Earlier this month, I spent a wonderful weekend in Charleston where I had an early birthday celebration at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival. It was my wine-loving, travel-obsessed, foodie dreams come to life, and it was completely worth it. Actually, my trip to Charleston overall was worth it. I found it to be a very beautiful city, full of colorful, graceful homes and an atmosphere of true southern charm.
The thing is, when friends ask me how my trip to Charleston was, I find myself saying "Great! An interesting place..." and then from there I either leave it alone or share why I find Charleston to be an "interesting place."
Before I get into the explanation, let me first take a step back and share what I knew about Charleston prior to going there. I knew it was in South Carolina and that it's having an "it" moment right now because of its beautiful architecture and the amazing James Beard award-winning chefs who have made Charleston a culinary hot spot. The city has also been featured on many "cutest towns in America" lists (or some equivalent of that) in travel magazines, and many people I know who've been say it's a great place to visit.
The other things I knew about Charleston prior to going: it's in the south, so of course it had a part in slavery. It also has a very complicated present. Last year, nine people were tragically killed by a lone gunman during a prayer meeting at the historical Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in downtown Charleston. A few weeks prior in North Charleston, an officer gunned down a man and later lied about what happened, but through witness video, the real sequence of events were revealed.
So, as much as I was excited to go to Charleston for its beauty and its food, I was unsure of what to expect less than a year after these occurrences.
There are, of course, things that happen in Charleston that happen in many other cities around the world, but these two events were particularly significant and heartbreaking and represented the worst of America today. So, as much as I was excited to go to Charleston for its beauty and its food, I was unsure of what to expect less than a year after these occurrences.
During my time there, I saw incredibly lovely homes, explored the shopping and markets of the city, ate way too much delicious food (no regrets) and met extremely gracious and hospitable people. I also had the opportunity to visit one of the area's plantations, which brings me back to why I described Charleston as an "interesting place." For starters, there's the history of the city — Charleston not only played a part in slavery, it is often referred to as the capital of American slavery. Many of the slaves who came into the country were brought in through Charleston, and the city grew in prosperity in large part due to its slave labor. The plantation I visited while in Charleston, with its pretty live oaks, stable of horses and gorgeous home, housed almost 300 slaves. These days many people know of it as the place where scenes from The Notebook were filmed. It's also where Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, as well as many other couples, were married.
I didn't learn all of this on my own, though I realize I should have. I learned much of the specific details of Charleston's past through tour guides and signs, which I then followed up with my own reading. Charleston doesn't hide its slave history, though I can't imagine it could if it wanted to, but instead integrates its past into its present day tourism — from the stories of slaves in the plantation slave quarters, to the horse-drawn carriage tours in the historic district which showcase significant and often slave-related moments in the city's history, to the books about Gullah culture and the women who sell handwoven sweetgrass baskets, a practice that comes from West Africa. There is no way to experience Charleston and not see its past, which also informs some of its present.
I found myself trying to decide how I felt about all of this. Should Charleston embrace its history of slavery and make it part of the experience for tourists? Is this in any way exploitative, or without it people would not know this information? And what of its history is it telling and what is it not? These are questions that could be asked of any place that played a part in slavery. I don't have any clear answers; I only know that as a black woman touring Charleston and as a person who, by nature, can be observant and introspective, these are some of the questions that circled in my head while I was there.
Though I can't yet clearly decipher and articulate my feelings on the above, I do think Charleston is a place that's very much worth visiting. I've heard people admire its charm before and can attest that the historic district is indeed a very charming place. It is the Charleston of the travel magazines.
The Charleston that's not of the travel magazines — the one that's dealt with racism and anger and violence — that's there, too. And I think, with the climate of our country today, it's hard for me to reconcile these two versions when someone asks me about my time in Charleston, and so I sum up my experience by simply saying, "Charleston is an interesting place."
I certainly hope to visit the city again, and maybe by then I'll have some answers. But knowing me, I'll likely just have more questions.
Have you been to Charleston before? If so, what did you think of the city?