Carolina in my Mind

Billy Graham Parkway. The name of the main road leading out of the Charlotte airport told me more than I wanted to know, though nothing I didn’t expect, about North Carolina. It was my first visit. Behind L.A.-chic sunglasses, my eyes glinted in anticipation of a battle I’d been preparing for all my life. Sure, I’d seen this terrain before, mostly Louisiana, the place where my parents are from and from which they fled long before I was born in order to spare me the second-class citizenship accorded Negroes there since Reconstruction. But North Carolina is a different place than Louisiana; it’s as far east as the South goes, as deep into enemy territory as I could get, a bright-red state rooted in the history of Caribbean plantation owners who were the least conflicted about slavery as an institution in America. Off Billy Graham Parkway, I spotted the Jesse Helms Center, and later a handmade sign advertising guns for sale in what looked like a corner grocery store. Pray-for-our-troops ribbons and American flags were everywhere, with the occasional Confederate version on the backs of pickup trucks and in SUV windows. Baptist churches were so ubiquitous, by the time I saw a towering, five-story-high cross off the highway in Fayetteville, attached to no church and to no sign at all, it seemed normal — “God’s headquarters,” a local friend of mine said with a shrug and only a little bit of humor. But what disoriented me most was not any of this, but geography. North Carolina’s streets and roads were as far from L.A.’s neat suburban grid as I could have imagined, swallowed up by fields of green — tobacco, soy, corn — and following some ancient logic of rivers and farms that made it impossible for me to remember how I got from A to B, even if A and B were only a half-mile apart. Streets changed names and numbers multiple times, veered off in long, lazy curves without warning. “There are no right angles here,” is how my brother Kris put it. He was right. This lack of sharp points was already taking the edge off of me — how do you fight what you can’t even find?

I was in North Carolina visiting Kris, who had moved to a town called Monroe last summer when his job relocated from Southern California. He’d bought a palatial new house in a pristine new development (that I recognized) for well under $200,000 (that I didn’t). He liked the house fine, but didn’t venture out of it too much.

He and his girlfriend obliged my desire to look around. We drove through a neighboring township called Matthews, which had a quaint little main street that reminded me of Larchmont, except I realized that Larchmont was no doubt a Hollywood copy of a place like Matthews. We went to an upscale mall in Charlotte called South End, which is just about as L.A. as things got, and in some ways better — it was one level instead of two or three, very navigable, and designed with skylights to maximize the good qualities of the sun, as a provider of light rather than an aggravator of unbearable humidity.

South End sales clerks were friendly and eager to help, and when they said “y’all” and “ma’am,” I responded in kind without thinking — after all, this Southern-ness is what I practice at home, what I grew up absorbing, albeit among other black transplants and refugees like my parents. Everyone seemed that way here, including whites. I had no idea if they had Confederate flags in their cars, or if they were moderates or rabid conservatives, if they were red or blue at heart, or mostly purple. In the marketplace of the mall we were all simply players in a consumerist game, equal in the eyes of the capitalism gods.

I don’t like to admit it, but here was true democracy and common ground, a place and a moment easy to find not just here, but anywhere in America. Too easy. In a store called Belk’s, a North Carolina Macy’s, I bought a bathing suit for a good price and left feeling content; I hadn’t fought anything so far, but capitulated. Though by the end of my trip into the heart of darkness I could at least feel smug about keeping all the Bojangle’s fried chicken, barbecue huts and Krispy Kremes at bay. I showed the South what the Left Coast is made of: more protein, less carbs.


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