Ben and I are on a plane tonight, in first class because we’re so fancy, coming home from the Golden Isles. We’ve been visiting my cousin and her sons for the past week, as they camped on Jekyll Island, just outside Brunswick. It was a concept that my cousin and I came up with when I realized Ben desperately needed to get out of NYC, and wasn’t going to have his usual access to summer camp to do so. We decided to fly down via Jacksonville, rent an AirBNB, and spend our week hanging out on the Georgia coast.
The Georgia coast, I should note, is incredibly beautiful. This was the Low Country, the marshes and coastal ecosystem that extended up into South Carolina and down into Florida. We would drive over the Jekyll Island causeway in the evening and I would catch my breath at the vista of marshes with the sparkling creeks running through them. Jekyll Island itself is only partially developed, and is crisscrossed with roads that run under overhanging trees, dripping with Spanish moss, linking the beaches and historic areas of the island. The island also has the petrified forest of Driftwood Beach, dozens of eerily beautiful trees left on the beach, dead from erosion and preserved in salt, that the boys climbed on for hours. It was a beautiful piece of the world that was surprisingly under-exploited.
There is something deeply romantic about the Southern American coastal towns, built as they are on swamps. The live oaks and Spanish moss, the secondary growth forests, the unique coastal landscapes of marsh and reclaimed land. It is so different than the clean salt air of the Pacific Northwest, and yet similar in the way the landscape is dripping with life. The moss hangs instead of carpeting the forest, and the trees grow outward instead of up, but it has that same timeless quality, a sense that the forests and the marshes will outwait the humans who try to settle and inhabit them.
This is why find it hard not to be charmed by the South at times. There is an eccentric note to the Southern cities, an emphasis on aesthetics over business in places like Savannah. It is like having an old aunt who tells the most marvelous stories while holding court in a perfectly preserved house. Coastal Georgia also holds tightly to their English heritage, looking to not just an antebellum heritage, but to the very origins of European colonization (I almost wrote “founders” and then changed that: it is so very ingrained in me to refer to Europeans as “founders” or the first people). I am also from a British colony, although one built much later in history, when More’s Utopia was a more distant memory, when the colonizers knew they sought exploitation and were no longer coating it in a layer of socialist vision.
This history is a fascinating narrative, until you start reading between the lines to what isn’t in the narrative: the people of color who are left out of that charming story altogether. Those preserved towns and squares were likely built by Black hands. Those beautiful buildings were paid for by cotton proceeds, profits stemming from stolen labour. The coastal marshes and fertile islands were taken out from under the indigenous tribes that shelled and ate the piles of oysters found on the islands. Considering what isn’t in the narrative of the South makes it much less charming.
This is why I find it hard to visit the South, because the narrative I hear when I go there is so skewed, with no interest or insight in creating a more inclusive story. We hear stories about Europeans who came to Georgia and the Carolinas, but we do not hear about how their existence was made possible by the unpaid labour and land that they took at the expense of other peoples. We see the marsh ecosystem but not a tribute to the native peoples who lived i it. We see plantation ruins but do not hear the multidimensional perspective of who built and ran it. In many places, even outside of the Northwest, this narrative is becoming more inclusive; even in Virginia, at places like Monticello, this one dimensional storytelling is changing. In Georgia though, especially out on the coast, I felt like there were voices I couldn’t hear. It was like hearing a single topnote poorly and loudly played on a piano, when I knew there should be a whole melody, a whole orchestra, to make the sound whole.
The reason I’m also writing this, as I parse through my own thoughts this week, is because I’m thinking about statues coming down right now throughout the South. I am thinking of the Confederacy story, how romanticized it is, how those losers are lionized. The accusation is that destroying statues erases history, and I think it is the reverse: keeping statues is what keeps history one-dimensional and keeps the stories that need telling completely invisible. With this perspective top of mind this trip, it was difficult to stop seeing the limited story the Georgia coast presents to the outside world, history that is so narrow as to be revisionist.