When you’re out and about in Charleston, S.C., almost everyone assumes you are not from here or that you do not have ancestral ties to the land. In any place such an assumption is made, that place’s culture is critically endangered.
In the Lowcountry, there’s the proposed extension of I-526, which promises to raise property taxes in areas west of Downtown Charleston and displace hundreds more land-owning, low income native people.
There’s the local real estate industry, which continues to profit off of the displacement of our native population.
There’s the government of Mayor Joe Riley – a government that has not protested the displacement of our people, and in fact seems to have encouraged and relished it. No candidate for the upcoming mayoral election is running on a platform that would reverse this approach.
Gullah, the Charleston Brogue, and Lowcountry Drawls have retreated from the streets and into houses and minds as people fear mockery over speaking their native tongues in their homeland. And aside from mockery and linguistic discrimination in employment, there’s the issue of confusion – if you speak Gullah, many people will assume you are Jamaican or a West Indian of some sort. If you speak with a Charleston Brogue, many people will assume you are a Scot or Ulsterman. If you speak in a Lowcountry Drawl, many people will assume you are a tourist from Virginia or North Carolina.
When this kind of linguistic displacement happens in Catalonia, Brittany, or Scotland it is deemed a tragedy. When it happens to South Carolinians, it is looked on with nonchalance by the outside world.
In downtown Charleston, there are campaigns well underway to attract wealthy Northerners and transform areas into centers of high-income housing under the guise of ‘”protecting architectural traditions” and “urban renewal.” The greedy county government reassesses the tax values on these properties upon inheritance and virtually assures those without high incomes cannot afford to keep them. Real estate agents try to harass native residents into selling their properties.
This “urban renewal” is simply a euphemism for “displacing low-income natives with moneyed outsiders.” Nothing is being renewed or revitalized – only replaced by something else from the outside. Poor Southerners are kicked to the curb.
Beautiful expanses of live oaks and other native foliage west of the Ashley River have been cut down to make way for the advance of ecologically irresponsible, low-density suburban housing and industrial buildings. Even the forest of the globally-renowned Angel Oak of Johns Island is threatened by this development as industrial buildings begin to encroach on the expanse of forest surrounding the park it calls home.
Mount Pleasant’s population continues to grow – more than doubling in size in the last 20 years – spawning more urban sprawl east of the Cooper River and onto the Cainhoy Peninsula. Expanses of Southern Yellow Pine become expanses of McMansions.
North of Charleston, look at the land around lakes Marion and Moultrie. It’s the same thing. On the edge of the Coastal Plain in Aiken and Florence, similar trends march on. Down in Beaufort County, the population of Bluffton has grown by over 800 percent in the last fifteen years.
From the Fall Line to the coast this is happening to us.
Look out on the Sea Islands again, where property taxes have skyrocketed in the last two decades and forced many natives off the land their ancestors have occupied for centuries. These rising rates are part of a deliberate effort – not unlike that in Downtown Charleston – to displace the native, predominately Gullah inhabitants of these islands with the wealthy Northern migrants purported to “stimulate the economy” and “enrich the state.” The supporters of these property tax act with nonchalance when confronted with the fact they are playing a role in displacing one of the South’s great cultures.
Rising property taxes also render native small farms uncompetitive. What happens to these farms once they’ve shut down? They become the site of more suburban housing serviced by new and widened highways. Farms are America’s greatest strategic asset: We still have a say on the global trade market because we feed the world. Destroying Lowcountry farmland and swallowing up federal infrastructure money that could be used to help develop an advanced irrigation system for the parched and endangered grain lands up North isn’t exactly going to help us in that regard.
It is robbery and cultural destruction masked with cheap lipstick.
This is happening all across the South. Look at the plight of the native inhabitants of the Atlanta area, the Cajuns in Acadiana, the Louisiana Creoles, the native inhabitants of Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, the Texas Germans of Central Texas, the Isleños of Southeastern Louisiana, the native inhabitants of West Texas, the native inhabitants of Florida, and countless others. Southern culture and the South’s peoples are under siege. It’s as simple as that.
It is time we stop looking on with horror. We must make a stand. We must remind the world that we have an same right to exist as do the Bretons, Tibetans, Scots, Frisians, Basque, Catalonians – and all the other peoples activists cite as victims of cultural displacement do. This isn’t about one’s position on the political spectrum – right-wing, centrist, or left-wing. This is about protecting the land our ancestors have called home for centuries (and for many of us, pre-Columbian times) and its culture.
We must stand together with adamancy and see we are not swept into the ashcan of history.
It’s time we recognize there’s a place for a green, civil, and compassionate South Carolina Coastal Plain and Southern patriotism that is not xenophobic, backwards, isolationist, or driven by Neo-Confederate and racialist bigotry. Conservative, Centrist, Liberal- White, Black, Mixed- Rich, Middle Class, Poor- we can win if we recognize our brotherhood and come together. We are all children of the same land. Only we can hold ourselves back.
This isn’t a xenophobic or separatist position – the belief in the right to displace anyone else is born out of xenophobia. It would be xenophobic if we called those displacing us something other than people, and made accusations against their character outside of displacement. They’re not lesser than us, and we have no right to displace them, just as they have no right to displace us. I am not calling for some sort of backward thinking – we need to be a worldly, civil, compassionate, and respectful, yet culturally proud and respected people like any other.
We are not just a set for a reality show about a bunch of people running around doing nothing of value. We’re not just the subjects of gubernatorial or presidential campaign “jobs, jobs, jobs” sound bites for factory jobs that often don’t even go to us. We’re not just “America’s next top tourist destination.” We’re not just the “hot new place for hipsters” or unjustly stylish center for “urban renewal.”
We are a legitimate integral constituent people of the United States, like any other – like our rice-eating Southern brothers and sisters in the Louisiana Creoles and Cajuns, like our Antillean countrymen in the Puerto Rico, like our Northern countrymen in areas of the Dakotas that have spoken the German language for centuries. It’s time we ask to be respected.
This will take a lot of effort.
To begin with, we need legislators and local executives (across the political spectrum and of all different party affiliations) not beholden to infrastructure and construction companies that profit off of government contracts or the real estate industry that profits off our displacement through shortened suburban commuter times these infrastructure developments bring, “urban renewal” initiatives, and an absurd property tax system that targets the land-owning poor. Aside from electoral efforts, we need to educate the public. We need to lift the stigmas against us and allow people to have pride in who they are. We need to restore our dialects to the airwaves and stop drilling them out of our children.
In conclusion – we must be adamant, but civil and without contempt. There is no cognitive dissonance in this – after all, one can be extremely apathetic and crass. Remember – we can only fail through inaction of our own.