Business As Usual
I shared this story to my personal Facebook account a few months after the massacre in Charleston occurred in June of 2015. It was perhaps the first time I could make some small bit of sense of it all through writing:
“Business As Usual”
I was 24 at the time. I hadn’t earned my college degree yet, so I was interning and taking my last classes that would allow me to receive my Clemson diploma at the end of the summer after moving back home from upstate South Carolina. By June, the last course requirement I had was supply chain management. I took this through the school of business at College of Charleston taught in a building three blocks away from Emmanuel A.M.E., and I was working nights in a restaurant just a bit further from this spot.
Material that people often struggle with in a semester long course had to be covered in a four weeks. Or, adjusted for real, in-class time, about 15 business days of instruction since a holiday and a few test periods were set aside. The professor was a middle aged man from Costa Rica who told the women who asked questions during class that he wouldn’t answer their questions during a lecture if the answer was in the book. I tested this a few times and would ask the same question a woman asked a few minutes before me or even more obvious questions, and this professor would take the time to explain concepts that had entire case study examples with work shown or would be remarkably patient if a man asked the same questions the women in the class did.
I was ashamed and enraged it took me twenty more years to indirectly learn a lesson all women learned about how futile speaking up can be.
Week one, class is going fine. I was humbled that, while my former classmates from high school and college had already completed Masters programs or added two years of work history to their resumes — and even more humbled and grateful that my parents were so patient and supportive of me trying to finish my undergraduate work — I was waking up for a class I should have earned credit for much earlier. So it was a bittersweet time. Bitter because of my ego, but sweet because when the finish line is that close after feeling so far away for so long, you start to really wonder if you’ll ever make it there.
Week two, class is harder than I thought it would be, but I was enjoying being back in the groove of studying consistently. By Wednesday, I did the math and realized I had an A in the class, then I found out I had been cast in a commercial. During my study break between class and work, I texted one of my best friends so we could start planning a graduation celebration trip to see her in D.C. For the first time in a long time, I was having a good day, noticeable because such a stale weight seemed to be gradually lifting from my shoulders. Afternoon comes, and it’s time to go to work for the night.
The restaurant was busy as usual, and my phone died while I was there as I felt it buzzing in my pockets with text after text, call after call. I couldn’t imagine what would have made so many people reach out to me on a random summer night. I made it an afterthought and finished helping the crew close, and I took the long way to my car to drive home. It was a warm summer night and I had parked far enough to enjoy the summer breeze for a minute until I found my parking space and went home to study a little more.
As soon as I got home, my parents started asking me about the part of downtown I worked in with that firm and confident yet frenzied way that only a child can interpret from his parents. I finally got my phone to a charger. My phone let me know quickly my friends were very concerned.
I turned on the tv and I don’t remember what I felt other than shock, disbelief, and numbness for about five minutes. I called a few friends back and I tried to speak steadily and joke around, but I know I’m just, the worst really, when I’m stressed out. I couldn’t think of what to really say. Or what to feel. I took a long shower. I think that was the one time since birth that I could really turn my brain off for a few minutes.
The next day, with a triple digit heat index and 95% humidity, I wore long pants, a hoodie, and a hat to my 8 am class. When I saw a familiar face, I explained that I legitimately feared for my life because of my brown skin. Someone who targeted a black church was still on the loose but my professor didn’t cancel class, I explained. I knew it was crazy, but I had no other choice because any absence was an automatic F. Absolutely no questions asked. One guy got an F for coming to class late one time. So, I slept for about an hour the night before, tossing back and forth between the decision to risk my life for a class I could take again or to sit at home and sulk and let fear win.
I got to class only to have my brown, Catholic professor, who is what I recognize as ethnic when convenient, explain that attacks on Christianity happen all the time and that he lived in the Midwest for a while after graduating from Purdue and the KKK never bothered him, so we should be glad we’re all safe and this doesn’t represent what he and his family have learned about America.
These talking points were unrelated to a supply chain operations and logistics course, offensive in ways I won’t fit into this post, and unsurprising to hear, since a couple decades into this game, I know how much racist people love spouting off casual and indirect denial of racism. It just sucks when it’s in the face of a tragedy on behalf of a white supremacist and that furtive anti-Black sentiment is from a person of color who looked like we could have been distant relatives.
Black people complain right? Let’s go ahead and invalidate anything we think they might have to say, he might as well have said. My father instilled in me the importance of always sitting in the front of the class when seating was unassigned. This was the day when I started sitting in the back of the classroom.
Twenty minutes later, he gets back on topic to tell us that we all failed the quiz from the day before and that we have a forty page research paper due in two weeks.
Feeling rather dejected, and sleepy, I skip the library and go home to take a nap before work. When I step inside my house, I get word that one of the victims in the shooting was my childhood pastor.
I awoke feeling sleepier than I had before my nap and hoped that when I checked my phone or turned on the tv, I would see that I had just had a really uncomfortably vivid dream. But no. I was living in the reality of racism and colonialism.
I checked Facebook, which was a mistake, and the shit people posted made me cry.
One girl declared that this was an attack on all Christians and suggested that “one race stop thinking they’re so special.” This white person is married to an Asian man.
Another expressed sympathy for the victims but insisted that the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was divisive…after a self-proclaimed white supremacist who wore apartheid symbolism on his everyday clothes killed a bunch of people. Typing #AllLivesMatter will somehow atone for Black Lives being treated as less important than All Lives. I went to the same college, which has a longer segregated history than an integrated one, as this person.
A friend from high school let us know that this event was a “tiny incident” and that we were making a “liberal circle jerk” out of it.
I immediately closed my laptop, straightened my face, and got dressed for work.
Fine dining and Charleston tourism typically cater to a whiter crowd, and I had never likened myself as a racist, so this day of work was particularly hard. I had never imagined that I would feel uncomfortable around a crowd of white people.
That was the thing. I was in such a state of shock that my brown body was in North America and not somewhere else that I couldn’t see them as people. I felt as if I was merely a survivor of their ancestors’ killing. I walked past people with the last name Hamilton and Davis and Calhoun and Thomas and Washington and other names plastered across plantations and confederate monuments and wondered whether any of their wealth was linked to my trauma. I couldn’t focus on what I had to do. I couldn’t remember anything from class that morning. I was in disbelief that this happened. That the street of the church still had traffic flowing. That the hotels and restaurants and every where close by was simply business as usual.
I went home, and I wrote something to clear my mind. Talking didn’t make me feel any better. I mean, it didn’t even make me feel any different. But writing helped. Then, I checked Facebook, and my friend had asked me to go to a march with her the day this photo was taken.
We met up, and the march was, well, overwhelming. We chatted beforehand, you know, just making fun of old flames and catching up on gossip and politics. A few media folks asked if they could take pictures. Typical Saturday at the rally for peace, right? Someone sang and we said a prayer and had a moment of silence and began the walk from Wragg Mall toward the church on Calhoun Street. Typical march for peace, right? I quickly realized my sarcasm had no place here.
No defense mechanism could cover up the rush of emotion I felt as the march progressed closer to the church. I broke down. I cried. I screamed. I cried some more. I was so confused. I knew the historical significance of this church, but I also knew the delicate political and social nature of being A.M.E.
Of being black.
The march concluded about a half mile south after going on a slightly winding course through downtown Charleston. Final words were given on the steps of a building outside of the market. This building was the Daughters of Confederacy building.
Powerful speeches were given. One of the relatives of the church victims sang “Strange Fruit,” and for the first time I experienced what it’s like to have music move me to tears.
And then the city needed its streets back. The crowd dispersed, and my friend suggested we get dinner.
I had to continue life, business as usual.
The next day, other friends wanted to know if I would go with them to hold hands in a moment of silence on the Ravenel Bridge. Trying to go at least one day without considering how so many prominent figures in Charleston culture who are proud racists have public spaces named after them, I declined.
Instead of sending a tirade to my friends why co-opting black pain and trauma in an attempt to show “solidarity” for a very segregated city was a farce, I decided to breathe, eat something, and post an Instagram of the church before I got back to studying. My caption included “#BlackLivesMatter.”
“#alllivesmatter,” a friend commented.
This was a black person.
…after a self-proclaimed white supremacist who wore apartheid symbolism on his everyday clothes killed a bunch of black people. Typing #AllLivesMatter must somehow atone for Black Lives being treated as less important than All Lives, right?
I finished the class with alright test grades only to have the professor accuse me of plagiarism on my final paper. His rationale was that my similarity report from turnitin.com was too high for his liking, and not only that, but he said that compared to the level of writing in the rest of the class, he believed I couldn’t have written that paper.
Since it took me six years to get one degree, I won’t go on an elitist rant about the subpar instructional value and effort I witnessed while a part of College of Charleston’s business school. But I will imply heavily how insulting it is for a professor to basically say “You gave me a paper that was written too well for this to actually be your words” when I had only met him the month prior.
It’s like when you hear someone describe a black person’s speech as “proper.” These instances make me question whether mastery of your first language is a rarity.
Overall, by summer’s end, I was one pissed off individual.
I eventually got the plagiarism appeal resolved and I received my diploma from Clemson. And I had counted my blessings in life and settled my emotions about this all a bit. But I still had not driven down the entire length of Calhoun Street for a couple of months.
In the fall, I had an interview in the building across the street from Emmanuel A.M.E., and I took the back way to find parking. Considering downtown’s matrix of one way streets and slow driving, this adds about ten more minutes to a commute. On my way out, I decided to drive past the church.
I teared up, but this time there were no friends or kind strangers to hug me. I drove down Calhoun, back into my part of town, past plantations and confederate flags and future Trump voters.
Business as usual.
It was one night in the spring of 2016 when I finally drove down the length of Calhoun, chatting with a friend in my passenger seat. I asked her whether she ever noticed whether there are still flowers and shrines in front of the church because months later, I still can’t say I have actually looked directly at the church. She said no since she takes a different direction to work.
I changed topics quickly. I am not known as one to handle heartbreak calmly.
I don’t understand why this is my heartbreak, but it’s been something I have thought about almost everyday since June of 2015.
The heartbreak that appalling violence against innocent black people isn’t even extremism considering the foundation of this city.
The heartbreak that the ideological extension of anti-Black racism affected my city in ways I can’t easily explain to people who don’t feel those effects.
The heartbreak that I never imagined would play out so physically and so swiftly.
This is the experience of being black.
At least just a small part of it, anyway.
Sometimes you have to say “Black Lives Matter” so it feels like it’s true.
Every other moment is just business as usual.