I lived in North Carolina for eighteen years, beginning in the fall of 1978 when I moved to Chapel Hill to study classics at the University of North Carolina, and ending in the fall of 1996 when I moved here to Athens to take a job at Ohio University. I was 20 years old when I moved down there--a very formative age. In spite of having spent nearly half of my life there by the time I left, however, I think I was always primarily a sojourner rather than a southerner in spirit. I loved North Carolina: it is a very beautiful place, and from Chapel Hill one can travel easily either to the mountains or the beach in just two or three hours of comfortable driving. My favorite spots were the Snowbird Mountains deep in the westernmost part of the state and the Outer Banks, but Chapel Hill itself is surrounded by beautiful country, and I have fond memories of many a long bike ride through farmland, forests, and hill country.
The real beauty of North Carolina, however, is not so much in the scenery as in the people. Of course, when you're in graduate school at a place like UNC, a lot of the people you meet are actually from out of town. Usually pretty far out of town. My teachers and fellow graduate students were mostly Damn Yankees. The same was true when, in the fall of 1990, I decided to start graduate school all over again at Duke University over in Durham. One of my teachers at Duke, Robert Brandon, was a native North Carolinian, but he did his own graduate work at Harvard and it showed. But I wasn't in school all the time, and from 1986 until 1990 I was actually a working stiff, and I got to meet plenty of natives, and I was always impressed by their kindness, their charm, and their basic decency.
I also met my wife in North Carolina, though she, too, was not a native. She grew up in the People's Republic of Ann Arbor, and may, to this day, be the only conservative to escape from that nut house. While we were both still in grad school she got involved with tutoring adults in reading, and I used to tag along with her sometimes because, well, I had a car and she didn't. So I guess I wasn't exactly tagging along, but, well, whatever. Anyway, one day while she was tutoring a woman who was working towards her GED I started playing with the woman's grandson, and eventually I became an unofficial Big Brother to him. As he grew up I would take him around to the local playgrounds, museums, libraries, movies, restaurants, and in general we had a good time. His father lived in Durham but he didn't see him very often. When he was very little we all called him BJ, but when he got to high school he changed his name--legally--to Christopher because of his serious committment to Christianity. Next year he will graduate from high school, and I'm planning to go down to North Carolina for the commencement activities.
In light of this rather boring and potted history of my time in North Carolina the title of today's entry might appear somewhat strange. After all, my time in North Carolina was actually quite comfortable. The discomfort has more to do with going back. Since moving to Ohio I have adopted an African American daughter, who is now four years old. She will come with me next summer, but I'm a little nervous about it. Race is a very complicated issue, and although I know that I cannot protect her forever I am still sad about some of the things that I imagine are in her future. Here in Ohio we are not immune to stares from folks who wonder what she is doing with us. (This is particularly uncomfortable when she's having a tantrum, and I am trying to lead her out of a store while she's screaming, at the top of her lungs: "Mommy mommy mommy! I want my mommy!" On the other hand, when is that ever comfortable?) In North Carolina, though, there is a little more baggage involved. Way back in 1979 I stopped at a gas station right in the heart of Chapel Hill. In those days the attendants came out and filled your tank for you and the whole thing cost about eight bucks. I got out of my car while the attendant was filling the tank, and we both watched as an African American walked past the station carrying one of those great icons of the 1970s, a gigantic boom-box, which was blaring some loud music. The attendant looked at me and shook his head, and then he said something I will never forget: "F&*%ing animals." It was only then, after having lived in Chapel Hill for almost a year, that I thought to myself, hey, this is the South-with-a-capital-S. The Civil Rights Act had been passed only 15 years before.
There are racists everywhere, of course--the south has no monopoly. I believe that I even have some close family members who are racists, and we were all raised in Ohio. It's not where you're from, it's what you're taught, what you learn to believe about human dignity and worth and about tribalism. I think that tribalism is probably the most important factor. A lot of people are happy to say that everyone has the same worth, the same dignity, but they still think of themselves as belonging to a particular group, and in their heart of hearts they are just plain more comfortable with folks from their own group. This can be a very innocuous attitude most of the time, but when it gets out of control it manifests itself in the form of racism: a judgment that someone who is different from me in some way is somehow deserving of something different precisely because he does not belong to my tribe. If he is not one of us, we don't owe him anything.
Tribalism is everywhere, too, but one of the things that makes me uncomfortable about the south is that some southerners have practically institutionalized it. It gets expressed in many ways. Some are seemingly harmless, for example, Confederate battle flags plastered on pickup trucks. Some are political, for example, referring to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. Some are rather nasty, for example, the Ku Klux Klan. All tribes have their own equivalents of these, I think, so I don't mean to single out southerners as the only ones who practice this sort of thing. But Southern Pride is an unmistakeable phenomenon, and I don't think there is anything quite like it among northerners per se. There are the Irish, of course, and the Italians, the Germans, and who knows how many other groups who celebrate their national heritage; but I've never heard of "northern pride" and when you see an American Flag plastered on a pickup truck it's usually an expression of 21st century patriotism rather than 19th century Union Federalism.
So I love the south, but I confess that I also fear some aspects of southern culture, of southern tribalism. Although it is often couched in terms of independence and states' rights, it is difficult to forget the fact that most southern states, in their declarations of secession, did not give states' rights but the preservation of slavery as their reason for seceeding. The emphasis varied from state to state, but even in those states where states' rights was given as the main reason for seceeding, we find that it is offered as a negative reason: South Carolina, for example, was angry at northern states because they were exercising independence in not enforcing the federal laws demanding the return of escaped slaves. It comes as no surprise to me, then, that this is the sort of thing that many African Americans think of when they see a Confederate battle flag. Some southerners have said (indeed, I have heard a southern Catholic priest say) that this is not what the flag stands for, and it is folks' own fault if they misinterpet it so badly as to be upset by it. But the nagging question remains: well then, what exactly does it stand for? Southern culture? Which southern culture? The one that oppressed and enslaved blacks? No, the answer is supposed to be, the culture of independence and states' rights, the culture of antebellum grace and charm. But this culture only existed at the expense of the enslaved. What was truly noble about the antebellum south has far better symbols than the battle flag: Thomas Jefferson comes to mind.
When my daughter sees one of those flags and asks me what it stands for, what am I going to say? That it is a "Confederate battle flag"? What battle were the Confederates fighting, daddy? They wanted their independence. Independence from what? The United States. Why didn't they want to be part of the United States? Because they felt that the northern states had broken the Constitutional agreement. What agreement? To allow the expansion of slavery into new territories, and to return escaped slaves. What's a slave, daddy?
But all of that is just theoretical disputation. I'm sure that plenty of defenders of southern pride are not really racists. The problem is not being proud of your region or your heritage, but failing to see how tribalism can harm, failing to have empathy and compassion for differing points of view about the nature of your heritage and region. No culture can exist in a vacuum--southern culture is no exception. The icons we employ reflect the background of our beliefs, and that is as good a reason as any to do away with battle flags and Klansmen.
I'm sure my family will have a great time in North Carolina next summer--we always do. In my mind, as the song says, I often go to Carolina, especially the mountains. But I'm always mindful of what took place in this country and why, and how it will impact future generations. Including, now, my own family. It is somewhat discomforting.