I was raised in the South. Not the Deep South, mind you, but the Piedmont region of Virginia. And while I sheepishly claimed Charlottesville, Virginia -- “Mr. Jefferson’s Village” –- as my hometown when I left for Princeton at 17, the truth is that I grew up on a farm located in Stony Point, a small village fifteen miles north of the University of Virginia. My first real job was throwing hay bales in the back of a neighboring farmer’s truck during harvest. I was driving our family pickup truck by myself -– a 1959 Chevrolet Apache with a “three on the tree” shifter –- by the age of twelve. I know the deep, almost purple, blue of an FFA jacket, and I actually referred to movies as “picture shows” until shame prompted me to stop. And I literally walked two miles to the bus stop each morning, on a dirt road, no less, just to go to school “in the city.”
So when my wife and I decided to move from Washington, D.C. to Rocky Mount, North Carolina several months ago, I thought my experience growing up on a farm in the South would serve me well. This was true, in part. I don’t make a big fuss at the cows near our new house, as does my wife, a bona fide city girl, in habit if not in heritage. I can handle the curving country roads with nary a thought, and I find myself shifting back into a smooth, almost imperceptible Southern accent.
But when it came to racism, I was dead wrong.
Cotton was new to me. Although Virginia was the capital state of the Confederacy, it was hardly a true cotton state, not in the “Gone With The Wind” sense that now pervades our memories. No, the main crops I saw in Stony Point were tobacco, corn, and lowly feed crops. Nothing as majestic, or emotionally charged, as cotton. But North Carolina is home to a cotton industry that thrives to this day.
The first time I saw a cotton field ready for harvest, I was stunned. The field itself was undoubtedly meager by Deep South standards, measuring five acres, at most. But the sweeping field of white looked for all the world like a blanket of snow in October. I pulled my car over and got out to look, ignoring the quizzical stares from passing motorists unsure why I was making such a fuss.
The fields look much different up close. The individual stalks grip the white cotton with what I can only describe as talons, sharp and cruel. I reached out to pick one bunch of cotton, and got only cuts on the ends of my fingers for my trouble. I tried to imagine picking these things all day, every day, for my whole life.
I just couldn’t get my head around it.
But surely they didn’t still pick cotton by hand, I thought. It didn’t make sense. They must have come up with some kind of combine or harvester or something that made such manual work unnecessary. Turns out, no. A few days later, I drove by another field, and saw something I didn’t think existed anymore. A field covered with laborers, black laborers, picking cotton in the evening dusk.
I had just gone back in time.
Rocky Mount is a town divided, and as such, is a fair representative of North Carolina itself. There is a black section of town and a white section of town, and there is precious little mixing between the two. There are black Chick-fil-A or McDonald’s restaurants, and then there are white ones. There are black grocery stores and white ones. The only truly integrated store in town is the Wal-Mart Superstore. It turns out that everyone wants to save money, it seems.
One of my favorite haunts in Rocky Mount is a coffee shop by the name of Java Motts. There’s a young crowd, and live music most evenings. It comes close to the Starbucks and other coffee shops I’m familiar with from DC, and lends my new home a pleasant sense of familiarity. Most days, that is.
In the mornings, the shop attracts a different, older crowd. People on their way to work, that sort of thing. The people working there are older, too. Much more conservative, set in their ways.
The other morning I was sitting by the window, with just two other customers in the store. One was black, one was white. The black customer left, and almost immediately the guy working behind the counter launched into a conversation, seemingly with no one in particular. He read aloud from a newspaper, exclaiming with disapproval the fact that Al Sharpton was planning another run for the presidency.
The remaining customer –- I mean, besides myself –- promptly answered, “Yeah, I know.” Then, conspiratorially, added “You know why he does that, don’t you? It’s just for the money. If he raises $10 million, but only spends $1 million, he gets to keep the rest. That’s why. He doesn’t really want to win.”
To which the clerk replied, “Well that’s damn lucky for him, because I don’t think even the blacks are buying his bullshit anymore.”
At first, I had to pinch myself just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming my way through Eddie Murphy’s famous sketch from Saturday Night Live, the one where he’s made up to look white and sees how the conversations change when no African-Americans are nearby. After I’d confirmed that I had, in fact, entered some new brand of reality, I was forced to contemplate the mindset that would allow these two men to assume that I would have found this conversation acceptable, just because of the color of my skin.
Of course, I was then faced with a much more painful question. When I heard these comments, I raised no protest, voiced no objection. I found it easier to simply keep my mouth shut. This was, after all, my favorite coffee house, right?
I left the coffee house that morning with not only a bad taste in my mouth, but the awful realization that a racist society demeans virtually every one of its members. Those being discriminated against, those doing the discriminating, and a third group, those like myself, who deplore the racist act, but lack the courage to confront it on a daily basis.
Cotton harvests are dramatic. One day, a field might be bright and shining white, the next it may look like the aftermath of some horrific battle from the Civil War. This past October I drove by one such field, freshly harvested and stripped bare. Evening was falling, and the sun cast a beautiful pink light through the sparse cloud cover above. As I drove past the field, I noticed a curious sight on the road in front of me.
Little bits of cotton, stragglers from the harvest, were strewn about the road, no doubt left by the trucks carrying the cotton harvest to some field or storehouse on the way to market. Having just passed the battlefield itself, these bits of cotton reminded me of nothing so much as the Matthew Brady portraits of Antietam, Gettysburg, and other slaughter pens of the war. You know the pictures, the ones with men scattered like broken dolls on the ground, bodies swelling from putrefying gasses, tunics rent from their last, desperate search for that fatal wound.
As I followed this trail of little cotton corpses, the sun set lower, casting an ever more crimson shadow. These white bits of fiber picked up that color, looking more and more like bits of bloody flesh, a modern-day reminder of the pain this region, and this crop, have caused this country and its people.
The North Carolina state flag is a national disgrace, but nobody seems to realize it. Although most people will remember the controversy surrounding the Georgia state flag –- it prominently bore the familiar X-shaped Confederate battle flag from 1956-2001, when it was changed in the face of protests over its racist overtones -– few people realize that the North Carolina state flag has always been a testament to the Confederacy.
Most people don’t know this, but the “Confederate flag” with which they are familiar was never the Confederate national flag. No, that privilege was reserved for the “Stars and Bars,” which bore three stripes, red, white, and red, over a field of blue. The North Carolina state flag has two stripes, one red, one white, with a full-length field of blue.
You could make a North Carolina state flag by taking the Confederate Stars and Bars and cutting off the bottom red stripe.
I’m sure that North Carolina politicians thought they were being quite clever and cute when they adopted this flag. It allows them to cling to their racist past without being detected. Indeed, I’ve been a Civil War buff since my childhood, and I never noticed the insidious nature of this flag until a recent visit to Fort Macon, a former Civil War fort located on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
The first clue for me was the fact that none of the signs, brochures, or audio presentations ever mentioned the words Civil War. It was always the War Between The States, a notorious Southern euphemism resulting from the South’s commitment to “states’ rights” and its bitter refusal, even in defeat, to admit that they were part of one nation.
Then I looked at the state flag –- really looked at it -– for the first time, and saw it for what it was. I couldn’t believe that nobody had noticed this before. I felt like I had been struck by a thunderbolt. I mean, at least Georgia had the guts the use the Confederate flag everyone knew –- they were declaring themselves racist, and didn’t care who knew. North Carolina, on the other hand, was too cowardly to take an open stand.
Of course, I couldn’t fault them too much. Their weakness echoed my own failure to stand up for what I believed in the coffee shop, just days before.
Two churches were burned in Greensboro, North Carolina this past weekend, just days before the federal holiday honoring the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. As is so often the case with Southern racism, the perpetrators remain unknown, choosing instead to inflict violence from behind the white sheet of cowardice.
The choice of Greensboro has special resonance. In 1979, it was the site of brutal Klan violence, when five anti-Klan demonstrators were violently gunned down in the street by Klansmen and Neo-Nazis, while the police did nothing. Despite two criminal trials, all the defendants were acquitted.
Greensboro also has a deep resonance for me personally. Several members of the North Carolina side of my wife’s family are Klan, and have been so for years. The first time I heard the word “Greensboro” was not in some book or article about the incident. It was at a family reunion, where I heard men speak fondly of the event, as if it were a high-water mark in their lives.
Then, as recently, I did nothing. But now I have a son, eighteen months old, and I have unwittingly brought him into a place where conversations like this take place.
I have to do something.