Plantation Ghosts Past and Present

I was pretending to stay awake or fighting to wake up, but when I slightly opened my eyes, I realized I was in my bedroom from my teen years.

I was my age now, in my sixties, and my father was standing over me. The room was brightly lit; my father was in his late 30s—although he died about six years ago.

This was a very vivid dream the last night I was in Hilton Head recently. Although I was born in and lived my entire life in South Carolina, this was only my second trip to Hilton Head, the first time just a couple years before.

We were a Myrtle Beach family when I was growing up, and those vacations were usually off-season, in winter. For a while my maternal grandparents managed a hotel in Myrtle Beach (after doing so in Asheville); both places provided us cheaper ways to vacation like we could afford it.

You see, my parents were solidly working class in my childhood during the sixties—but decidedly middle-class aspirant.

My teens were spent in the 1970s at the house my parents built on the golf course just north of my home town. By then, they were middle-class adjacent, having bought the first lot as the course was being developed.

It took everything my parents had to buy the lot and then build the house. The house payment was less than $100 per month, and Mom always paid extra so they eventually paid off the house early, their way of proving they belonged in the middle class.

When I graduated high school, my father had just turned forty so I have a very powerful set of naive memories of him in his 20s and 30s, just before I was able to confront the realities of my parents as deeply flawed people.

That golf course—being members and living there—was incredibly important for my parents, materially and symbolically. But the private course was segregated, and I lived in a sort of hazy awareness that institutional racism was both an entrenched fact and really disturbing.

One club member had a wife who was Native American (we said “Indian” then); that was a whispered scandal every time he came to play a round alone with her simply walking the course beside him.

She had incredibly black straight hair, and members would stand in the club house pointing and mumbling among themselves as he and his wife walked along the fairway.

The larger scandal was the very dark Indian family who joined the club, a doctor who had come from India to earn his medical degree in the US and then settled in our small town to practice.

Those children were at the course pool where I worked one day. The board president drove by and went directly to the club pro to complain that Black people were at the pool (I feel certain he did not say “Black”).

By college and my early adulthood, I recognized the racism I had been raised in, both in my home and community. My parents were mostly passively matter-of-fact in their racism, but my father could spew pretty vile racist rhetoric when upset.

That dream while in Hilton Head was clinging to my naive memories of my young, fit, and smiling father—who I loved and who was mostly incredibly loving and supportive of me, although in his hard-ass 1950s sort of toxic male way that included being whipped with a belt as a child and wrestled to the ground or tossed across the room as a teen.

But that naive memory of him I still love—that smiled at me in the dream—wasn’t my father really or fully; that was only a ghost.

And a fitting dream in Hilton Head where plantation ghosts past and present haunt everything.

As I said, we were Myrtle Beach people, working-class rednecks who fully embraced the tackiness and crass commercialism of Myrtle Beach as the black eye of the SC Grand Strand that stood in stark contrast to the golf courses and coastal islands that run all down the coast and attract mostly very wealthy people not from the South.

During my family trips, we met dozens of people from Ohio and Canada, and my father—as was his way—spoke at length to everyone of them as if they had been friends forever. He did this with everyone, everywhere, regardless of who those people were or the color of their skin.

Eventually, my father’s gregariousness weighed on me against the man I knew at home.

At least Myrtle Beach was open about the shitty thing it has always been, I tend to feel, but Hilton Head, like Kiawah, takes on a disturbing pose of nature preservation to cloak the crass commercialism and obscene wealth.

Signage and lighting laws and dozens of notices asserting preserved land reinforce the narrative that Hilton Head, and other coastal islands, are very concerned about the sea turtles, the moss, and the trees.

Except for where they have carved out golf courses and the McDonald’s and Starbucks you can barely see through the moss in those trees allowed to stand between the highways and parking lots.

Although just before sunrise or at night, you can’t see a damn thing.

Because of the sea turtles, Hilton Head is very dark. But there is more than a little symbolism in that darkness since many of the areas and several of the establishments still carry the monicker “plantation.”

Governor DeSantis ain’t got nothing on the ability of the rich in SC to act as if nothing really happened here and to cling to our past like Emily clutching her dead lover’ corpse each night.

“Plantation” down here is somewhere between a “Bless your heart” and “Fuck you,” depending.

The drive from and to the Upstate takes about four hours, a grueling trek along I-95 and I-26, with some of the most stark poverty lining the pot-holed I-95.

At least the tourists can drive 70-80 miles an hour and keep their eyes focused on the crumbling roads, lest they catch a glimpse of the squalor between their luxurious homes and the vacation plantation of their dreams.

During the drive home, I could not shake the dream of my father, and once back home, the shower didn’t ease the feeling that I was very dirty having visited for a few days that island punctuated repeatedly with “plantation,” indelibly so.

Plantation ghosts invade the skin, burrow into your bones, seer into your eyes.

Well, if you allow yourself to feel the weight of that past—and the present.

Not feeling, not thinking, and not giving a good goddamn are special talents among many in the South.

That’s one way to get filthy rich.

That’s one way to get elected.

I do not hold any sort of false pride about living in the Upstate and not among those island ghosts because we have plantations up here also, places marketing for tourists as well.

But I was very happy to return to the soil of my working-class roots, where we have garish signs and so much lighting you can see everything—except what you choose to ignore.