This Little Light of Mine
By Carly Berlin
I have visited Charleston, S.C., every year of my life.
I mean that: I was conceived on Isle of Palms during a rainy August week in 1995. Charleston is where I have consumed countless Shirley Temples with my cousins, listening to the lunchtime band play Jimmy Buffett covers on a steel drum; it is where I have brought stacks of books from home, trading in my Judy Blume for Nicholas Sparks for Ernest Hemingway as I grew; it is where I found watermarks leftover from Hugo, waist high, in my grandmother’s house on Bull Street, after she refused to heed the evacuation warnings. Charleston has seen me grow up. It is the closest thing to a second home I have.
This week, as we prepared for our annual trip, a 21-year-old white man sat down at an evening bible study in the Emanuel A.M.E. Church — “Mother Emanuel” — in downtown Charleston. After an hour, he opened fire. He murdered nine people.
This weekend, as my family and I passed through Lexington, S.C., I thought about Dylann Roof driving this same stretch of road, in his car with its Confederate-flag license plate, seething with a malice so deeply rooted I cannot fathom it.
On Saturday night, my mother and my aunt and I went to Mother Emanuel. Past the police blockade on Calhoun, there were hundreds of people, black people and white people, all kinds of people, all singing together. I listened to gospel songs sung from the depths of souls. I sang along to “This Little Light of Mine,” glad for my contribution to this night, however small.
When my mother and her siblings grew up in Charleston, they lived in a multiracial neighborhood. My mother remembers walking home alone from elementary school and stopping at Mr. Lee’s corner grocery — Mr. Lee, she later learned, was half Asian and half black — and never learning to be frightened of the people who looked different from her. My mother’s parents, Polish immigrants and survivors of the Holocaust, knew enough of hate not to teach it to their children. Their new American lives were, by any standards, peaceful. Charleston High School was first integrated when my mother’s brother, six years her senior, attended; by the time my mother entered, the school was two-thirds black.
As we left the crowd in front of Mother Emanuel on Saturday, we complimented two young black women on the shirts they wore: Each said #pray4charleston. They hugged us and thanked us for coming tonight. My mother cried as we walked away, as she did on Thursday morning, when she first heard of the attack in her home city. My aunt said that we’ll always remember being here. I hope I do.
Later, we walked down to the water, as we will many times this week. We quietly noted the heat lightning and the alligator resting beside the pond. We sat in the dark and lamented the humidity, futilely.
This is the vacation we await every year. This time, it is different. As I sit here amid a mass of Lily Pulitzer pillows in our rented house, the overhead fan blowing so tirelessly I worry it may fall from the ceiling, a new novel at my bedside, I wonder if I’ll be able to relax this time around. I want to go back to Mother Emanuel, to sit on its front steps and to try to imagine what propelled a man only two years older than I am to sit among good, kind people for an hour as they prayed and studied — and then kill them. And how, a day later, the families of those killed can proclaim forgiveness.
My uncle, a lifetime resident of Charleston, said that the city is sitting shiva this week: the traditional Jewish practice of joining together to help alleviate the pain of grief.
If Dylann Roof wanted his action to commence a war of races, it seems to me, on this night in Charleston, that he has failed. He has allowed the unity of this city to showcase itself.
Julianne Hill is a born-and-bred Clevelander who now lives in Chicago. But in 1985, she married into a Georgia family. Her essay is a deep and beautiful account of how the pines and rivers of Georgia helped her put things back in place as the family's heart was broken — and then broken again.
Herpreet Singh married into a Louisiana family. On the morning of the wedding, her father-in-law-to-be said the following: “All those people better not show up at our house with dots on their heads.” What exactly does one do when one marries into a Southern family made up of basically nice, good people who haven’t quite figured out multiculturalism? This story is modern Southern folklore at its finest.
Good parents try to be understanding and accepting of their children’s choices. That’s exactly what Scott Gould did when his daughter decided to take a job as a “shot girl” at a sports bar — a job that involves dressing “sexy not slutty” and selling alcoholic gutbombs with names like the Leg Spreader, the Dry Hump and the One-Night Stand. This is a hilarious story about navigating the obstacles of parenting while getting bad advice from a next-door neighbor with a pat raccoon named Buckshot.