Confronting segregation in Charleston 

An Invitation

For the nearly the entire time that Biffle and I have lived in Charleston, every September we've been strolling through our neighborhood, the Westside, on a random Sunday afternoon when we've heard drums — lots of drums. And tubas, trumpets, saxophones, and screams. We've walked by the Citadel football stadium and seen crowds, but no team. And for good reason. It's the Palmetto Invitational Band Classic, where college and high school marching bands from around the state come together to show off. And each time we've vowed that next year we'd go.

This has happened for six years, and the reason we haven't gone in the past was because no advertising had reached us ahead of time. This year, though, someone miraculously e-mailed a listserve I belong to, so the Palmetto Invitational went on my calendar, and on Sept. 9, Biffle and I were finally there in the stands. My daughter Maybelle and brother Trey joined us.

Although as an undergraduate I attended the halftimes of most football games at my college (my best friend was in the marching band), I had never seen anything like this. These performances showcased choreography both bodily and musical that I wasn't expecting. For instance, the percussionists didn't just play rhythms; their bodies enacted them. Between beats they lifted the drumsticks at certain angles, then their heads turned, then they hit the drums again. Apparently the movements of their drumsticks were as much a part of the choreography as the movements of their hands and feet. It looked as though nothing was accidental.

The drum majors — as many as four for some of the bands — would swing their batons in the air, thrusting them forcefully into the turf, and throw their bodies onto the ground, then bounce back up. They jumped. They grabbed hands and swung each other in arcs. The musicians were equally as dramatic. Instruments would be up and then down, swinging from side to side in time with the song.

At one point an entire band emphatically sat on the ground. They continued playing music while their legs were stretched out in front of them. I wondered how the horn players had the breath power to perform, but they did, and then they were up again, swirling in and out of huge shapes.

It was amazing. Maybelle danced and danced, and I had my mouth open in astonishment virtually the entire time. During the performance, Trey tweeted, "If someone ever invites you to go to a marching band competition, the answer is YES!"

Here's an interesting fact: Biffle, Maybelle, Trey, and I were among the only white people in the stadium. We weren't the only four white people there, but I'd be surprised if there were as many as four additional white folks, which is significant. The Westside has loads of white residents, but none of them showed up to find out what all the music was. Perhaps those of you who've been in South Carolina for a long time won't be surprised by that, but I was disappointed.

The Palmetto Invitational is a fundraiser by the Burke Band Booster Club for scholarships for Burke High School students. It seems like everybody in Charleston would be in favor of that sort of event. Not only is it incredible entertainment, but it's to support kids going to college. Yet I continue to be weirded out by how segregated Burke High School — and all the downtown public schools — are. If an event focuses on Burke, or Mitchell Elementary, or any of the public schools within easy walking distance of my house, almost everyone there will be African-American. Buist Academy, of course, is an exception. Its demographic swings the other way, although the school is far more racially diverse than other downtown schools.

Schools aren't the only segregated spaces here: restaurants, bars, music venues, and, of course, churches are divided by race. Even though the Lowcountry is a celebrated location in large part because of its multi-racial culture (do you think white people invented shrimp and grits?), white folks, by and large, stick with other white folks.

The segregation is so entrenched that it's an accepted part of the way things operate around here. My family hadn't seen the Palmetto Invitational until this year in part because we weren't the target market for advertising. Perhaps the folks in charge of the event have decided it isn't worth their time to tell their white neighbors to come out.

So let me say this to the readership of the Charleston City Paper: Step out of your familiar habits and try something new. Make the Palmetto Invitational, this week's MOJA Festival, and other African-American-themed events, a priority. It's not just a good thing for the community. You may discover that it's a fabulously good time.


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