we are charleston

WE ARE CHARLESTON: An Essential Book

Herb Frazier, Bernard Edward Powers, and Marjory Wentworth give us a great gift. Their new book, We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel, offers readers a beautifully woven account of  overlapping histories. This readable book offers the racial history of Charleston and the South generally, the powerful and creative history of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the moving histories of the nine people killed at Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015.

This book should be required reading for all Americans. While it dives specifically into Charleston and South Carolina’s history, it recounts America’s national unfinished struggle with racial equality. We meet Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. We learn of his various struggles and joys. We come to know Denmark Vesey, the former slave and one of the founders of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. We also come to know the very geography of Charleston and how it affected its Black citizens. We learn of neighborhoods and churches, streets and parks, and the roles they played in Charleston’s history.

Easily the most moving sections of this book are those telling the life stories of the nine people killed in the church just over a year ago. We see them through the eyes of their friends and family members. They are shown as more than unlucky victims. They are people of faith, with friends, faults, and textures. Simply put, this book keeps their memories alive. It does this beautifully. The book does not engage in polemics or over-dramatization. The event of June 17, 2015 has all the sadness it needs. The authors write with restraint and with heart. While I hesitate to say the book is easy to read, it is very readable. Its stories will break your heart. But that breaking might be necessary.

Mother Emanuel came into being as a result of many historical moods and moments. One of its founders, Denmark Vesey, is a man I knew almost nothing about before reading this book. His place in American history matters. His place in the founding of Mother Emanuel– and his burning desire for justice that resulted in his execution– is a story Americans should know.

We Are Charleston navigates cycles of history smoothly. The clean and clear writing moves the reader among various events that span centuries. We learn a great deal of South Carolina’s Civil War history and how that history helped create the current situation in Charleston.

This book becomes most powerful as it links the stories from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the people who were killed in the church last year. We learn about mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. We learn of janitors, ministers, and state legislators. Their stories, their hopes, are recounted here respectfully and carefully.

Herb Frazier, Bernard Edward Powers, and Marjory Wentworth each bring their own skill and passion to make this book accessible and essential. Herb Frazier, a longtime South Carolina journalist, offers the newsman’s perspective. Bernard Powers, a history professor at the College of Charleston, brings a historian’s eye to this book. Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina’s Poet Laureate, brings the poet’s heart to this book. While group writing can be a difficult thing, these three thoughtful writers give us an unbroken voice. The book is moving, detailed, and insightful.

Many books are good. Few books are important. We Are Charleston is both.

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