Writing the New South

"Writing the New South is a brilliant, exciting, and NECESSARY project---sign me up, count me in! The 'New South' is a cauldron of change, a fertile field of art, a proving ground  for new possibilities.  I can't wait to see what everyone has to say, and in what genres. This is a real opportunity for us all to deepen our understanding of where we live, who we are, and what we believe in." --Lee Smith

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The buzz of dedication and excitement couldn’t be missed at the house on Watts Street in Durham, a staging area for Barack Obama’s campaign on election day, 2008. Dozens of mostly white folks on the front walk approached the house and left the house. The hall was congested, making it difficult to sign the register. Volunteers occupied all chairs and sofas in the living room, and some sat on the floor and leaned against the windows, waiting for their marching orders. Three or four women sat around the dining room table with lists of people to call. More people entered data in computers. Others assembled canvassing packets. Organizers took groups of volunteers, in the living room and in ad hoc clusters on the wraparound porch, through the packets, telling them how to approach voters, what to leave for them, and how to code the lists.

Election day was miserably rainy and the rain only seemed to increase through the day. By late afternoon my raincoat no longer kept me dry. The umbrella didn’t succeed in protecting the lists of addresses and brochures my companion and I juggled in repeated forays from car to street to car. But the drive to contact everyone on our lists and the reception we received in the poor African American neighborhoods made it worthwhile. One woman, who must have been in her seventies, proudly announced that she had just voted for the first time. A man visiting his sister said he had already voted, but would make sure to carry his sister to the polls. A young man came to the door bare-chested and said that his mother had e-mailed to tell him to vote. He vowed he was on his way. Another young man was getting in his car to give his friends rides to the polls. In the driveway of one house, a Verizon repairman told me he was so excited that he hadn’t slept Monday night and was sure he wouldn’t sleep that night either. Durham, and the whole world it seemed, was enthralled with this election.

Several weeks later, the itinerant yardman with whom I am working on literacy skills met me at the library. I’ll call him Jim. I had printed from the Internet an easy-to-read short biography of Barack Obama. I was sure that Jim would want to know something about our soon-to-be first African American president. I was stunned when he said he really wasn’t interested. “He don’t really have no relevance to my life,” he said. “Nothing will change for me.” I started to contradict him, but in fact I could see his point. Obama’s election would not change the circumstances of this man’s life. He would still have to hunt for work every day and struggle to pay the bills. But I really wanted him to be as excited as I was. I wished he could see that a president can affect individual lives.

The example that came to mind was the way President Bush responded to 9/11 by going to war with Iraq. “Don’t you see how that war helped drive us from a budget surplus into debt and left few resources to use for other purposes, like health care, education, better transit systems, etc? That certainly affected all of us,” I said. Jim said he supported the war since Iraq needed to be punished.  He was amazed to hear, and not sure he should believe me, that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. We dropped the political debate, and he said he would read Obama’s biography if I wanted him to. He read the first couple of paragraphs, far enough to read that Obama had worked as a community organizer, helping poor people get their landlords to fix the heat and directing the unemployed to agencies that could help them find a job. Without belaboring the point, because Jim has some smarts despite his lack of education, I silently hoped that he would make the connection between Obama as president and his own life.

I can feel the huge symbolism of Obama’s election. As I walk down the street in my inner-city neighborhood or interact with store clerks, am I just imagining a slight easing of tension between the races? Are we smiling at each other more? Or is it merely North Carolina’s vote for a black president and its move into the blue column that has lifted my mood? Maybe. I’m an optimist and like to imagine that life can change and get better. Jim, on the other hand, is a skeptic. He doesn’t believe anything will change for him and his daily life. He is correct of course. The stimulus package, if it works, will help us collectively. He doesn’t even believe that he should be singled out for special favors. The look he threw me said, What fool would expect the president to reach down and fix the problems of one man?

Recently though, I’ve noticed a shift in Jim’s outlook. It might be due to the new sense of possibility in the air, despite the wretched economy. It might be the skills we’ve worked on and the encouragement to believe that he can learn to read. It might be the reality of seeing his sons drop out of school as he did many years ago. How can he tell them to stay in if he didn’t? Suddenly he is excited, less hesitant. He is looking for a way to change his life, as he did earlier when he successfully beat a narcotics habit. He has taken the first steps to prepare for the GED exam. They will be baby steps, a tentative reach for a goal that may well be impossible for him; improving from fifth-grade reading and third-grade math to GED level is a huge leap for a fifty-year-old man. But who am I to say? I’ll be there cheering him on, just happy that he can feel the energy of the times.

“Corner of Martinsville Road”
By Marilyn Wolf

Red earth, upturned,
ravaged land
greets me every morning where
an old patch of trees
used to stand,
overgrown and quiet,
a tiny spot of wildness
between two busy streets,
watching over passing traffic,
shade while waiting for the light to change,
refuge for city birds and urban squirrels,
homeless now.

That patch of trees,
older than any councilman,
commissioner, or developer
who stood jury and judge
over its fate,
is gone now, chopped
down, roots dug up.

Nothing left but red,
raw earth,
a wounding near the heart of town,
waiting for retail space,
to erect itself
long before
any healing can occur.

I could sense the outcome as soon as I pulled into the town of Butner. “No BioLab” signs dotted the roadside, the orange circle and slash now part of the local lexicon. The parking lot of the Butner-Stem Middle School was full. TV news vans, antennas erect, hugged the drop-off lane.

I was here to cover a public hearing on the proposed construction of a National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, NBAF (pronounced “en-baff”) for short. In the wake of 9/11, the federal government realized we are extremely vulnerable to an act of bioterrorism. There are a number of diseases which, though not necessarily fatal to humans, could devastate our agricultural industry. The government’s biodefense lab at Plum Island, New York, has exceeded its lifetime and is in dire need of replacement. The mission of NBAF would be to provide a spacious and secure facility where researchers could conduct tests on large animals (pigs, cows) and develop new vaccines.

The Department of Homeland Security was charged with siting and building NBAF. They had narrowed their selection down to five possible locations: Athens, Georgia; Manhattan, Kansas; San Antonio; Texas; Flora, Mississippi; and Butner. Butner was reputed to be high on the list because of its rural setting, available land, and the support of scientists at North Carolina StateUniversity’s School of Veterinary Medicine and the NC Biotechnology Center, among others. Butner was already home to a federal prison housing some of the nation’s most dangerous inmates and a state mental hospital. Surely, the people would be willing to consider a research lab, albeit one housing dangerous viruses with no known cure.

At the entrance to the school, a tall man dressed in a mock hazmat suit fielded questions from a TV news reporter. His tone was agitated, his accent distinctly Northern. The phrase “not from around here” popped into my mind. But not from around here doesn’t mean what it used to in North Carolina.

I can remember when Granville County was as rural as anywhere in this state. If you drove through the county seat of Oxford, you were likely to end up behind a tractor hauling a wagonload of tobacco. The town had been the scene of fiery civil rights demonstrations in 1970, but had since gone back to its quiet ways. Now, ex-hippie friends who worked at Duke University and ResearchTriangle Park were building “intentional communities” in Granville County. I didn’t know if their ilk was behind this, but clearly the rhetoric and tools of the sixties protest movement had arrived.

Beside the hazmat guy, a group of children were singing “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” with the chorus changed to “We don’t want your dirty biolab.” Mom, who had no doubt scripted the song, waved a baton over their heads.

Inside the lobby, I was greeted by a heavyset woman wearing a black and orange T-shirt emblazoned with the letters GNAT, an acronym for Granville Non-Violent Action Team. The back of her shirt read, “Whatever It Takes.”

“Are you a reporter?” she said, eyeing my notebook and camera. “You’ll want a copy of these.”

She handed me a sheaf of flyers trumpeting the organization’s opposition to NBAF and urging people to sign an online petition. “They say if an infected mosquito were to get out of the lab, they’d have to shoot all the deer,” she told me. “Good luck with that.”

I thanked her and made my way to the gymnasium. The room was thick with GNATs, senior citizens, and a handful of suits (university admins? DC consultants?). Police officers scanned the crowd for potential troublemakers. Clustered behind the podium were the speakers from homeland security. They had the hangdog look of prisoners awaiting execution.

I read through the flyers. Some of the concerns seemed reasonable—all buildings/systems are subject to failure, researchers can intentionally or accidentally carry viruses off-site, quick evacuation of prisoners and patients from the federal correctional institute and John Umstead Hospital would be impossible. Others bordered on the absurd. Referring to the infamous Tuskegee experiment in which the U.S. Public Health Service secretly infected illiterate black sharecroppers with syphilis, one flyer stated that if NBAF were built in Butner, “the entire WORLD will reasonably suspect the US para-military and other agencies will AGAIN be tempted to use adult & underage Black captives as human guinea pigs for biological warfare research. Why else would a Biological Warfare R&D lab be built at the highest-risk site surrounded by thousands of mostly ‘non-Aryan’ prisoners and mental patients?”

A moderator called the hearing to order. She briefly described the procedure for the hearing, then introduced the NBAF program manager. A thin man with a small face took the stand. Jamie Johnson turned on his PowerPoint display and scrolled through a summary of the one-thousand-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement. He cited the potential benefits of NBAF—new biologic knowledge, added jobs, and enhanced health and safety. Under normal operation, he said, NBAF would have “negligible” or “minor” adverse impacts on the chosen community. Should there be an accidental release, say a mosquito infected with foot-and-mouth disease, the consequences could be “significant.” Millions of animals would have to be destroyed (FMD is not transmittable to humans) and U.S. tourism, trade, and agriculture would be devastated. But, Johnson said, the chances of an accidental release were extremely low.

The moderator opened the floor to the audience. A woman approached the microphone. In trembling voice, she demanded to know how many accidental releases there’d been from the government’s Plum Island lab.

“There was one accidental release in 1978, thirty years ago,” Johnson said.

“The appendix to your report lists nine.”

“The others were cross-contaminations of animals within the facility.”

A bearded man identifying himself as a family physician questioned the trustworthiness of the Department of Homeland Security. “This facility will no doubt be run by a contractor. Who oversees the contractor? The Department of Homeland Security is a political organization. We don’t trust the Department of Homeland Security.”

The audience erupted in huzzahs.

A woman wanted to know how the pathogens would be transported to the facility.

“Agents from overseas are shipped by airline,” Johnson said. “We greet the package and transport it through customs. They are transported to the NBAF by courier vehicles monitored by GPS.”

“What happens if the plane crashes?”

The hazmat guy, headgear removed to reveal a long, gray ponytail, strode to the fore. A policeman edged toward the podium. “Your report says NBAF will employ between 300 and 350 people,” Hazmat fumed. “But Appendix D says the facility could provide space for up to 600. Just how many people are you planning to bring down here?”

Johnson looked confused.

“Have you even read your own report?”

I stopped taking notes. It wasn’t that the questions were all unreasonable. But the hostility of the speakers was unsettling. No one voiced a word of support. Where, I wondered, were the scientists from NC State whom I’d heard talk of the boon this facility would be for the area? Where were the appeals to patriotism? I wondered what these speakers, many of whom said they worked for the federal prison or the hospital, would say if the government tried to locate those facilities in Butner today. Bring the most dangerous prisoners into our community? You must be insane!

But who could blame them? North Carolina’s rural areas and small towns have been stuck with all sorts of enterprises—landfills, hog farms—that have made life unpleasant and ruined property values. I’d made a career out of writing articles warning people of such dangers. Now, suspicion once reserved for nuclear power plants near big cities had spread to incinerators, asphalt plants, wind farms—you name it—anywhere in the state.

A few weeks after the hearing, I called a reporter who had covered the public hearings in each of the towns selected as finalists. I wanted to know what the public reaction had been.

“The Georgia crowd had a lot of debate back and forth,” Bill said. “They were about half for and half against. The Kansas crowd was about two-to-one in favor of NBAF. Mississippi and Texas were strongly supportive. Butner was the only place that was uniformly opposed.”

“That’s amazing,” I said. “I wonder what it is about us?”

“The BANANA syndrome,” Bill said.

“Banana?”

“An extreme case of NIMBY. Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody.”

 
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