Friday, 24 February 2012

America Who?

If the long ride from Richmond to the St. Stephen Motel in South Carolina showed us what the current South is all about (or at least aspects of it), Charleston and Savannah showed us what the old South was about.

Covered in gorgeous colonial homes and elaborate old cemeteries, these two cities are both breathtakingly beautiful and also morally ambiguous. They are at once odes to a glorious ante-bellum past and places that have no way to explain away the realities that underlay that culture—slavery.

Plaques all around the city discuss the wealthy owners of these homes, but only allude to the many slaves responsible for maintaining them. The signs present the realities of the pre-war past as fact, but use no subjective language to actually describe it. In Charleston, for example, we visited the Old Slave Mart, a museum explaining the domestic slave trade that once took place in that building in Charleston. The exhibit presented the fact that white people bought black people from “traders” to work as slaves in their fields or homes—a process that involved the inspecting and auctioning of human beings—but they never quite relate this experience to the beautiful homes that the people on horse-and-buggy tours of historic Charleston were taking pictures of right outside.

The Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, SC. 
Savannah, similarly—one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen—simply exudes old, Southern charm. Cobblestones pave the streets, Spanish moss hangs from the trees, and vast homes with double-decker balconies surround the several park-like squares that comprise the city (James Oglethorpe himself came up with the design when he landed in Georgia in 1733).

An old home in Savannah, GA. 
But, like Charleston, it felt like a place that was living in the past—a past that is neither straightforward nor easy to make sense of. The cemeteries that surround these cities each have large monuments to the Confederate soldiers that died in the Civil War—and, of course, innocent, young lives should be commemorated regardless of who or what they were fighting for. But plaques on some of these graves that mention a “lost” or “noble” cause, or the soldiers who “lie in distant graves around their Northern prisons” again muddy the issue. (We later visited Andersonville prison—a prison for Union soldiers in Georgia—and I assure you the accommodations were no more hospitable.)

America is currently, supposedly, a united country, but the question of what we are celebrating and who, exactly, we are commemorating is still very much unclear.

While Charleston and Savannah were both cities grappling with the past, however, our accommodations for those nights were anything but traditional. In Charleston, we stayed at the Not-So-Hostel—true to its name, an alternative hostel that offers travelers a space to camp in the backyard for ten dollars, but still use the house's amenities. In Savannah, we tried “couch surfing” for the first time with a spunky girl from Kansas who amazed us with her welcome of complete strangers. Other than the two large dogs we had to compete with for space in the living room, it was a great experience that we are definitely hoping to try again.

The kitchen in the Not-So-Hostel (Charleston)

Ricky with Petunia, one of our neighbors while couchsurfing. 
While at the Not-So-Hostel, we met a group of 24 teachers from developing countries around the world who were on an American-sponsored program to help bring our methods of teaching back to their countries. Given our journalistic instincts, Ricky and I couldn’t help but ask them all sorts of questions about their impressions.

“In my country,” said VJ, a native of Goa, India, “We have rules, but they are not followed. Here, everybody stands in line and does what they are told.”

His impressions of America as a law-abiding, docile place might be true to some extent, but it came as a particularly interesting revelation in light of a weeks-worth of learning about the extreme violence that resulted from a country that was anything but well-behaved.

Another teacher from Ghana mentioned that he expected Americans to be snobbish, but they were in fact quite nice. (I wanted to point him to New York or LA in order to provide counter-examples, but I decided against it.)

The point is, though, that while I may ask these questions to foreigners expecting to get some kind of single-sentence response, I myself don’t know where to begin on my impressions of America. America is a highly complex country that cannot be adequately described or explained in one or two sentences. In just the East Coast leg of our trip (the first week out of sixteen), Ricky and I have encountered several types of Americans, most of whom have little in common with one another. We have moved from cars with Obama bumper stickers to motels with “marriage=man + woman” signs; from “Go Green” license plates to gas-guzzling pick-up trucks and storefronts with signs ensuring customers that they’re “American-owned.”

We have encountered several Americans, and more precisely, several Americas. And it’s only just the beginning. We have several more Americas to seek and discover.


  1. Interesting post. Why do we bring those teachers over here.. all our kids have ADHD and our classes too big. We obsess over testing, but we score pretty unimpressively compared to other developed nations. Oh well, at least they will learn how to use a ruler as a disciplinary tool.
    I'm road tripping to VA and the Carolinas in 2 weeks so this got me excited. Love the updates, keep em coming!
    (P.S.- Ricky did you think about the movie we saw in Montclair, CSA?)

  2. Definitely thought of CSA - it was all pretty weird. Traveling around the South really makes you realize it was a real war, and could have gone either way. That's gonna be a great trip, are you going to the Outer Banks? Hope all's well.