Found: Shell Vernacular

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Before they were sold, the men and women in shackles had to turn their backs to prove they bore no marks — no one wanted a defiant slave. The placards in Charleston’s old slave mart provided these kinds of details, covering the walls so well that, after a while, we forgot we were standing where we were.

Meandering through the city, my mind crammed with descriptions of restored plantations and candy-colored houses, I almost overlooked an insidious sentence in Fodor’s guide to Charleston: “In neighborhoods where there is public housing, you would not want to walk around carefree, either by day or night.”

Taxi drivers tell you how it is. I asked one driver if the city had changed much since she was a kid, wondering about development and gentrification. “There’s still racism if that’s what you mean,” she answered.

There were other unnerving moments, bits of overheard conversation, the slight shadows cast by Charleston’s touristic charm. Of all things, it was a seashell I found that captured what had felt like an ineffable mood.

At the southern edge of the downtown is a nice park lined with cannons once enlisted in the city’s defense, their long throats now clogged with cement. Walking there, I noticed a fragment of beach jutting below an elegant promenade, walled off as if to obscure something. I climbed down to see, when I found bizarre shells that looked to me like the discards of gritty surgery. Dozens of feet buried in rain-swollen sand. Their crooked digits were the color of bone, elongated and skeletal.

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