February 6, 2023

from: DAVID’S TREE: Escaping Skin (Chapter 10 of Swampitude: Escapes with the Congaree)

By Quitman Marshall

“And he shall be like a tree planted
by the rivers of water…”
–Psalms 1:3

I was there to seek and to honor a shared past we are still barely speaking about. Certain things have made us, certain things with no relation to the gushing of popular rhetoric that moats life in America with sentimental hogwash. Mr. James Hopkins had died. I’d known him in certain ways, and I hadn’t known him at all. The funeral was at First Nazareth Baptist Church, a landmark structure rising over a buried creek and a major intersection. The streets run out to neighborhoods of amplitude and shopping malls in three directions and to downtown Columbia (SC)in the fourth. The creek surfaces through parks near the state university, sometimes floods its bar-and-restaurant district, and carries gathered stains eventually to the swamp. Behind the church a neighborhood called Waverly attempts to rise again. Once the center of African-American recovery despite Jim Crow, with fine homes and a business community around two historically black colleges, Waverly’s vitality has been drained to other suburbs since the 1950’s. Unlike many inner-city districts that might revitalize themselves, Waverly’s recovery would have to acknowledge and embrace the chronic pains of race that created it.

When I was a child, First Nazareth was part of the scenery, the first big urban building, on the drive up Gervais Street to our own downtown church. Christ was praying in the glass Gethsemane of its high window. The people of its congregation, spilling from cars toward the church, were splendidly dressed, utterly defying the simple equations of their weekday places and numbers as I knew them. My tiny controlling knowledge could not touch them on those Sundays. I knew at least that I knew nothing about something big. Having moved, decades after childhood, into a “mixed” neighborhood not far from First Nazareth, I walked to Mr. Hopkins’ funeral. The most important question or issue in American history, someone said, is race—which rhymes with place, which is where we are.

Teaching school on the Sea Islands, I hold a piece of paper beside my left hand and ask, “Am I white?” I grab someone’s book bag (which should be in his locker) and when his hand grabs it too, I ask, “Is he black?” Colors from pink to brown to blue (my ropey veins) to tan to rose to chocolate are engaged. I’m trying to make a point, and I’m tired of it. Middle schoolers lurch for labels, experimenting as they try to shock. They call each other “gay.” I make a gleeful show in response. Calling them all “lesbians” (after I’ve heard “gay” hurled once too often), I send them to dictionaries. “There are no grown women in this room, just one man and some children,” I conclude. “My bad.” I don’t hear the word again for a while. But I know I’m not a good teacher; I know and the whole system tells me so. I believe in native wisdom, and the chance of that has been scoured from my kids by two generations of abandonment to free enterprise: day-care; television monoculture; the freedom of all parents to work themselves to death far from home making nothing.

According to scholars’ books, artists’ imaginations, and the longing hearts of the post-Middle Passage diaspora, a culture called Gullah lives down here. God bless us all, it certainly thrives in hucksters’ schemes. Golf and Gullah are linked mortal fantasies on these islands. Money, unlike nature, both loves and hates a vacuum. It uses, then abandons the space—whether cultural (Gullah) or recreational (golf)—used up. On the long green fairways toward little holes, affluent retirees tease Christ’s camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle imperative. Numbers of others of us, finding the American Dream obdurately tabula rasa, wake from it and dig for roots in old gardens, Gullah or Celtic or otherwise. Theme restaurants and tours prosper, dubious relics blossom in shops, and the truth is squeezed to the back of the bus.

For most kids, these pursuits are as insubstantial as last sighs. Nevertheless, it’s for their sake that a few heroic elders try to hold cultural substance together. On the nearby island of Hilton Head, where resort living has buried native culture and history, money divides and conquers like a champion in the so-called Heritage Golf Tournament, a name that says it all. Back up, far from coastal schemes, forty years to a place we used to play above the swamp, sand traps had turned to gullied pits, proof that golf courses can sink under denser money. Abandoned for better courses farther out, this one was cut up by suburbs and shopping centers. We kids ran down fairways gone to berry vines and hid in chambered putting greens vaulted by the piney overgrowth of at least two decades. All that’s paved over by an office park now, all but a ribbon of the swamp.

Between the Brown decision and the Kent State killings, this disused land regressed in a wonderful way for certain children who dared to cross an ever-fiercer boulevard for it. Loblollies towered at the back where the land rolled down to Gills Creek and the tendrils of an ever-bigger swamp downstream. An old man and woman lived on the edge of it, in a cabin angled in the hill, guarded by a storm of dogs. “Watch the land,” is what the old man said, “They told us we could stay on here if we’d just watch the land.” She smelled like wood smoke, and he was thin as a snake. When I sat on their cabin steps, she called me “good boy.” In the fall of 1960, I might have worn a Nixon-Lodge button on my flannel shirt. That was how my parents voted. In the world above the swamp, the old woman, I’d later understand, had never been allowed to vote.

One of several speakers at the funeral service was Reverend Redfern, II, a former student radical of our old days, still militant in the new millennium, making a passionate roar for specificity: “He was a black man!” Mr. Hopkins had faced down a white man’s pistol outside a local country club. He’d started his own business, a successful home appliance store, when few black men did so. He was a founder of the United Black Fund, the Committee of 100 Black Men, and the S.C. Black Hall of Fame. He was a self-styled “footsoldier for justice.” Redfern demanded that this man’s story not be seen as universal: he was a black man of his time and place. Wilhemina Rolark said, “The steps of good men are always ordered by God.” Reverend W.H. Neal, with a powerful voice I’d heard on the radio, began the preaching from First Corinthians. Reverend R.C. Wilson questioned how many of us who ask for blessings ever seek to be blessings, as Mr. Hopkins was one. Finally, Reverend Scott of First Nazareth spoke. I’d never before been in the active presence of such preaching. I heard strength and faith and praise and courage and beautifully controlled, fierce intelligence.

But it was especially because of Hopkins’ daughter that I was there. She made the emotion personal. Collette had been my high school classmate. We’d shared the end of a world, or that was how I saw it. We were going to make a new one. Because she was beautiful and brilliant and could withstand a white high-school environment that produced Lee Atwater (innovator in race-bait politics for the first Bush), I thought she would. Change the world, that is. I considered her my friend and thought of her from time to time over the years, of her clarity and nerve. “Not bad for a white boy,” she once said, smiling that smile, about my stack of records.

But that was decades ago. This day I was the sole white man in the church when Reverend Blakely N. Scott, III, began to talk about the Psalms of David. The pews were completely full; I’d sat near the back, close, as it turned out, to Mr. Hopkins’ usual place. Reverend Scott took his text from Psalm1: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly…And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” The preaching swelled to praise David’s gift of poetry, his genius for making connections with common things, and to link him to Mr. Hopkins, who remained connected to his roots, the people and place, called Hopkins, that he came from. The roots of First Nazareth Church itself were there, said Reverend Scott. “The rivers of water” which fed Mr. Hopkins are, to be Redfern-specific, creeks that flow into the swamp. I watched his daughter, the brave and brilliant girl, now middle-aged, walk out of the church with her mother. The 100 Black Men lined the steps outside. I walked on home.