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Reflections on leaving the progressive South

I'm so blue 

Reflections on leaving the progressive South

When old friends from the Northeast learned that my husband had been offered a great job at Rutgers University and we'd be relocating to New Jersey by the end of the summer, they were thrilled. Maybe a little too thrilled.

"Hey, this is great! You've been wanting to get out of the South for years, right?!" was the sentiment expressed by more than a few.

Well, it's been 12 years since I first drove into Durham. And, except for a few random pronouncements made during the initial adjustment to life in this region of mystery, eccentricity and barbecue, I don't recall any significant efforts on my part to get out. Especially in the six years I've been at the Independent, I've felt blessed with a dream job, a diverse and fascinating community, and a window onto complexities that are shuttered by our current penchant for red state/blue state clichés.

I can't really blame my pals. They simply don't know enough about the progressive South. And I don't just mean the life rafts floating out there in the form of certain coffee shops and blogs. I'm talking about the region that produced the nation's first public university and Civil Rights sit-ins. About the South that only narrowly missed electing a black candidate to the U.S. Senate in 1990 (Harvey Gannt vs. Jesse Helms). About a state where, despite the fact that the military is an important chunk of the economy, fewer than half the citizens recently polled believe the war in Iraq is worth fighting.

It's true that the Triangle is a freethinking pocket, a blue-to-purple oasis in a landscape that's considered reliably red. But electoral politics tap only one layer of belief. They fairly beg for people to express themselves in narrow, partisan terms. And they're far too vulnerable to snake-oil sermonizing and spurious connections--to say nothing of faulty voting machines--to offer more than blurry outlines of the hopes people hold in their hearts.

We are the land of Jesse Helms. But we're also the land of Mel Watt, the Self-Help Credit Union and Southerners on New Ground. Despite what some may assume, progressivism here isn't a Yankee invention. It's a homegrown streak that runs through our region's history as a collection of independent outposts--farms, fisheries, small businesses, even newspapers.

As with most everything about the South, that streak doesn't show itself right away. You have to move slowly, circuitously (some would say graciously) and spend time seeking it out. I've been fortunate in my role as a reporter to have stumbled upon a lot of this overlooked territory. I'm thinking about the Chatham County pastor who recently began preaching about the evils of family violence; the small tobacco farmers who don't want their kids to take up smoking--or tobacco farming for that matter; the members of a new Latino youth group who seem to know more about democracy than many elected officials.

I've also seen flashes in my neighborhood, where longtime "old Durham" residents have welcomed a wave of young families, gay couples, artists, immigrants--all drawn by affordable housing in the urban core. I've seen it at my son's youth sports matches and performances at his Durham public school, where the children of university professors and computer programmers blend happily with those of nurses, construction workers and store cashiers.

Scary things do happen here, of course. The recent cross burnings in Durham drew national attention and sounded some familiar, menacing chords. Yet, even scarier than those flaming symbols is a subject that doesn't fit the accepted racial paradigm: Growing resentments between blacks and Latinos, and how anti-immigrant sentiment is being exploited by the far right. So far, that story has stayed off camera. Poverty is still plenty frightening in the Triangle. So are rising AIDS rates, the defunding of public schools, and the number of teenagers dying in street shootings. But none of those are problems defined by or confined to the South.

So much of what happens here defies stereotypes. In Cynthia Hill's fine documentary, Tobacco Money Feeds My Family, there's a scene where a black farmer and his white neighbor pray together over the black farmer's fields. It's a stunning moment that captures more truth about race relations than even many films focused explicitly on that subject. What the scene reveals to me is how, when people are on the ground together, day after day, what they share becomes more important than what separates them.

I feel that way about the Triangle and Durham in particular. This is a place where, due to the curious forces of history, geography and economy, a whole lot of different people are on the ground together and the potential exists for us to surmount what divides us.

We have more in common than we think. The Presbyterian minister who performed our interfaith wedding ceremony once told me she feels more family ties to liberals from other religious faiths than to conservatives in her own denomination. When she spots someone from that broader tribe, she's home.

For me, the Triangle has provided a progressive home that goes beyond anything I experienced in the large cities of the Northeast. During my years at the Independent, I've encountered a big, motley crew of people working for a more just society--sometimes mainly in their own small circles and sometimes out in the wide world. They've made all the difference in how I view the South.

It's an outlook I'm determined to take North with me. After more than a decade down here, I feel I've got a thing or two to teach the blue states about this supposedly bright-red region. Maybe the most important is not to make assumptions based on a view of history-as-dead-weight, but instead to pay more attention to the immediate, to the choices we make and the lives we live every day.

Speaking of daily life, here are a few of the things I'll miss most about this part of the country:

Green space: When I arrived in the early 1990s, there were no traffic lights on Erwin Road between Durham and Chapel Hill. It was a straight shot through a lush, tranquil landscape--a kind of time warp between outposts of hip. Although such scenery is vanishing fast, it's still possible to get out into the country quicker here than in most urban areas. Let's hear it for all the preservation tracts that groups like the Triangle Land Conservancy are buying up, and those big, beautiful oaks that still grace so many of our city streets.

Left-Wing Religion: Amid all the hand wringing about how conservatives staked out "moral issues" in the last election, let's not forget how many folks in our region are active on the other side of the faith-based spectrum. Organizations like Stone Circles, Silk Hope Catholic Worker, Durham Congregations Associations and Neighborhoods, Women and Ministry in the South, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty and the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham are busy living out their own liberation theology--an approach that sees faith as an asset to changing the world, not a threat.

African-American Influences: These can be felt all over the Triangle but nowhere more powerfully than in Durham, where the legacy of a solid, black middle class has meant that African Americans are present and accounted for in ways they just aren't in many other towns. Durham looks more like the global village--white people are a minority here. And while race is most often portrayed in a negative light via coded warnings from real estate agents and headlines about the fractious school board, the reality is most often positive. My son has had black coaches, camp counselors and elementary school teachers and administrators to admire and learn from. The trusted neighbors he knows he can run to in an emergency are black. I think of all we've been given over the years by community institutions such as the Hayti Heritage Center, the Know Bookstore, WNCU radio and the African American Dance Ensemble, to name just a few. Also, of the inspiration offered by such individuals as Julius Chambers, Mandy Carter, Chuck Davis, Cynthia Brown, Bruce Bridges, Sadiyah Shakur, John Hope Franklin, Carl Kenney and the Rev. Paul Scott. I'll take diversity with a dollop of difficulty any day over the lack of it.

National Models: What is it about the Triangle that has us so chock full of nationally recognized institutions and model programs on a host of social-change issues? Maybe it's that the region is still small enough so that grassroots organizing feels doable. Or maybe it's because our economy has kept us on the cutting edge--tobacco manufacturing to RTP to the City of Medicine. But I think it goes deeper, to the progressive element that's in the water around here. Among some of the leaders in this arena: The Self-Help Credit Union, Ladyslipper Music, The Institute for Southern Studies, Full Frame documentary film festival, Public Allies, Smart Start, ibiblio, The Triangle Community Foundation, Lincoln and Piedmont Community Health centers, The Coalition for Family Peace--and for that matter, the University of North Carolina and its 16 campuses.

The Old Durham Athletic Park: Forget "the movie" that everyone still insists on talking about when the subject turns to local baseball. For me, the DAP is the axis of a unique urban landscape--Southern, blue-collar and endangered. From the stands you can see the hulking shapes of numerous industrial buildings, some still operating and others now ghosts. Nearby, there's the red-and-white burst of King's Sandwich shop, car washes, auto repair shops, bright blue walls, peeling posters, brick, stone and asphalt. And all under an open sky that gives the streetscape a feeling of uplift at the same time it touches on a note of loss.

The Sounds of Music: My favorite part of the Durham Blues Festival every year is watching the ladies in velour and big hats who stand right up near the stage and dance and dance and dance. If there are power centers for music the way there is a Pacific Rim for fires and earthquakes, this is definitely one of them. How else to explain the presence of the likes of Nnenna Freelon, Cool John Ferguson, Two Dollar Pistols, Tift Merritt, Lil Brother, Superchunk, The Cherry Valance and the Butchies--all within the same Triangle?

The North Carolina State Fair: Sure it's corny, but where else can you browse through displays of award-winning farm produce and baked goods and find the jar of pickles entered by your co-worker? Let's hope the animal exhibits don't get short shrift in the post "Sodfather" days of the fair. The horse shows and the FFA booths, where the kids spend long days and nights grooming and showing their animals, are a reminder that not everything of interest can be found at the mall.

Subcultures: Tai chi players, open-source geeks, gay rednecks, foodies, Eno wafters, roller bladers, creative writers, bikers and bio-diesel fans--this region is a magnet for people with varied interests and talents. A case in point is the first serious subculture I encountered here: the group that ushers for the American Dance Festival. These are folks who've been volunteering for years and can identify just which aisles they want to stand in and just where the best open seats are likely to be (not to mention what to do with those pesky programs the season-ticket patrons keep handing back). Their "reviews" of the latest Pilobolus performance rival any of the official critics for depth and thoroughness. And they never miss a world premiere.

The Independent: The Triangle's alternative weekly is among the best in the country and here's why:
1) We're locally owned--a rarity in this era of chain operations. That means we make up the paper new each week, eschewing the cookie-cutter approach that's become all too common in our biz. (And we still don't take tobacco ads.)
2) We cater to a thoughtful literary crowd, which keeps us on our reporting and writing toes.
3) For more than 20 years, the best publishers, ad reps, designers, business managers, office staff, writers and editors on the planet have cycled through here. Long may we wave!

  • Reflections on leaving the progressive South

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