Untold Stories: A South Carolina Lowcountry Reading List
Preslaysa Williams Recommends Dubose Heyward, Sue Monk Kidd, Damon L. Fordham, and more
My latest novel, A Sweet Lowcountry Proposal, takes place in Charleston, South Carolina in the present day. It’s a story about how wedding planner Jaslene Simmons and museum archivist Marcus Clark fall in love with one another—again. I enjoyed the historical dimension of Marcus’s occupation, so much so that during revisions I weaved in a thread about another love story. This secondary love story took place during the antebellum South, mirroring the main love story.
South Carolina holds a rich history with stories that aren’t told very often. It’s a very special place with a history that deserves to be explored and narratives that aren’t necessarily valued. Preserving narratives is vitally important. Preserving the narratives of historically marginalized people is even more important.
In these stories, we find ourselves. Regardless of our ethnicity and our socioeconomic background, we can find common values and deepen our appreciation for another’s journey by simply reading them.
Mamba’s Daughters: A Novel of Charleston, Dubose Heyward (University of South Carolina Press)
It’s often said that oppressed people have to speak two languages: one for their oppressors and one amongst each other. The language that oppressed people speak to one another is coded, but they can discern the meaning therein. Mamba, the central character in this novel, uses double social codes to ease her way into the Black upper class, but as she does so, she loses pieces of herself in the process.
W.E.B. DuBois once wrote about this double consciousness that Black people engage in amidst a society that doesn’t see them as human. Mamba engages in this double-consciousness in a sometimes-humorous manner, but the humor is bittersweet. Why gain “the world” at the cost of your soul?
Voices of Black South Carolina, Legend and Legacy, Damon L. Fordham (History Press Library Editions)
I first came across Fordham’s work when I visited Turning Page Bookstore, the only Black-owned bookstore in South Carolina. Fordham’s book, along with his other title, True Stories of Black South Carolina, tells the histories of Black South Carolinians. As I read these stories, I was intrigued by the candor and down-home style.
It reminded me of the many afternoons I’d spend with my longtime mentor, the late Roosevelt Thomas, a South Carolinian who recently passed away at the age of 106 and had shared stories about how he survived the Depression era and racism from his supervisors at the height of the Civil Rights era. Authors like Fordham ensure that these stories are preserved and told.
For Such a Time as This: Hope and Forgiveness after the Charleston Massacre, Rev. Sharon Risher. (Chalice Press)
I met Rev. Risher when we were both guest authors at the Black Ink Book Festival a few years ago, an event that celebrates and centers Black authors and connects them to readers in South Carolina. Rev. Risher’s mother, the late Ethel Lee Lance, was one of the victims in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in 2015.
I believe that it was fated for us to cross paths. In my character’s backstories, they deal with the effects of a church mass shooting. Listening to her speak during the book festival moved me. In For Such a Time as This, Rev. Risher shares a memoir filled with raw emotion and transformation. I loved how she incorporates her faith and shares how her spirituality held her during an earth-shattering time in her life.
Gullah Days: Hilton Head Islanders Before the Bridge: 1861-1956, Thomas C. Barnwell, Jr., Emory Shaw Campbell, and Carolyn Grant (Blair)
Before Hilton Head became a hot resort for the wealthy and privileged, it was home to the Gullah people, a group of West African peoples who retained their unique language, culture, and social mores despite the ravages of chattel slavery and colonization. Gullah Days preserves these stories. Similar to Fordham’s work, Barnwell gathers these narratives from the people in order to preserve history that can be overlooked by some.
The reliance on first-person narratives, as well as historical accounts, lends to this book’s importance. The Gullah people created the first Black-governed community in the South. When I first encountered this book, I was drawn in by the tales therein, and I came to appreciate the resilience of the Gullah people.
The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd (Penguin)
If you’ve ever come across the enigmatic image of The Black Madonna, especially as Our Lady of Czestochowa, you’ll be intrigued. The Black Madonna is the Sorrowful Mother, the Mother who weeps tears for her Son and for a cruel, broken world. The Black Madonna calls those who ponder Her face. She calls them to enter into their grief and see if truth can be found there.
In Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, we learn about a girl who lost her mother and who finds women who tell her about the Black Madonna. This novel is set in South Carolina, and it adeptly shares how one can find solace in the darkness.
When I first came across this novel, I didn’t fully comprehend the symbolism of the Black Madonna, but as I encountered my own losses and disappointments as a Black and Asian author, I found myself unconsciously turning to the face of the Black Madonna in the hope that I’d find meaning in the chaos. Reading The Secret Life of Bees reinforced my personal journey, and it helped me to face my suffering because in the face of suffering, one finds God.
Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts (New Press)
When I wrote A Sweet Lowcountry Proposal, I became engrossed in Denmark Vesey’s story. He plotted a massive, failed revolt of enslaved people in 1822, and he also preached at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the church which was the site of the tragic mass shooting in 2015. He was a powerful preacher, and he inspired the enslaved to aim for full freedom.
When Vesey was executed for the revolt, Emanuel A.M.E. church was burned to the ground because of the church’s association with the Vesey. Denmark Vesey’s Garden explores America’s deep racial divide within the lens of Vesey’s life and his feats.
A Sweet Lowcountry Proposal by Preslaysa Williams is available from Avon Books.