Review: A Slave of Circumstance
That’s a common question about this rural community in South Carolina, which is one of the most impoverished in the country. And a common answer (from local residents and from outside observers) is that things went downhill when the Interstate Highway system was built 50 years ago.
Before the interstates, Allendale was a important tourist stop for beach-goers. Criss-crossed by at least three main highways (278, 301, and 321), many travelers passed through this county on the way to Hilton Head, Savannah, and even Florida. One long-time resident told me that you could walk across over 301 in the summer time; now, you could lay down in the middle of the road and be safe. (Kidding! Maybe.)
But the building of I-95 and I-26 changed that. Over the years, the numerous hotels, gas stations, and restaurants slowly lost business. When the tourism and hospitality economies disappeared, Allendale decayed.
At least, that’s the common understanding.
For the past two years, I wondered how the building of a road could destroy a community? What makes Allendale different from neighboring counties, or any county in the rural south for that matter, to make the current situation so dire? Surely there had to be something else going on.
And reading A Slave of Circumstance (James Brewton) confirmed my suspicions. The dwindling economy didn’t destroy Allendale so much as it revealed the seeds of decay that were already there.
The Circumstances of Allendale
The author moved to this area about 20 years ago. To learn more about this community, he studied 40 years of local newspapers and other documents. This book chronicles the history of Allendale, decade by decade, from the 1960’s until past the year 2000.
Brewton points out an interesting fact about Allendale’s demographics: for the past 50 years (at least) the county has always had a black population of over 70%. Therefore, not only did we have a hit to the economy beginning in the 1960’s, we also had a unique racial climate during that decade’s Civil Rights movement.
As the author notes,
“Blacks arrogantly displayed their voting power through numbers, while whites utilized their economic strengths along with their connections to powerful personalities in state government.”
From early on in this book (reading about the 1960’s and 1970’s), I was struck by how many people I know today that were prominent figures 40 and 50 years ago. And as the book drew me through the 80’s and 90’s, even more familiar names popped up.
Some stories were encouraging to me, and I would think, “Oh. I didn’t know he did that.” And unfortunately, other stories did not paint a flattering picture. And for many of them, the new information only confirmed what I had already known about some people’s mindsets.
Sometimes, the more things change, the more things stay the same. This is true about Allendale, and about people everywhere.
Some common mindsets have prevailed in Allendale for more than 50 years. And truth be told, they are true in my life. But in a small community that has been hit so hard (economically, socially, politically, and with racial tensions), things that would get glossed over in other areas get magnified here.
Here are some recurring themes that I saw throughout this book.
- Division. In the history of Allendale, there has been a racial and socioeconomic divide. Instead of appreciating differences, we tend to put up defenses to stake claim to our turf, our “knowledge,” and our way of life.
- Ignoring Facts. When one elected official pulled a knife on another in a public forum, nearly three years of legal battle ensued, and nothing changed. The debate changed from “Did he try to harm another person?” to “The other side is against me.” The same is true when one school official was caught mishandling money, or when someone is fired (Was it really a witch hunt against you, or were you just incompetent?) . Inconvenient facts are easily ignored.
- Devaluing Other People’s Feelings. One community member said that a particular school principal “was wrong to be concerned that some white students may feel alienated.” Can someone’s concerns legitimately be wrong? If we are going to move forward and work together, we have to acknowledge the feelings of others.
- Over-valuing Our Own Feelings. Tied in with the last two points, we tend to put a high emphasis on our thoughts and emotions, and dismissing facts and opinions that don’t support us. Instead, we need to remember the example of Jesus, and as Paul writes (Philippians 2:3-4):
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
The Truth Revealed
The division in this community didn’t begin in the 1960’s; it was always there, but the Civil Rights movement revealed just how rotten people’s hearts were.
The seed of decay was prepared to bear its fruit, and when the tourism economy tanked, that was the last straw. The result was chaos, mistrust, defensiveness, and even hatred. And this whirlpool of destruction feeds on itself. No amount of pity or pride, of industry or handouts, education or willful ignorance will restore hope to Allendale.
We have to go to the core of the matter — that our hearts are rotten and dark. And we need a Savior to redeem, to restore, and to make all things new.
Want to learn more about Allendale? Buying A Slave of Circumstance would be a great place to start.
Edit: This was one of the top books I read in 2013.
- A Black Guy, A White Guy, and a Hispanic Jew Walk Into a Restaurant
- 2 Great Videos about Race, Community, and the Gospel
- Why Don’t We Strive for Racial Reconciliation?
- Financial Demise in Allendale
- MLK Day: A Changed World
- The Context for Hopelessness (CBC Talk — Part 1)
- The Middle of Nowhere