Photographs by the talented Danielle Webster.
The erasure of black people, black culture, blackness is a hallmark of American life.
About 2 years ago I started seeing Charleston, SC everywhere. It was all over Instagram, and multiple friends were taking trips there. It soon became clear that the city of Charleston was in the midst of a revitalization campaign, complete with a high dollar blogger singing its praises.
Every photo had a beautiful simplicity, an ease on the eye. I wanted to go to Charleston.
I wanted to go to White Charleston. I wanted to go to the unburdened version of a city that can only be achieved through burying its own history deep down and throwing a filter on it. I wanted a town whose plantation homes were simply a pinterest-worthy aesthetic. Cobblestone streets, magnolia trees, fried chicken — all part of the Southern “rebrand”.
The South that I know is greatly abridged — my time there was only a year and a half tip-to-toe — but in that time I became very familiar with the feeling of being a walking secret. The feeling that my very existence in my black body was an affront to the daily story that the white people around me were trying to tell about themselves. I also remember the feeling of disdain from my black academic peers, as though they could sense the lack of adversity in me. Sure, I had been to a very affluent white school, but I felt like they could tell I hadn’t truly lived under the cloud of a white retelling. They could tell I hadn’t yet struggled to form myself in a place with such a rich history of people trying to blot me out.
The Southern rebrand seeks to be wholly devoid of blackness. In that regard, it is really not a rebrand at all. Charleston, the only major antebellum American city to have a majority-enslaved population. Charleston, where nearly half of all Africans brought to America arrived. Charleston, a city that blackness built.
Black people built the South with blood, sweat and tears. An industrial revolution fueled by black horror, a thorough and sustained subjugation.
Today, there is a version of the South that exists apart from, and yet layered directly on top of, the house that blackness built. In this version, Southern Living magazine calls Charleston “the most polite and hospitable city in America.” It’s noteworthy though, that the stories we tell ourselves today can also warp the past. It is quite nearly impossible to arrive at the most hospitable city in America on the scar tracks of whips.
It is in this culture of retelling that Sofia Coppola can make a movie like “The Beguiled”. A movie adaptation by a white woman, who erases the presence of a black character’s narrative in order to center the experience of a cabal of white women, set during a war fought by white men over the material worth of black bodies. A version that totally guts its black innards to make more room for the dominant whiteness.
And then there is Beyonce, a Southern woman, a black woman who thrusts blackness upon us even as she makes her own empirical points about womanhood. A woman who is processing and externalizing a South that made her, as much as her forefathers made it, producing new media that scribbles into the lines already drawn instead of rubbing them out, and somehow finding new uncharted places to go.
But today, there is Twitter and there is Black Twitter, the way there is America and Black America. Run on the same systems, occupying the same space, one within the other. The black one creating and constantly churning out culture, a vibrant and kinetic processing of everything around it into memes, hashtags, and political movements. The larger one getting all the updates, the innovations, the room.
It is a tricky thing: to rob and rebrand, to claim with the intent to smother.
It’s a big game of catch & kill, like those news outlets that buy stories just to bury them.
It is not by accident that you do not see black people rejoicing on your television screen.
It is not by accident that black people are only excited on your screens when they are made into GIFs for others to use to express themselves, or when we are being positioned as too unruly to bear.
It is not by accident that you never see black people unburdened or free.
It is not by accident that you do not see black people in ownership of the things that they built.
It is not by accident that you never see black people in period pieces.
It is not by accident that you do not see black women in plantation homes.
But now you have.
And now you cannot unsee a version of history where blackness has ownership of the house that blackness built.
*Photos taken in a historic Georgia suburb, not Charleston.
Find more of Danielle Webster’s fascinating work at DanielleWebster.com