yourself on Sullivan’s Island, a quick 30-minute ride from quaint downtown, across a beautiful white suspension bridge. There – in addition to beaches and American Civil War forts and sprawling houses that beckon to a time whose shadow still falls over maintained picket fences – sits a lone ‘Bench Beside The Road.’ One must seek out this bench – as there are no signs, nor does it appear in any tourist brochure I came across – and one must visit during daylight and good weather to be able to read the plaque next to it, whose words were penned by American author Toni Morrison. The bench is the lone memorial to what was once a major port of entry for an estimated 40% of African slaves to the American colonies. The plaque next to the bench that commemorates these events explains: “Nearly half of all African-Americans have ancestors who passed through Sullivan’s Island.”
Emanuel AME Church and the Bench Beside the Road. The voice and words belong to the convenience store owner in the Charleston housing project.
Kevin is a forty year old native Charlestonian who lives in a housing project of Charleston proper. He’s African American. Everyone I remember encountering that day in the projects was African American, except for the blond police officer who told me he couldn’t speak about life in Charleston while in uniform. Even in late October, it was warm. Completely apart from the heat, I felt a heaviness as I walked the cracked, uneven sidewalks; like slugging through several extra layers of effort; as if I, and all the people I could see, were under orders to live submerged in murky water. I wondered how the project residents managed the heaviness day in and out. I felt like I could see the effort behind their eyes and on their skin.
I met Kevin inside a local convenience shop as I was attempting to interview the shop owner. That interview wasn’t going well. The owner said to me, “I don’t know who the hell you are.” After about ninety minutes of observing the store operations and engaging in a cagey back and forth with the owner, I met Kevin. We exchanged greetings and he said he wanted to know who I was and what I was doing.
Just so the reader has an understanding of my appearance as I crisscrossed the United States collecting video footage, photos, and speaking with whomever said yes to the question “would you like to say a few words,” I covered each location every day on foot with a backpack. My equipment amounted to a GoPro with attachments, my laptop, a small LED, sound gear, and a stabilizing gimbal. My backpack was filled to capacity and weighed about thirty-two pounds.
Kevin sized me up and said to me, “You may look homeless, but I can tell you’re not.” I made a mental note to shave more often and asked Kevin if he wanted to say a few words about the recent flooding in Charleston.
The flooding had made US national news for several days in a row. Some locals with whom I’d already spoken, who lived in or near the housing project, said flooding in that section of the city was a part of Charleston life; that it occurred often, perhaps three or four times a year. By ‘flooding,’ they meant several inches of water.
One resident, Corey Williams, used the ascending brick steps of his front yard to illustrate. “Flood water always comes up to this step,” he said, pointing to the first step with his foot. Lifting his foot to the second step, he said, “But the last time it came to this step.” He turned to look at the camera, and concluded, “I knew we was in some shit.”
Each local who offered me their thoughts in that part of Charleston said the recent floods had been the worst ever.
Back to Kevin. He agreed to talk to me, but as I raised my phone to begin filming, he said, “Nah, I don’t wanna be on no camera.” I asked if could record his voice and he said that was fine.
Photos by the author.