Barbecue and History
I have been told that they cook the best barbecue in South Carolina. I have been told that many black folks wait until quite late at night, drive deep into the parking lot, move quickly and furtively into the joint—their black jackets and black clothes making them shadows in the dimly lit lot—and they will order the best barbecue in the South, get back into the cars, and hope no one sees them driving out of the lot…
My otherwise liberal white friends, will sometimes guiltily explain to me that the barbecue is really quite good, and they have tried a lot of barbecue joints and they would rate this barbecue as the best in the world—tart for its mustard-base, very delicately seasoned, never too greasy, but decadent enough to make them feel as if they have arrived in the depth of the South. The staff, they vouch, is always polite. I have no reason to doubt them. They know their barbecue and they have no reason to lie to me. They say all this as a way of explaining why they have to eat barbecue in a restaurant that has defiantly flown the confederate flag over its roof…
Several years ago, in the heat of the great debate and controversy surrounding South Carolina’s dogged devotion to the confederate flag demonstrated in the flying of the flag over the state legislative building, Maurice Bessinger, the owner of a chain of “gourmet barbecue” restaurants across the state named Maurice’s Gourmet Barbecue Restaurant, was quite outspoken in his view that the flag was an honorable flag and a necessary tribute to the men who fought during the confederate war on the side of the confederacy. He went even further. He had the flag fly over every one of his restaurants. The flag was removed from the top of the State Capitol and placed on a flag pole right in front of the building. Where few could see the striking colors of the flag before, now it is quite visible for anyone passing by. This, though, was the compromise.
Bessinger, however, decided to fly his flag high over the restaurants. He was willing to risk losing customers for this principled stand.
Going to Maurice’s became a way for people to state that they, too, believed in the dignity of the flag, its importance to the state and to its people. Others went to Maurice’s because they wanted to stay above the fray, wanted to show that it did not matter to them either way and that by going there, they were showing that they were above the fray.
Perhaps, Maurice’s suffered some loss of business as a result of this defiance, but I recently noticed a change in his display at the restaurant on Clemson Road, just off the I-20. He now has several flags flying, one above the other over the restaurant. At the top is the flag of the United States of America; below that, the flag of South Carolina with its palmetto; below that is the confederate flag, and below that is the Union Jack—the flag of the Great Britain.
I pass this display everyday, and I have started to imagine what the owner of the store is trying to do. In a profound act of cynicism, the owner is suggesting that the entire issue has always been about displaying a historical representation of South Carolina. Now, with the four flags, he is enacting the entire history of the state. These are all the flags that have flown over the state with some authority and legitimacy. The offensive confederate flag is placed among all the other flags representing the history of the state.
I have wanted to write a poem about this. But I can’t. It is impossible for me to engage this level of public cynicism and defiance in poetry. Sometimes one does not want to expend so much time and energy on matters that seem trivial in the larger scheme of things. There are poems that should be written though—poems that grow out of the public realities of living in this state. Just yesterday, Al Sharpton was on television, standing in an overgrown field, staring down at the unmarked gravestones of his ancestors—a slave graveyard, they said. And there was a quality of sadness in the moment, and a peculiar sense of awe and surprise in Al Sharpton. It is hard for me to believe that Sharpton had never been to this graveyard before. That he had not sought out the narratives of his past, his history. But then again, it is not a surprise. Sometimes that past can drive us crazy, it can make us feel doubly helpless because there is nothing we can do about it, and because our ancestors themselves could do nothing about it.
Sharpton has re-discovered something tough and beautiful about this state. It is that the history of the state is constantly present, that the bloodlines go so far back here, twisting and turning, overlapping and intertwining in a complex of compromises, coercions and accommodations, making strangers relatives, making a name bear the weight of multiple narratives. I call this beautiful because there is something important about the fact that still present in the memory of people and in the secrets kept for so long is the evidence of a presence that goes back a long way for so many people. As painful as the past may be, there is something valuable about locating it, coming to terms with it, and at least being reminded of the fuller picture of that history.
When I first moved to South Carolina, I saw people walking around, talking to each other, laughing politely, living, black and white, all in the same space, all with a clear understanding of the many generations of their families that have lived in this small area of their county, their district, their neighborhood. And I wondered what these people were to each other. I wondered if they remembered the past, if they remembered the faces. I wondered if the black people had forgotten the resistance of whites to desegregation, the jobs they lost, the violent attitudes that they had to cope with as things started to change. So I asked questions, I collected the stories of old folks. The poems in my book Wisteria, Twilight Songs from the Swamp Country come out of those stories, and even as they are painful, they are also a celebration of memory. Those poems, and the poems of poets I admire like Nikky Finney, Elizabeth Alexander, Lorna Goodison and Martin Espada, to name just two, are engaged in this business of resisting the erasure of the bodies, imaginations, intelligences and emotions of black and brown people from the memory of the past. In Sumter, twelve years ago, learned something about memory, about the fact that people really have not forgotten, the fact that the present is still colored by the past.
It is probably true that those who have placed the flag over Maurice’s make the best barbecue in the state. Perhaps Maurice Bessinger, too, has not forgotten the world that existed forty years ago, when people knew their place, when the old boy network was not a bad thing but a thing of honor, when there was no need to fly the confederate flag over a barbecue joint because the world was organized around the principles of the confederacy. This is why those flags flying over the restaurant that I pass everyday continue to fascinate me, continue to make me ruminate about the meaning of history and the meaning of the present.
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...