Archive | December, 2011

Bury Him

3 Dec

If you’ve never been to Charleston, do yourself a favor.

Charleston is one of those perfect-sized cities, with history that stretches back hundreds of years (and further, if you count the prehistoric inhabitants). Situated on the cape of South Carolina, this bejeweled little metropolis will enchant you. You can stare out over the harbor, and the Atlantic, and almost hear the hallow crack of the cannon fire that kicked off the Civil War.

Certainly my enchantment with Charleston is not a simple enchantment. Like any good romance, my love for Charleston is complex. Because, for example, wedged between two beautiful Georgian townhouses in the city you might find an oddity like an old slave market.

One of them is preserved, so you can literally stand in a little store where slaves were auctioned off. It’s dark, and the floors and walls are covered in mahogany. The place exudes desperation, and the terror and abject depravity of its past. The souls of the African men, women and children have left their mark in the grains of wood.

Not far from here you’ll find an old church, which we visited around midnight. It was so hot, you didn’t bother trying to stay cool. It was, to my mind, akin to jumping into a swimming pool with your clothes on. And something about that unhinges the mind, and lets it wander.

Standing there in the moonlight of the graveyard of the old church, I imagined an elderly, saintly black gentleman from the 18th century. His name was something like Nathaniel Borders. He took care of the white church for 62 years leading up to his death.

He became so beloved for his strength, grace and courage among the churchgoers that they allowed him to stand in the back, broom in hand, pretending to sweep, when really he was there for the service. As long as he held the broom, he could stand and listen, reverently.  He was communing with the same God, the same Jesus that they were communing with, which was scandalous, of course.  But nobody spoke of it.

When he died, people wept who should not have, including certain women and men in their upstairs rooms. Nathaniel had no family, and they prepared his body for burial in the graveyard reserved for sinners and blacks outside the church’s consecrated grounds.

A secret meeting was held that night, and they determined that Nathaniel belonged among them, among their dead. “What are you driving at?” asked one man, by candlelight. They had drunk nearly a half gallon of rum by that time, and were disturbed and in a strange place from the loss of their secret friend.

Four of the strongest men from the group – named Ernest Gaines, Robert Johns, Elmer Jenkins and Robert McComb – agreed. They would go to the white, Christian church that very night and bury their friend as near as possible, just outside, in the public graveyard for sinners, blacks and other damned people.

But they made the grave so close to the stone fence that they managed to dig under the fence by about 18 inches. By moonlight, they dug, for hours. And two hours before dawn, they brought the body in its simple wooden casket and laid him low, with his feet under the fence, and in consecrated ground.

In the years that followed, some who heard about the consecrated burial of Nathanial Borders began to sing songs about him. Here is one. I wrote this for my imaginary friend from Charleston, and I sang it with his spirit in mind.  But I hope stories like this really did happen back then.