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Susan Johnson

Susan Johnson

Susan Johnson

I was in Charleston’s West Side the day Kamala Harris was named as President-elect Joe Biden’s running mate.

It was a hot, sunny day. The whole West Side had the feel of a festival, as if folks were beginning to gather for a parade. Groups were dancing or picnicking under shady trees. Kids were romping around on the sidewalks, and adults gathered at one another’s front steps in happy, animated conversations. Kroger was packed—as if everyone in town was picking up the last items for a holiday dinner.

I’ve always loved the West Side. Fifty years ago, it was the most vibrant section of town with dozens and dozens of thriving businesses run by or catering to minorities. Beautiful Black churches and lovely, well-kept homes were testaments to realized opportunities. Reconstruction of the 19th century and Civil Rights legislation of the 20th were a boon to Charleston’s African-Americans. Judges appointed by progressive presidents preserved their rights. Labor laws and unions protected their jobs.

Yet like a wasp hiding in the drapes, racism was ever present. Their high school was named for Stonewall Jackson. In 1989, the school board ripped the kids from the shelter of their community high school. Across town, the privileged kids from George Washington got to keep theirs. It didn’t take long for the blight of drugs to eat away at once strong families while the Legislature did little to hold Big Pharma accountable.

Now modern scourges like joblessness and COVID-19 are taking a disproportionate toll in Black communities. The state that Black citizens could once depend on has elected a phalanx of right-wing white men (and a couple of women) who hitched their political wagons to the most virulent racist our country has seen in public office in 50 years. The West Side at times seems like a once proud and beautiful Black woman who now sits on her porch swing discouraged, downtrodden, dejected.

That’s why the feeling I had that day in August was so electric. How I wish I could be there Wednesday, the day after a Black woman in Georgia changed the world. Stacey Abrams—who many say had the governorship stolen from her in 2018 because of a system fraught with voter suppression and Black disenfranchisement—didn’t get mad and quit. She got busy. She founded Fair Fight Action, in which she oversaw a voter education and registration program that flipped one of the Deep South’s conservative strongholds into a blue state. Think about it: Georgia just elected a woman of Indian-African descent, a Black pastor from MLK’s church and a Jew. If we haven’t reached a point yet where Black lives matter, one thing is for sure: Black votes matter.

It’s a great day for every little Black girl in the West Side. They might have looked up to U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., or U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. as role models. At least Capito had the decency not to join in the sickening assault on the American voter in Congress on Wednesday. Miller joined those who challenged the election, even after domestic terrorists spurred on by the president attacked the U.S. Capitol.

But now those girls have new role models. Now they can reimagine a world where a girl of color like themselves might bend the arc of history—if not for their nation or world — at least for their own West Side.

Susan Johnson is a former resident of Charleston. Her column “My Side of the Mountain” appears weekly in the Nicholas Chronicle.