Pat Conroy Literary Center: Poets Respond to Race

From The Island Packet Column and photo by David Lauderdale Can We Talk About Race? Poets talk about race Barbara Hood Laurie of Beaufort brought a student newspaper of 1971 to the Poets Respond to Race reading and community discussion on Feb. 20, 2017, at Grace Chapel AME Church in Beaufort. It was the first public program of the year for the new Pat Conroy Literary Center. Somehow, I knew we’d end up holding hands. For 90 minutes, we had been comfortable on our red pew cushions in the Grace Chapel AME Church in Beaufort — listening to some uncomfortable words. This gathering was about race, told through the taut words of poetry. And it was about Pat Conroy, who would have appreciated any afflicting of the comfortable that took place. It was the first event of the year for the new Pat Conroy Literary Center down the street. Poetry was chosen because poetry made the rivers of words flow from Conroy, who died almost a year ago. Race was chosen because Conroy was a champion for racial equality. His adulthood began just as institutional segregation began squealing to a stop like a rusty locomotive. Poets Al Black of Columbia and Bamberg native Len Lawson led the event, as they have done in similar “Poets Respond to Race” gatherings around the region. They wanted to stir up a conversation “people don’t usually have in mixed company.” One after another, seven poets read words crafted to cut sharp and deep. Al Black’s “bones of souls that line the ocean floor” jerked our comfortable minds to the middle passage of the slave trade. The words of University of South Carolina Beaufort professor Ellen Malphrus took us into the custodian’s closet downstairs at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. She wrote of the mop that would soak up the blood when nine people were killed in a racially motivated massacre almost two years ago. Quitman Marshall of Beaufort told of this high school classmate, the late Lee Atwater, who exploited racial divides in his political strategies. Susan Madison of St. Helena Island wrote of a history that “both haunts us and emboldens us.” Marcus Amaker, Charleston’s first poet laureate, said we use language to divide us — words like Democrat, Republican, tall, short. He wondered who decided to call us black and white, when he looks down and sees brown. “I am not black or white,” he said. “I am awake.” State poet laureate Marjory Wentworth of Mount Pleasant read “One River, One Boat.” She wrote it for the 2015 governor’s inauguration but it tackled the Confederate flag, and she was told there was not enough time at that long ceremony for her to read it. Wentworth was called on to write a poem about the Emanuel 9 two days after it happened, and to do it in a day. She fashioned it as a prayer called “Holy City” and called on the words of the slain pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney of Ridgeland: “Only love can conquer hate.” An Englishman choked up when he stood to tell about losing his wife, overcoming cancer, and searching around town for a church when he was welcomed with open arms at Grace Chapel AME. It’s not a place where white people usually go. But they did on this night. And they heard Barbara Hood Laurie praise the poets for their ability to clearly articulate “feelings we all have had.” She said she was a high school senior when integration was forced on Beaufort, and three high schools were merged in 1971. She was angry at missing her long-anticipated senior year at Robert Smalls High. She brought a student newspaper from 1971 that her mother had saved because it had a story in it about Conroy being fired from his job teaching on Daufuskie Island. “This is 1971, but so many things are still the same,” she said. But to her, the poets offered a release valve and a way to healing. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Jeannine Smalls, said her granddaughter had been traumatized by the Emanuel 9 shootings. She feared white people would come to shoot black people. “Our grandchildren need to see us mingling together,” Smalls said. Poet Al Black said 400 years of purposeful, institutionalized racism has only one antidote. “We need to desegregate our living room couches and backyard barbecues,” he said. “You’ve got to invite them. The only way to do this is purposeful action.” Someone called for a photograph to be taken of the integrated crowd in a “black” church. Then we held hands.