It was a fundraiser on Figure Eight Island last Friday night, a bit different from most. This, in the bastion of the very wealthy, was for Shaw University, the historically black Raleigh school. It was held at the Oceanside home of Steve and Louise Coggins, whose range of such events for a plethora of causes is just this side of impossible.
The guest of honor: one Chubby Checker. The unspoken visitors: the nine black members of Charleston’s Emanuel AME church ruthlessly killed just two nights before.
The white guests – there to support a university modest in endowment and funding but rich in a 150-year tradition of educating black students, so many the first in their families to graduate or even attend college – mingled easily with the black guests, many of whom had come from Raleigh.
And I couldn’t help but notice something different again from so many fundraisers – this in the way black people met white, asking their names again and a third time if the din blotted it out, wanting to connect, if only for the next hour or so.
Chubby mingled with the best of them, totally charming, twisting the night away, then cheek to cheek for photo ops with the lovely young ones and with the ladies of certain years who had rummaged through attics and gone online for albums for him to autograph, both they and the covers nicely worn on the edges over the years.
Chubby Checker is now 73, fit, with a full touring schedule and a bus emblazoned with his name. His voice is still strong and his hips have lost none of the magic that catapulted “The Twist” to the top of the music charts in 1960, brought wallflowers onto the dance floor and assured both man and dance an iconic place in America’s cultural history.
Charleston, just down the coast from where he stood, surely wove in and out of conversations, but never dominated, never dampened the festive evening. It was another sad chapter in an unfolding story that the black guests knew too well. No sense in dwelling on it, we’re moving on.
Chubby, easy with himself and whoever was nearby, had plenty of words to share, but when Charleston was brought up, it was no more than a sentence. “Poor boy; he must feel real bad right now.”
I couldn’t – I can’t – get those words out of my mind. Poor boy, he must feel real bad right now.
As a New York Times story commented about the immediate, tearful forgiveness rendered by the victims’ families, it was as if the Bible study during which their loved ones were slain never ended.
And so it was with Chubby Checker. Another reminder of a people – so brutalized during slavery, whose struggle for equality has been thwarted in so many conscious and unconscious ways – being ready to identify with those who would demean or even kill them. And be ready to go on.
Even while knowing our names.
Paul Wilkes, a journalist and writer, lives in Wilmington