Charleston, South Carolina has its own magic, its own mystery. She splashes it on every colorful building, reflects it off of every river. The magic hums, just right above the humidity, and then smiles. You can actually feel the charm on your skin, smell it in the air. I loved the city from the moment I drove into West Ashley and haven’t come down since.
::INSERT DRAMATIC PAUSE:: But.
The way this city’s parking is set up? Ain’t nobody got time… Confession: I failed parallel parking on my driver’s test. I nailed backing into a parking spot–which I haven’t done since that day–but completely destroyed parallel parking. Pretty sure my instructor shook her head. Thank God I only had lines to fit in between and not two cars.
I’ve since gotten…okay. I’ve only managed to parallel park (with two cars framing the open space) two times since I got my license. Two times in 12 years (I got my license at 18 because I was literally afraid to drive). I can park just fine with one car in front or behind. And of course, I’m a master of a parallel park when no cars frame the space. But two? Sigh…
Needless to say some of the sweet magic I felt about Charleston tapered off when I tried to find parking. Especially on King Street.
Now, you all know how I feel about King Street (and if you don’t, read more about it here). The long drive jumps and dances, it laughs and welcomes you with warmth. Except when you need to find a parking spot! Then King Street just teases you mercilessly. One night, I literally drove around for 15 minutes in search of a “normal” park I could just pull into rather than try my horrible luck at squeezing Persephone (my car) in between two unknown lawsuits waiting to happen.
I didn’t even eat dinner on King my first night because I couldn’t find a park–and you all know I travel to eat.
NOTE: Charleston does have public parking garages for the parallel parking deficient like myself. Just follow the signs. This literally saved my time in this marvelous city.
But back to the MAGIC…
I couldn’t stop smiling as I drove into the city, couldn’t wipe the silly grin off my face. Arriving almost felt like coming home, if that makes any sense. Odd, considering I had never dipped a toe into the city line in my life. But I felt like I had arrived in a place I could stay forever, and never quite tire of the allure. If the idea of magic offends, Charleston has tangible energy in the air. Some good energy, some bad, all powerful. Like static electricity. I could feel it as I walked down King Street. I invited it as I moved down Rainbow Row. By the time I walked down the Battery, that sweet energy danced all over me.
Actually, I believe the city does an excellent job of saying just as much in silence, in the shadows, as it does in the lively music and noise of busy streets. Case in point: the quiet alleys and courtyards of Charleston. I imagine soft crooning music in between buildings, sweaty palms meeting for the first time, the dark whispers of backdoor deals or fresh promises. I also imagine sunrise and heavy footfalls, the jingle of keys locking the door of business for the night, side conversation of pedestrians on the phone. Yet, every alley I saw held silence–I filled in the gaps with life.
Charleston’s courtyards in the historic district are the epitome of Southern elegance. Iron gates and lush green, pebble stone walk way or brick path. Not quite opulence (except for the Battery), but they definitely emit the rich Southern genteel fragrance of yesteryear. Complete with the Charleston accent that I, admittedly, find fascinating. The irony of the courtyards? They invite you in, bright color and open space; a garden party waiting to enjoy. You can almost hear the sharp clink of glass. And yet, private property keeps you on the outside looking in–and if you’re like me, you wonder about what “could be.”
I assume it hasn’t escaped your notice that I am a Black woman. You have good eyes. As such, I sometimes war with my love of Southern cities (even being a Georgia Peach). I can’t deny the heritage, but neither can I ignore my place in it. The role racism plays in my “place.” The magic of this city is none-too-carefully wrapped in the history of Charleston–the good, the bad, and the downright painful.
I started writing this post only days after the controversial (and quite frankly, despicable) events in Charlottesville, VA (on August 11, 2017, White nationalists protested against the removal of a Confederate statue). While I won’t take a public stance on those events on this post–though I’m sure you could guess–I will say that those actions remind–or should remind–locals, tourists, visitors of the push/pull of Southern cities with regards to race.
I know. Race is a controversial subject. One I, admittedly, didn’t plan on delving closing into with my blog for…a while. But. I am Black everyday. Which means, I am a controversial subject every day. A political topic. A living, breathing protest against the “standard.” My race doesn’t fade or move or even run away. At times, the level of loud adjusts to the environment I am in, speaks up or quiets down depending on what’s best at that moment. But, THAT is why I had to address this topic in Charleston.
I moved freely in Charleston for the better part of two days, no place explicitly barred to me for my skin. Yet, rewind the clock to 1740: South Carolina passed laws that prevented slaves from travelling without permission (among other things).
The same city that houses the beautifully cultured Gullah people, one of last groups of Black people who hold strong to their African roots and traditions, also had over 40% of all slaves in the entire country imported through its harbor. The wealth of the city holds more than part of its charm, but that wealth? Built off the backs of slaves: importation, trade, and labor.
Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston has the pride and honor of being the oldest AME church in the South. The church congregated during a time when all-Black churches were unlawful for slaves. Fast forward nearly 200 years…a White man walks into this same church and kills 9 Black people after seemingly praying with them. Push, pull. Give, take.
I don’t say this to poison the magic. On the contrary, the history is the magic. The push/pull creates the unique incantation that we feel the moment we enter the city limits. You can’t ignore this energy, the history–or you shouldn’t. Nor should you whitewash the stained moments and dark spells. Magic, from what I’ve always read, comes with a price, a sacrifice. Charleston has more than her share of sacrifices and has paid several prices for her beauty and strength. Perhaps it’s her history that pulls at me, that makes me feel I’ve come home…
Have you ever visited Charleston? What magic did she hold for you?
Related post: 36 Hours in Charleston, SC