When North Carolina turned red on Tuesday night, I closed my computer, put on my shoes, and went out to walk. I turned onto the main road in my town, Franklin Street, moving quickly, tears falling, my hands in fists. I walked past a dozen homes and businesses, all quiet and all hushed, with televisions glaring red and blue through their windows. I walked by the town post office, where in 1963, a coalition of Black high school students and White university students were beaten by Chapel Hill’s White residents as they demonstrated for the integration of the town’s businesses. Down to West Franklin, I met my sister, and we walked fast down the street into Carrboro, passing the store where the Klan would gather on Main Street and where Rachel Crook, the namesake of Crook’s Corner, was kidnapped, raped, and murdered. We turned around and took the bike path back to Chapel Hill, the path that long separated the upper-class White intellectuals of Chapel Hill from the working-class White mill-workers of Carrboro, and the site of so much savage conflict over the years. Eventually we made our way back to my house and rested.
The violence resting on the landscape of my home is so palpable now, and it is rising, covering North Carolina in a fog of fear and hate so thick I struggle to see the way forward. Everywhere–online, on flyers all over campus, in conversations–people are trying to make sense of what happened. The Democratic party forgot its base and did not reach out to Black voters. East Coast White liberals are out of touch with who Americans are. This was about race, not class. This was about class, not race. This was about gender, not class. We fumble forward.
Last Friday morning, I went for the same walk, down Franklin Street until it curves into Main Street in Carrboro, then back again. I walked past the Speaker Ban monument, which rests on the stone wall that separates campus of the University of North Carolina from the town of Chapel Hill, and commemorates the students who fought the state’s general assembly for their right to free speech. I passed the former home of Intimate Bookshop, a haven for communists, socialists, and left-wingers of all sorts. I crossed over South Columbia, where in 1963, activists blocked the street by sitting down on the cold asphalt after a football game, protesting with the Congress of Racial Equality. My fists uncurl, but my tears stay bitter.
The history of our homes are made not just from violence wrought by the powerful, but by groundswells and coalitions, protests and endurance. Our history, and thus, our present, is a landscape more complex than the response we now give it: fear, anger, cynicism. I worry that this response is what perpetuates the problem, keeping us stuck in our present pit of despair. And despair is immobilizing, because it builds on the certainty that the pain of the present will spread endlessly into the future, as though hate moves in swift, straight lines. Do not mistake my meaning: I am furious with the present and frightened of the future. But I have decided to stare it in the eyes and walk towards it.
I walk, organizing in groups across campus and planning events of support and ally-ship with friends and colleagues, and I am thinking about this quote from the Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, which I learned first from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope In the Dark.
“Utopia lies at the horizon. When I draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps. If I proceed ten steps forward, it swiftly slips ten steps ahead. No matter how far I go, I can never reach it. What, then, is the purpose of utopia? It is to cause us to advance.”
Activism is a journey, the most difficult of walks. Once you begin walking, you must never stop, because the landscape of history never stops. What makes this time and this choice for political action so difficult is that the ground seems to be caving beneath us. The political and cultural division between rural and urban, mid-west and coastal, men and women, black and white, poor and wealthy that blazed the country red and blue on Tuesday, has created a chasm that many are frightened they will fall into if they take even one step.
I have lived in that chasm my entire life. This is because I live in North Carolina, and my home state, which gave its fifteen electoral votes to the Republican candidate for President, is still the place that gives me the confidence to walk forward into that divide. This is despite the volley of voter dis/enfranchisement, which began with the gutting of the national Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. Next came the passage of a sweeping state law comprised of a series of reforms designed to decrease ballot access; next, the repudiation of that law by a federal court that identified the law’s key provisions as targeting “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” And then there was the purging of majority Black voting lists, the elimination of hundreds of early voting sites, and the removal of Sunday early voting. And yet, North Carolina has (seemingly) elected moderate Democrats for their governor and attorney general, and crucially, gave the state supreme court a liberal majority.
In other words, despite every attempt from North Carolina’s Republican party to undermine the power of the Democratic vote, voters (mostly, I should say here, Black North Carolinians in central and eastern counties) held on. When I think of this, instead of the remaining Republican super-majority in the state’s general assembly or the re-election to the U.S. Senate of conservative Richard Burr, I remain hopeful for North Carolina. But again, do not mistake my meaning: hope calls for action.
I am fortunate to have roots and family all over the state. My father is from Edgecombe County. My mother is from Scotland County. My sisters and I were all grown and raised in Orange, Watauga, Forsyth, and Burke Counties. We haven’t seen it all, but we’ve seen a lot of it. And we’ve seen it with the veil of whiteness all around us and from the cradle of white privilege. I spent my youth in the spring of ignorance, not understanding or even trying to understand how my identity as a white, straight, female made me culpable in the maintenance of white supremacy in state and local governments and in my own circles of friends and culture. I offer my ignorance and my decision now to act.
I am not so unlike many liberal white folks in this state, which is probably the statement that most compels me to write this piece. When I came to Chapel Hill as a college freshman, I came with the assumption that I would never return home. Indeed, college was just a stepping stone to where I really wanted to be, which was then a vague sense of some big city up North. College and graduate school helped me cool my jets, and I have been thinking quite a bit in the last year about what it would mean to go home, puncturing the liberal bubble of the Triangle and returning to the places, colored red on last week’s election map, that are ultimately responsible for my sense of self and now, I think, my sense of purpose.
Activism rises from the local and the near. Change begins and operates next door as much as does in Washington, D.C. When I look at the wash of red covering my home, the place that I love dearly, I am motivated to move next door. It is the purpose of public education and gift of your communities that you are able to leave, learn, and then, return. The exodus in North Carolina to Charlotte, to the Triad, to the Triangle, deepens the chasm and fans the fire of racism, misogyny, and unadulterated fear of the Other back home in our white communities. My heart hardens and my fists curl back up when I hear my white friends speak out in disgust against “the uneducated” white voter in the rural counties of North Carolina. Do we forget our homes so fast?
In the fall of next year, I am planning to move to Washington D.C. with my partner. I have a dissertation to build there, and he has a job offer at a law firm that he has dreamed of and worked for years to have. I no longer want to go, though I too have dreamed of moving to this city. I feel that pull of home: when I talk with my mother on the phone and she is disappointed at the results of the election but apathetic, and when I fill with dread at the thought of attending my own family’s Thanksgiving, where I will turn to face, hug, and challenge my relatives who voted, I pray, unwittingly, for hate.
When I see the disparity between the numbers of black and white North Carolinians who voted for Hillary Clinton, my heart all but breaks open and guilt, shame, and sin wash in. I will use my whiteness–my round freckled face, my privileges, blurred accent, my education–to look home to my white communities. How can I not do this when ninety-four percent of Black women in the U.S. voted for Clinton, who used “Black Lives Matter” like a catchphrase, and only forty-seven percent of White women did? I am not promising empathy, blind optimism, or myopic idealism. But I will work to make activism my home–democratic, creative, and flexible–and be a catalyst for changing the future movement of my state.
Growing up, my mother would call North Carolina a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit (in reference to the high-falutin’ folks of Virginia and South Carolina). I keep thinking about that as I walk and as I plan: my home and love is a vale, which is a kind of landscape where the water churns and runs, ’til the land flowers green down to a clear stream. But the path of that water breaks and separates land, building up mountains. And that vale, which we now see as a cultural chasm, is deep, and I fear, it will never be totally filled, despite all the love and compassion we might pour into it, yearning as we do, to build the bridge of understanding.
I take another walk through town, and I feel the fact that heals and hurts the most: There is nothing I love more than North Carolina, but it is a love I access through the privileges of my whiteness. Everything and everyone else that I love, I am able to love because of what this place and its people have given me: my entire family, my partner, my education, my health, my work, my sense of self and purpose. I keep choosing to love North Carolina, and to live here. I keep teaching and talking about the ultimate goodness I believe is at the heart of my state. This isn’t enough. The landscape of our state’s history is too complex for the easy choice. So I make a new one: move, act.