Everything and Nothing: Of camellias, poets, and getting tripped up by the truth

Aïda Rogers

Posted March 1, 2022

By Aïda Rogers

This is the time of year when people in McClellanville do camellia walks. This they do at Hampton Plantation State Historic Site, where South Carolina’s first poet laureate, Archibald Rutledge, lived in his last decades. He planted the camellias, which bloom in peaceful splendor in multiple colors. People can wander among them along narrow dirt paths. It’s a very pleasant thing to do, maybe even genteel.

Horace Mungin

What I like about these camellia walks – besides the fact that they’re free – is that nothing is sharply manicured. You might brush up against a mossy brick or shrub in your quest to view petals and stamens more closely. You could even trip and fall, like McClellanville poet Billy Baldwin did, and wrote about in “In the Camellias.”

On the path I tripped
and stumbled,
spread my hands forth,
pitching jumbled
petals, leaves and fragile flesh.

I’m not sure what’s more jarring than a fall, but not long ago another poet friend experienced a different kind of shock. Melanie McClellan-Hartnett, a White native of the village, learned that her new friend Shirley Singleton, another native who is Black, had never heard of the camellia walks. Melanie, a visual artist and devoted camellia walker who was married at Hampton, was flabbergasted. But I became curious about something else: Where does Shirley go that Melanie doesn’t? I envisioned whole wonderlands unexplored by local Whites.  

Photo taken by the late Joel Nichols and provided by Winthrop University.

This whole knowing-unknowing reminded me of my own shock when I read poet Horace Mungin’s 2020 book, Notes from 1619. How did I reach my late 50s and not know about the Red Summer of 1919? How did a lifelong Southerner miss the story about Patsey, the enslaved woman brutalized in Louisiana? Horrified by what I learned and my own ignorance, I bought copies of Notes from 1619 for my students and invited Horace to class.

When Horace invited me to contribute to his next book, an anthology titled Ukweli, the Swahili word for truth, I accepted without a subject in mind. And was shocked when I found it, or her. Dr. Dorothy Perry Thompson had been writing poetry most of my life, in Columbia so close to Lexington, my hometown. I’d never heard of her. My Black friends had. When I read her dissertation, I realized she was a one-woman preservation committee, using her poetry to make sure the people and landmarks of Wheeler Hill, her maligned childhood neighborhood, weren’t forgotten. I learned Wheat Street, winding alongside the University of South Carolina campus and into the desirable Shandon neighborhood, was the dividing line between Wheeler Hill and the White university. I learned the city fathers and university leaders worked together to methodically destroy that neighborhood, officially deemed a “slum.” And I learned some White university students threw rocks at younger Black students walking across Columbia – and running through campus – to get to Wheat Street, where their beloved Booker T. Washington High School fostered security and courage. 

Artwork for the Ukweli cover by H.R. Olfus, Jr.

Booker T. Washington closed, despite an uproar from the Black community, in 1974. Dorothy Perry Thompson, who became a beloved professor at Winthrop University and started its African American Studies program, died in 2002, at 57.  Her books are out of print. And Horace Mungin, South Carolina-born and New York-raised, died this past September, before he saw Ukweli published. “Take care of our baby,” he told co-editor Herb Frazier, noted Charleston journalist, author and historian. Those were his last words to his good friend.

Ukweli: Searching for Healing Truth was released Feb. 19 by Evening Post Books. It presents the writings of 49 poets and essayists, including Billy Baldwin’s poem, “The Hampton Plantation Dig.” All of us were writing, at Horace’s request, in reaction to the racist events of 2020. He was trying, until he died, to educate White people about the Black American experience.

That’s the thing about poets and writers. Like people who plant trees, they leave their work behind. And when it shocks us, trips us up, we learn.

Aïda Rogers writes from an old house in Columbia and a new porch in McClellanville. Her three-volume anthology series, State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love, includes stories by 108 Palmetto State writers.

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