I remember my first weekend in South Carolina, about five years ago. Father Michael, the reverend father of the Catholic Church near my school was Nigerian and he came to meet the ‘new guys’: me, Daniel, Chibueze and Tayo. We rode in his black Toyota Avalon for the two hour drive down to Myrtle Beach. After some minutes of cavorting, I strolled away from the group towards a cluster of bars and restaurants along the shoreline. I walked into one, and up the counter.
“Can I get something to drink?” I asked. The man behind the counter was burly and leathery tan, and his chest was unbuttoned to reveal an impressively round gut. He eyed me for a few awkward seconds, then glanced around at the rest of the other people at the bar as if looking for someone to confirm for him that he was indeed seeing me, that I was not some figment of his imagination. Puzzled, and thinking maybe he did not hear me, I spoke a little louder, “I want to buy a drink.”
The man burst into laughter, as did the other patrons around him. “We don’t serve your kind around here, boy.”
I felt a flash of anger at what I perceived to be an attempt to insult my foreignness. It had never occurred to me at the time that it was my blackness under attack. I mean, I knew I was black, but I had never thought of it as anything significant enough to think about. I was about to say something when another man cut in.
“Sell the man a drink if he wants a drink, Charles. ”
“Thank you”, I said. The man behind the counter grunted and took my order.
My new friend sat down next to me. “You ain’t from around here, is ya?” he said, in a thick drawl.
I shook my head. “I’m from Nigeria.”
He nodded. “Yeah, if you were from these parts you wouldn’t be here.”
“Why not?”, I asked.
The man chuckled. “Look around you, son. How many black people you see in here?”
“Oh,” I said, as realization hit. Indeed, looking around now, there was not a single black face to be seen in the bar, despite the fact that the beach right outside me was teeming with black people. I suddenly felt like I was in a Civil Rights throw back. I looked at the faces around me, and a weird sense of isolation hit me.
I picked up my root beer, and dropped my money on the counter and walked out of the bar. As I stepped outside, I turned around to look up at the sign. It was then that I noticed the huge Confederate flag hanging at the top of the entrance, with the words “Sons of the Confederacy” written at the bottom.
I didn’t even understand what it all meant at the time, but that evening, after I went back to the university, I asked my first American friend, Kiera.
That bar, and Kiera’s stories that night were my first introduction to race and politics in South Carolina. There would be many more, in the years to come.