I’m Not A South Carolinian; I’m the Rebirth of the Black Radical

By Riley Wilson Jun 19, 2015

When I was growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, I was awoken by one singular task from my mother. “Get out of South Carolina,” she would sermonize. This would be repeated to me regularly and in different ways. “Get out of South Carolina and don’t come back.” Sometimes she would say, “Don’t get trapped here.”

My mother, who birthed me at 14-years old, and was the first to graduate college in her family, pushed me to pursue college outside the state and to never return because, she would say, South Carolina would trap and kill me. Maybe it was the way my uncle was coerced to admit to a crime he didn’t commit that resulted in him being sentenced to 14 years in prison. Maybe it’s the way South Carolina unapologetically praises its racist history by flying the confederate flag on the state grounds. Or maybe it was the way my guidance counselor suggested I go to community college because “that’s all you’ll probably get.”

As a black boy growing up there, South Carolina was never my home. I’ve felt more at home at Howard University, when I could share a similar sentiment of displacement, pride and fury for the way in which black people like me are treated in America. I realized I was not a South Carolinian (nor did I want to be) when I recognized South Carolina didn’t care about me or anyone who looked like me—nothing had changed for black life since I was kid. Black children are shipped from poverty-stricken neighborhoods to sub-par schools with little to no resources and excess police that patrol neighborhoods, some of which have a curfew. If you’re black and lucky enough not to be arrested, you may get a service job and be able to make minimum wage. My mother wanted to break that cycle.

When I recognized this trend, I began to believe I had no home and was seemingly alone. It turns out I was only partially right: I am not alone—the Charleston massacre is a stark reminder of that.

My blood and the blood of the oppressed is boiling to extraordinary proportions as we learn that a young white man, Dylann Storm Roof, entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where he slaughtered nine church members during a prayer meeting, claiming, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.”

The feeling I feel right now is being felt across the country. It is the rebirth of the black radical—the generational development of a group of activists indignant over the subjugation, demise, and murder of its people. And it’s not the first time. It has reemerged through the history of America.

It was in the early 1900s, following the Civil War, when we saw it in the rise of the New Negro Movement. Progressive minds such as Hubert Harrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Alain Locke—individuals that used art, literature and intellect to combat Jim Crow laws—were the apparent black radicals of their time. Again in the 1950s, following the murder of 14-year old Emmett Till, and in the 1960s with the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and incessant police repression, there was an extreme surge in the civil rights movement. Led by the likes of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ella Baker, the movement used a diverse series of protest tactics to focus on policy and social change—emphasis on social change.

There were the Birmingham Riots of 1963, the Selma and Montgomery marches, and the March on Washington, where King delivered the speech that made him what the FBI called, “the most dangerous and effective Negro” in America.  This was also America’s introduction to the Black Panther Party, which focused on reducing poverty and improving health in the black community but also staunchly protesting against police brutality, the murder of black people, and the all-too-common terrorism inflicted on black communities. In this sense, black radicalism proved to be a diverse and cross-generational practice from a variety of activists. That is similar to what we see growing today—from the #BlackLivesMatter movement and #SayHerName to the recently launched StayWoke.org. We take different avenues, but there is one thing we share: the burning need for justice and the end of racism.

The apathy of drive-by social media activism has waned with every publicized example of unchecked police brutality and domestic terrorism. The Charleston massacre is no different; it will show that there is not, and never has been, a question of whether we as black Americans are capable of galvanizing beyond the gabs of activists, politicians and talking-heads. It is only a question of when, in what form and concentration. It could be in the form of black Twitter or it could be a series of marches. It could be political conversations and campaigns or it could be rioting, but if the past has taught us anything, it is that activism against racism and police violence is diverse and, at time, interdependent.  

It is happening now—on the campuses of colleges and universities across the nation, in the community and church centers of predominantly black neighborhoods, in barbershops and hair salons, on group chats, on Instagram and black Twitter. Watching what’s unfolded in Charleston, we’re looking beyond mythic stories to discuss more impactful and radical actions and to leverage that shared feeling of hurt when we heard that nine people were slaughtered in a black church.

I am not a South Carolinian; I am the re-birth of the black radical and this time, the cause du jour is serving as a catalyst more so than a trending topic. And when the radicalism of my generation fully emerges from behind the curtain of traditional marches and tactics, there will be little acquiesce offered. The seemingly hollow musings of President Obama will go unnoticed, and the gait of the disenfranchised and attacked black youth will move like a levanter out of the concrete. The only thing to stop it will be drastic and unequivocal change in American policies, practices and moral consciousness.