Legacies When There Is No Option to Forget: How My Family Shares Our Stories of Survival
“I felt as though I’d been inducted into a special society of survivors.”
One pale, humid summer evening, the kind that threatens to suffocate you in damp air, my friend Mary and two of her coworkers dropped by my house for a glass of wine. Mary and I have been friends since we were awkward, gangly teenagers at a summer arts camp, twenty-odd years ago. She now works for a nonprofit/academic hybrid that chronicles Black American history—often Black history in Charleston, where we live.
As Mary and her colleagues collect and record history, they experience a kind of storytelling that most people of our generation don’t get to hear and—perhaps because of the distance between the lives and experiences and real-time emotions of that era and ours—cannot fully understand. The young historians smiled wryly and shook their heads as Mary launched into her comedic impersonation mode, sharing a conversation they’d had during a recent site visit. To me, her impersonation seemed fairly true to the irreverent tone and voice in which certain Civil Rights-era remembrances are often recounted in relaxed, trusted company.
“This man was like—” Mary assumed a loud, raspy timbre— “‘Yeah! Remember that time the Klan was chasin’ us, and we thought we was gon’ die, so we hid in them nasty-ass trash cans for three hours to make sure they gone?’ And then,” she went on in her usual voice, “they all start cracking up despite the fact that it really is a horrific story, but they end it like—” Back into impersonation mode, she slapped her knee and emitted old-man laughter— “‘Hooo-eeee! That was a trip! Then we went to the bowlin’ alley and got tore up, and Jim bowled a perfect game!’”
When I think back on that story, I can imagine how Mary’s retelling might make some people—and here I’m especially thinking of a certain kind of white liberal “ally”—cringe. There’s the mention of a white supremacist group in a tone that isn’t hushed or tearful. There’s the fact that my white friend was impersonating a Black man’s voice. But this is just how stories of the Civil Rights era are remembered and told by many of its survivors: with a mysterious mixture of gravity, humor, and amazement that they survived it all.
Something in that unabashed laughter, heard and recreated by my friend, makes you wonder how it was possible to live every day facing such widespread, systemic oppression from the Ku Klux Klan and groups like it. The memories must be bitter, and the cruelty that created them is revolting. But laughter and camaraderie like the kind my friend Mary relayed to us can make even stories in which the KKK played a part seem more bearable when there is no option to forget.
It made me think of the storytelling swaps that would ensue after my parents and their friends had had a couple of rounds of drinks at a party. When I was little, we lived in a sprawling, upside-down gray house built slightly into a hill. After being tucked into bed downstairs, I would always wind up tiptoeing halfway back up the stairs, where the kitchen, den, and formal rooms were, lifting my eyes and ears to catch snippets of these memories-turned-storytelling slams.
I remember feeling enraptured by the strange mixture of drama, pantomime, and stand-up comedy the grown-ups used to memorialize and make sense of a time full of wild contradictions. On the one hand, they had been young, wild, and free—full of that feeling of having the world to do with as they pleased. But those were just feelings of the young, and for the young and Black those feelings were tempered by the reality of racist oppression.
The people sharing their stories before the fireplace in my parents’ living room hadn’t only survived that era of persecution—they’d created their own successes, carved some joy and fun out of their lives, in spite of it. Of course, not all the memories—the beatings, the lynchings, the massacres—could be soothed with a salve of defiant humor. But their raucous and personal remembrance of a harrowing time seems specific to a certain generation of Black Americans, and for this reason, I’ve always had an inherent understanding of it as special.
In July, I corresponded with local police after some known Ku Klux Klan members posted some disturbing things on my public Facebook author page. It was a year after the Confederate flag had been removed from the grounds of the South Carolina State House, and I’d posted an essay I’d written in the days leading up to the legislative proceedings. When the essay was fresh, it went semi-viral, at least for my standards. The response was overwhelmingly positive; I received only a few negative messages, one from a troll who said I was being a baby and should get over myself.
One year later, it was a different story. I shared a link to the piece along with an update lamenting the lack of progress made since the Confederate flag was taken down, and the fact that the voices of those who opposed the flag’s removal and sought to “protect” it as some sort of sacred historic symbol seemed to have increased in both quantity and decibel level since then. I clicked “ Post, ” then went outside to help my kids with their lemonade stand.
When I checked my page later that evening, I was shocked to see the vehement arguments in the comments. After I saw posts defending the Confederacy, I decided not to read anymore. Later, I received a message from a friend letting me know that someone had posted a photograph of a hooded KKK member waving a Confederate flag on my page. She’d already alerted Facebook and tagged the State Law Enforcement Division, and the photo was promptly removed. I reached out to a police officer we know in town, who set up a watch for our house.
I decided not to tell my parents about it. I wanted to protect them from the knowledge that KKK scare tactics were still in effect five decades after they and their peers had suffered unimaginably while fighting against such hatred. I also didn’t want to deal with the possibility of Mom or Dad telling me I shouldn’t attend a writing conference in Charlottesville the next day: I was driving up by myself, and I was sure they would consider this unsafe after I’d attracted the attention of the Klan.
Shortly after setting out for the conference the next morning, I had to pull over to read another message from my friend. A couple of the men posting on my Facebook page were apparently known Klan members, and she wanted me to be aware. I took some deep breaths, called to make sure my house was still under watch, and then continued on for the next four to five hours, through North and South Carolina. Due to weather and ensuing traffic backups, I was rerouted along a tedious albeit picturesque route on U.S. 29 as I entered Virginia. At least I’m in for a pleasant drive, I thought.
Eventually I realized I needed to make a pit stop. But the first gas station I saw had a tall white pole with a Confederate flag lazily waving at the top, with several yard signs supporting Donald Trump for President arranged in a neat ring around the bottom of the pole. My arms stiffened and my hands gripped the steering wheel. To my eyes, it didn’t register as a simple show of support for a presidential candidate. This was a shrine to white supremacy.
Keep driving, Shani, I thought. Something else will come along.
As I drove, I thought about the stories my parents used to tell about taking road trips in the 1950s. Mom was raised in rural Mississippi and Dad in Selma, Alabama. In order to visit family and friends and stay safe on the road, they’d meticulously plot out stops along the way—even bathroom breaks—according to where they had connections. There was no stopping at public rest areas or using gas station bathrooms, especially when it was still common for a person to be arrested, attacked, or lynched for no reason other than being dark and being alive. I cursed under my breath in disbelief that the fear and uncertainty I felt now was something akin to what my parents had known decades ago, driving through the South with a trunkful of pre-packed lunches and dinners because they weren’t allowed to enter so many roadside restaurants.
I saw a parade of Trump signs and Confederate flags all the way to Charlottesville, and with them my anxiety over what might happen if I had to get out of my car increased. The region seemed to be filled with people who had (at best) put their hope in a man with a history of dismissing the basic humanity of immigrants and people of color, or were (at worst) helping to fuel a campaign attempting to make such sentiments mainstream again. So I went on and on, until I reached Albemarle County. Only then did the stiffness in my arms and shoulders began to relax.
After returning from the conference a few days later, I spoke to my parents on the phone. Sipping my glass of wine and looking out at my unusually quiet neighborhood through the window, I decided to tell them everything that had happened over the past week.
To my great surprise, they both started howling with laughter.
“Do you remember the story about Ted and Nancy in Racine, Wisconsin?” Dad asked, referring to an interracial couple they’d been close friends with during the 1970s and ’80s. “They would go out to buy property and no one would sell it to them. Finally they got his dad to buy some property and turn it over to them.”
I could hear Mom giggling away again in the background, but I still couldn’t see what was so funny about this story. Dad continued, “Ted had been out partying and doing whatever Ted used to do. He’d been gone for two nights and had not been home.”
“He was so bad!” Mom clucked.
“Ted had been very active in civil rights stuff, you see. And so some folks called, and according to Nancy, they said, ‘This is the Ku Klux Klan and you tell that Black husband of yours that as soon as we find him we are going to kill him.’ And she said, quote—‘Not if I get him first! He’ll be dead before you get to him!’ They never heard from those people again,” Dad said between chuckles.
I remembered the story now, and I started hooting in laughter, too.
“Do you remember when the bank had our picture in their newspaper ad after we bought the house on Hoods Creek?” Mom added. “They were pissed about that!”
“That’s right.” Dad recalled the story of the nasty letters that had shown up, telling my parents to get out of town. It was in the late 1970s, back in Wisconsin. “I didn’t even think to call the police about it until a day or so later, and then they were perturbed because I’d thrown the letters away!”
More laughter from my parents. And this time, it didn’t surprise me. I felt as though I’d been inducted into some special society of survivors, veterans who could tell stories about things that never should have happened.
There’s a large generational gap between my parents and me. I’d always found the stories they shared with their friends to be special, yet somehow removed from my own life and experiences. But now our stories seemed to exist on a similar plane.
We’ve all caught a glimpse of—or lived in—places where hate lies and festers and lashes out in the sneakiest ways. It is frightening. It is extremely dangerous. Sometimes, the best defense is just to share the stories, and find a way to laugh.