The hoodie stories
By D.R.E James
I carefully made sure they weren’t crooked and that they were evenly spaced. I borrowed an iron from my roommate and made the hoodie right there in my bedroom on Drake Street.
Before 17-year-old Darnella Frazier pulled out her cellphone to record a police officer murdering George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis. Before we had to remind people that “Black Lives Matter” with murals on every crosswalk, sidewalk, and vacant brick wall in "Amerikkka." Before these overnight activists came out of the woodworks shouting into megaphones, pumping fists, and clutching jugs of milk to quell the burn of tear gas.
Before the same forces that aired out the racist family business of Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima went down to Edisto Island and made Greg Johnsman change his company name from Geechee Boy toMarsh Hen Millso he could responsibly resume selling unicorn grits, heirloom black eyed peas and hand-poured cornbread scented candles. Before the masses were #Woke. Before everyone threw their best punches at anything even remotely connected to White Supremacy, I wrote an essay called “BURN DOWN THE PLANTATIONS (IN THEORY, AT LEAST).”
Between bites of my hamburger, I glanced down and noticed he had on a pair of black suede Timberland boots.
It marked a special time for me as an up-and-coming writer since it was the first piece I’d written that had nothing to do with food. Not scuppernong wine, not oxtails, mezcal or chankonabe…nothing. It was a statement to make sure everyone knew I didn’t come to Charleston to shuck and jive and whine about how the “award-winning” she crab soup at82 Queenwas too goopy, or how they skimped on the dry sherry, or question if they used real crab roe or not.
I think back to my first meeting withThe Charleston Chronicle’seditor for hamburgers and beer atRutledge Cab Company.At about 6’ 4” and over 300 hundred pounds, Damian Smalls was better suited for protecting Tom Brady from blitzing, blood-thirsty linebackers than churning out weekly editions of a local Black newspaper. But his hulking physical stature is not what caught my attention, it was his boots.
As I pulled it over my head and wiggled my arms through the sleeves, I thought about my grannie, Anne Ruth. She would have been appalled to see me walk out the house and into the world with this type of flamboyant sentiment on display.
Between bites of my hamburger, I glanced down and noticed he had on a pair of black suedeTimberlandboots. The way the tongue of the boots casually flopped over its laces put me at ease. I knew deep down that this brother was going to greenlight whatever I wanted to write.
Those Timberland boots and floppy tongues were a subtle cultural sign that he understood me and wouldn’t sugar-coat my pen or conviction to appease or coddle white people. Which is why when I told him I wanted to name my essay "BURN DOWN THE PLANTATIONS," he didn’t hesitate. He did suggest I add “In theory at least” to cover both our asses from any unforeseen legal drama.
The way the tongue of the boots casually flopped over its laces put me at ease.
With the sense of pride and empowerment that essay gave me, I felt the urge to take things a step further. On a blank navy-blue hoodie, I arranged a pack of yellow, one-inch embroidered letters across the chest to read: "BURN DOWN THE PLANTATIONS." I carefully made sure they weren’t crooked and that they were evenly spaced. I borrowed an iron from my roommate and made the hoodie right there in my bedroom on Drake Street. As I pulled it over my head and wiggled my arms through the sleeves, I thought about my grannie, Anne Ruth.
She would have been appalled to see me walk out the house and into the world with this type of flamboyant sentiment on display. I imagined her, shaking her head as she washed collard greens in the sink and tapped the ashes of aNewportcigarette into a clamshell thinking to herself, this was not the “Jake” she’d raised on the carousel at Jubilee Park or in the pews of Faith Temple Baptist Church. I expected this type of concern from her. She had a profound mixture of grace and civility — damn near the polar opposite of the bombastic, hardscrabble crew that loitered in front of Callahan’s Parlor on Aiken Street.
I imagined her, shaking her head as she washed collard greens in the sink and tapped the ashes of a Newport cigarette into a clamshell thinking to herself, this was not the “Jake” she’d raised on the carousel at Jubilee Park or in the pews of Faith Temple Baptist Church.
On one of my usual store runs, I passed by that crew in front of Callahan’s Parlor swigging Wild Irish Rose and rambling about the good ole days onMosquito Beach.My hoodie caught their attention and their ghetto gravitas melted into a puddle of genuine brotherly concern. “Boi, you fool up for that bubba, dey gon get you,” one guy said, halfway laughing, halfway serious. The others nodded in agreement. Whomever “they” were, I didn’t give a damn.
The next day, and each day after that, I passed the same group, wearing the same hoodie. When they realized this was this going to be part of my everyday attire, as sure as a cook wears an apron or a cop a badge, they started calling me “Farrakhan,” after the Honorable Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, mocking the militant, radical, bow-tied and bean-pie selling persona that popular culture has attached to him and the members of the Nation.
Before these overnight activists came out of the woodworks shouting into megaphones, pumping fists, and clutching jugs of milk to quell the burn of tear gas.
Unfortunately, since those days, the Charleston Chronicle closed. They shut down their website, and with that, any digital footprint of my original essay is gone. In it, I named-droppedPublic Enemyand their S1Ws (Security of the First World), and quoted Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer. I asked myself and readers what Malcolm X would do given what he said in his iconic 1963 “Message to The Grassroots” speech about the House Negro versus the Field Negro.
He said that while the house negro scrambled, risking his own life to save his master and the plantation’s big house from a fire, the field negro would be praying for a strong, favorable wind to spread the blaze even further. Malcolm would have the gasoline. Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown, famously shouted “If America don't come around, we're gonna burn it down” So, he’d have the fire, and, of course, his signature sunglasses. And to complete my revolutionary daydream, Angela Davis would be our getaway driver to escape the lynch mob. After all, she managed to elude the F.B.I.’s Top 10 Most Wanted fugitive list for a while.
She had a profound mixture of grace and civility — damn near the polar opposite of the bombastic, hardscrabble crew that loitered in front of Callahan’s Parlor on Aiken Street.
I condemned the city of Charleston for being a Neo-Antebellum Wonderland for supporting editorials by Steve Bailey in its Pulitzer Award-winning newspaper,The Post and Courier,with bold headlines that read, “Plantations should be cherished, not shunned," and how the "azaleas at their peak" override the "brutality of slavery" before recommending the buffet at Middleton Place in the Spring. I castigated the Plantation Singers who croon “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” atHall’s Chophouse’swildly popular gospel brunch. I denounced anyone attending events held at these plantations, from Easter egg hunts to oyster roasts, especially Black people, because I am thinking a logical Jewish person wouldn’t, couldn’t in a million lifetimes, fathom attending an oyster roast at Treblinka or Auschwitz.
Not only is it not kosher, it’s completely asinine. I made damn sure I drove home the fact that these concentration camps: Magnolia, Boone and Drayton Hall, Middleton Place and McLeod take a psychological toll by reminding Black people we once embarked on slave ships instead of spaceships, and that our ancestors wore shackles around our ankles versus crowns on our heads. And even if we can never relate to being an astronaut like Ronald McNair, or royalty like Nefertiti, we are certainly, without a doubt, more than 3/5 of a human being.
The next day, and each day after that, I passed the same group, wearing the same hoodie.
I questioned the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission for spending 3.4 million dollars to buy and restore McLeod Plantation when they only 2.3 million was earmarked for teacher pay raises in a notoriously lackluster school system. Another 7.1 million dollars went to a “conservation deal” to protect Boone Hall from development FOREVER. I questioned why Middleton Plantation spent 5 million dollars on a visitor education center and Magnolia Plantation spent another $600,000 to restore slave cabins, as if nearly half of Black Charlestonians below the age of 18 years old don’t live below the poverty line.
These same plantations that millions upon millions of dollars have been poured into are the same ones Dylan Roof visited and posed for pictures like a child would in front of the Epcot Center at Disney World, conjuring the evilness to walk insideMother Emanueland take the lives of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Clementa Pinckney, Depayne Singleton-Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Myra Thompson, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons, Tywanza Sanders and Ethel Lance.
It marked a special time for me as an up-and-coming writer since it was the first piece I’d written that had nothing to do with food.
"BURN DOWN THE PLANTATIONS (IN THEORY, AT LEAST)" is gone forever, a casualty of shrinking newsrooms and legacy newspapers. Mr. James French, founder of the Charleston Chronicle, passed away in July at the age of 94, and I haven’t spoken to his grandson, Damien, in at least three Summers. But I've decided to keep the message alive with my hoodies.
They will still be navy-blue with yellow-gold stitching and this time around they’ll read: “PLANTATION BURNERS.” I am no longer making them in the primitive manner like I did in my bedroom on Drake Street. As faith would have it, my brother Daniel has a brand-newTajimaembroidering machine, and he is ready and willing to produce as many hoodies as my heart desires.
My hoodie caught their attention and their ghetto gravitas melted into a puddle of genuine brotherly concern.
As a disclaimer, I’m not telling you or anyone to go burn down a plantation. Although, I do admit to giving a double-middle finger, Tupac-style, to signs and billboards advertising them. But I had nothing to do with those Molotov cocktails Charleston County sheriffs found in a ditch between Drayton Hall and Magnolia. This hoodie isn’t a dashiki or black beret ala Huey P. For me, it’s more about the ideology more than the aesthetic. If you’re the type of person that replaces the “c” in “America” with “KKK,” this hoodie is for you. If you need Wikipedia to know who Stokely Carmichael is, it isn’t. Simple as that.
“PLANTATIONS BURNERS” means it’s us versus the people and institutions that celebrate White Supremacy or commemorate Black bondage and servitude. This hoodie and its message does not mean I’m my ancestor’s wildest dream. It means if you’re a racist bigot or a house negro, I’m YOUR ancestor’s worst nightmare.