I flew from Oakland, CA to Charleston, S.C. last week for YALLFEST, two days after the presidential election. Having never visited South Carolina, I’m not sure what I expected. Was I leaving my bubble or was I entering someone else’s? The answer was both yes and yes, but in a way, the unknown was just what I needed. Because I want to understand what I can’t possibly know and I also want desperately to hold on to my faith that most people–most of the time–are doing the best that they can.
The morning after I arrived, I discovered that the hotel I was staying in was located directly across the street from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, which is where Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black parishioners during a prayer service last year in the hopes of starting a race war. The kind woman who picked me up to drive me to the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science informed me of this. She quickly added that Roof was from out of town, that Charleston didn’t have problems like that.
(The school visit was wonderful, by the way. The middle and high school students were funny and astute, and they were brilliantly passionate about stories and psychology, which made for great discussion.)
While I’m not all that familiar with Charleston’s problems, I do know the Bay Area’s, which has seen the likes of Jim Jones, Dan White, Brock Turner, the Oikos University shooting, and the murder of Oscar Grant–just to scratch the surface. Yes, we have our problems, but we are fundamentally good people.That’s what I’ve always believed, although I watched a bit of that goodness fade last Wednesday, when my youngest child came home from school and asked if being part Mexican meant we’d have to move to Mexico and leave his daddy behind. Like Roof, the danger may have originated somewhere external, but our community, all of our communities, are still the ones who must reckon with it.
Fortunately, both the writing community and Charleston rose to this challenge last weekend; YALLFEST was a wonderful event during a difficult time, filled with throngs of authors and readers and tireless volunteers, all buoyed by a collective sense of purpose and humility, of the realization that our whole is so much more than the sum of our parts. Even in our grief and despair and our anger, it was an affirmation that yes, we are all doing our best.
And yes, we must do far better still.