NC Literary Hall of Fame



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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where it goes

where it ends up

the wings
in the wind turning

the blistering


taking hope

into the cracked

that justifies

Before this election, I lived in my fair share of red states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina. It wasn’t enough for Barack Obama to just win the election; I wanted North Carolina to become a blue state.

By election day, I’d only lived in Charlotte for sixteen months, but I felt just as invested as any native who supported him. By the time the election came around, he’d been to North Carolina seven times. I had volunteered and been to three rallies in Charlotte, one for his primary run and two election events, and my husband and I even got to shake his hand. I didn’t read the polls or believe the pundits; no one knew which way this state would go. Days later, when North Carolina was finally declared for Barack Obama I was overjoyed.

“I live in a blue state! Take that, other states!”

I called my friends in Virginia and Indiana who had already crossed over to blue-state status to tell them North Carolina made the cut. I would have gone to the presidential inauguration even if he hadn’t won the state, but the fact that he did made the victory just a bit sweeter.

With only a six-hour drive between me and history, metro passes, train tickets, and layers of warm clothes were all I needed. Despite not having swearing-in ceremony tickets at the time, I knew that it would work out somehow.

I wasn’t just going to this inauguration for myself. I was going for my ninety-one-year-old grandmother, who can only shake her head and smile when Barack Obama is on television. I went for her husband, my grandfather, who was killed in 1961 trying to get black people to register to vote. I was going for my future children, who will read about America’s first black president in their history books and I can tell them, “Yes, you can be anything you want to be.” President Barack Obama’s inauguration was even bigger than that; I felt as though I celebrated with our state, country, and the world.

What will forever stand out to me about attending President Barack Obama’s inauguration won’t just be the overwhelming sense of being a part of history or the belief that our country decided we really wanted change, although I still pause whenever I get those feelings. In the midst the grandeur of this moment, I took note of the little things:

The piles of Barack Obama postcards slid through the door of the Union Station Post Office waiting to be mailed to our president. Each one of those cards had a note written on it, and they came from someone who believed in our country and our future.

Throngs of people chanting “Yes You Can!” to the few brave souls who decided to climb into nearby trees to get a better view and the loud “Awww” when they couldn’t quite make it up.

My favorite scenes were the huddles of people, who had tickets but didn’t get into the ceremony, who began listening through mp3 players, cell phones, and radios just to hear Barack Obama’s inaugural address. Thousands, including myself and friends, didn’t let getting locked out of the ceremony dampen their excitement.

I was there. Yes it was freezing cold and yes I was vying for space along with two million other people, but I was there. I get to tell this story to friends and family and the story will live on long after I’m no longer here. President Barack Obama’s inauguration is now a permanent part of my life story.

I live in an old house on the main street of Hillsborough, North Carolina, population 6,162, a rural village and county seat now undergoing major change ever since the Old South turned into the “Sunbelt,” and Money magazine wrote up our area as one of the best places in America to live. What’s it like to be “discovered” after 250 years? 

A quick walk down King Street tells the tale.

Whatever you need, the Dual Supply hardware store has got it—though proprietor Wesley Woods may be the only one who can find it on the crowded shelves, which have looked “pretty much the same” ever since he started working here at “eight or nine years old, putting up stock, sweeping, and changing tires.” He’s not worried about the big box stores going in down by the interstate: “Your people are your business, and my people aren’t going away.” There’s a steady stream in and out as contractor John Shoneman picks up a couple pounds of nails and “just writes it down”; other customers “pay so much per month.” There’s no computer.

Across the street we find Evelyn Lloyd’s venerable little family drugstore, which she opened in l987 after working alongside her daddy, Allen Alexander Lloyd, in the James Pharmacy for years and years. They had a soda fountain then, Evelyn says, and sold “gift sets of Evening in Paris at Christmas. Daddy knew everybody—anybody who needed help. If they couldn’t pay, that was okay.” Evelyn’s father was on the town council for thirty years; she has served for sixteen. Evelyn worries about the problems that have come with development. “It’s a lot to think about,” she says. “We’re forcing people to move out—where are they going to go?” There’s not enough water, and traffic is an increasing problem, too: “You can’t get across the street now.”

Nestled in between her pharmacy and the Carolina Game and Fish (now featuring a sign for its current Turkey Contest, Entry Fee $15, in the window, along with hunting bows, fishing tackle, camo clothing, and bright orange hats), we find Cup A Joe with its latte, cappuccino, chai, and multiply pierced baristas, doing a thriving business. Even more sophisticated is the authentic patisserie two doors down, owned and run by French-speaking Eric Valour, recently of Lyon. We ain’t quaint no more.

I join Mayor Tom Stevens for coffee in Cup A Joe, his “morning office.” The Wooden Nickel bar is his afternoon office. Everybody seems to like Tom, a longtime resident and organizational development consultant who ran for office because he “had a sense that this town was on the verge,” and he wants Hillsborough to “be successful in a way that is good for human beings.” Mayor Stevens sees a “huge agreement in town right now, given the diversity.” He touts Hillsborough’s “authenticity,” which he sees as deriving from its small-town character and sense of place; its strong heritage, from Occaneechi Native American roots to Revolutionary and Civil War history, to jazz singers, millworkers, and farmers; its current prosperity (“We’re in good shape, with a 40 percent business base and 3.3 percent unemployment rate”); and its vitality, with a newly vibrant street life epitomized by the downtown “Last Friday” festival every month featuring the arts, barbecue, bluegrass, and blues.

But the Mayor wonders how to “create a sense of belongingness for everybody”—especially everybody in those big new suburbs outside of town, like Waterstone. And bulldozers are rumbling in every direction. “We are under huge development pressure. Now we have to choose our future, and we have to do it right.”

Up Churton Street at Tony’s Barbecue, the Price brothers, Donny and Lee, aren’t so sure about all this. Like the Dual Supply, Tony’s has stayed the same ever since anybody can remember, serving the best sausage biscuits in town—arguably in the entire South—for $1.09 apiece, or two for $1.79, made from scratch every day by owner Tony Swanger. I like to get mine with mustard on it.

“They’re going to mess up Hillsborough,” is Donny’s opinion about all the new and planned development in town. “They’re tearing down woods and running off the deer. It’s driving the country out.”

Lee Price agrees. “You can kill somebody and get away with it if you’ve got enough money,” he says. “It ain’t nothing to build something.”

Lee Smith
April 5, 2007

Postscript: And by the way, Tony’s Barbecue, which I mention in the piece, has gone out of business now—destroyed by “progress,” I guess. Progress may destroy us all!

Originally published in the New York Times

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