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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.

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.



where it goes

where it ends up

the wings
in the wind turning

the blistering


taking hope

into the cracked

that justifies

A day came when we realized that something was going to have to give, as they say. We weren't going to be able to stay in our beloved house for what might be a long time ahead unless we were going to end up depending on and beholden to our children. After months of searching and visiting, we landed in Morganton, a lovely small town in the foothills.

We tacitly decided to ignore unstated questions about race relations in a kind of ostrich mindset. We bought a house on an unpretentious but pleasant street in an old part of town, and my husband began some renovations. In the parking lot of Lowe's, we observed two young men, one black and one white, approaching each other. With sudden whoops of happy recognition, they met and embraced and were still talking with considerable animation when we left our car to go into the store.

"We wouldn't see that in Connecticut," my husband remarked.

We weren't so ignorant that we didn't realize that we had dropped into what might be an atypical Southern town, and thought we were fortunate, but wherever we've been, from Wilmington to Asheville with many a stop in between, we've seen that we're happy to have arrived in the New South.

Before our move, still in southern New England, we heard a conversation between the marketing person for the retirement community where we live and a daughter of prospects. It took place in a moderately upscale condominium community for those over fifty-five. The young woman said she couldn't wait to move down to Morganton because she had visited there, and in a restaurant had observed a child answering an adult with, "Yes, ma'am," and she couldn't wait to get to a neighborhood with manners like that.

Our first visits to retail establishments gave us as great a culture shock as anything else has. Clerks actually approach a customer and ask if they can help. If you come from a northeastern city, you can scarcely believe your ears. The attitude of strangers took some getting used to. I walked the dog in our quiet neighborhood and was greeted from passing pickup trucks as well as by other pedestrians as if the people knew me. In the local wellness center, my husband was asked how he was doing as he climbed the stairs to the gym.

We're not so naïve as to assume this civility is profoundly heartfelt, but it nevertheless is so courteous as to make us and everyone else want to react in kind. And that perhaps is what is most special about North Carolina. It seems to occupy an enviable place where homage to tradition and pride of place manage to exist in balance with habitual politeness, modern political sensibilities, and a heartening number of open minds.

Our families have heritages of which we're proud too, so we understand what we find here. We've been humbled by the well-documented failures of our educations as we've attended Historical Society meetings and lectures at the Burke County Public Library on the Revolutionary War. We didn't realize how much of that conflict was actually won here. We're touched by the willingness of the "locals" to accept these Yankees and treat us as though we might be able to learn how to fit in. Thank you, North Carolina, for your gentle sons and daughters and your mountains and piedmont and sandhills and barrier islands, your arts and crafts, and especially, your literature.

Spring, 1984. Working a concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London, I meet a Brit couple during the interval. “So you’re from North Carolina? Where?”

“Oh, it’s tiny, you’ve never heard of it.”

“Try us.”


“Home of the Sunnyside Oyster Bar! We’ve eaten there!”

Recently the Sunnyside was featured in Gourmet Magazine, but my London experience is proof—it was already internationally famous.

Winter, 1998. My eight-year-old daughter, Lily, and I have just moved to Durham from the Pacific Northwest. We’re visiting family down east in Williamston during an R-month, so naturally we visit the Sunnyside.

In business since 1935, it’s an unprepossessing Craftsman-style wooden structure on the road into town, with a discreet pink-and-blue neon window sign. We’re finally seated at the seventy-foot, horseshoe-shaped counter. Behind it, men sling out buckets of oysters, then artfully shuck and serve them one by one into each patron’s dish. Some work silently, others crack jokes, adding to the convivial din of conversations and laughter. Cedar shavings cover the floor.

We finish our pecks of cold, clean, slippery, briny raw oysters, then our medium-steamed ones, which are warm, more al dente—both kinds dipped in melted butter and a warmed-up, secret-recipe cocktail sauce, served with saltines. The Sunnyside has no kitchen, so they don’t mess with hush puppies, and there’s nary a vegetable in sight in this inner sanctum. However, on big-crowd nights, like Thanksgiving Friday, people sometimes bring raw veggies and dip to the outer waiting area, where the bar is. While waiting they drink brown-bagged bourbon, and swing a string with a metal ring to catch the hook on the wall—world’s simplest game.

The economy in eastern North Carolina is shriveling, but tonight, watching all the joyful reunions at the Sunnyside—some planned, some unexpected—you’d never know it. Few towns have such a reliable gathering place for meeting and greeting. Several guys I went through school with bought the business in 1991 from the original owners, the C. T. Roberson family. Here at the Sunnyside, there’s a feeling of prosperity. “They must be making a killing,” I tell my sister.

I notice Lil’s wooden barstool empty, go looking in the knotty-pine-planked ladies’ room, both waiting rooms, then out into the cold. I find her out back by the steamer, coat flung over a bush, dancing in briny steam. Seeing me, she sings, “This is my favorite restaurant in the whole wide world!”

That’s funny because, like most children, Lily wouldn’t dare eat an oyster. Even my Williamston-born father was squeamish. “History’s bravest man? The first to try an oyster.”

It’s fun seeing people I know from childhood, people my parents knew. “Salt of the earth,” Daddy called some of them. But knowing nobody, you’d still sense the charge in the air. Mama recalls oyster-lovers traveling by limo to this small town on the Roanoke River. To celebrate a husband’s birthday, she says, wives as far away as Raleigh have rented a bus, filled it with friends and a fully-stocked bar, and directed the driver to Williamston.

The Sunnyside has changed over the years. Brown bagging gave way to liquor-by-the-drink when Martin County passed the referendum, though in 2010 they dropped mixed drinks because of the regulatory hassle and stuck to beer—and wine, which my husband notes with amusement is cheaper than the beer. The building has been listed in the North Carolina Historical Register, and given a couple of sensitive remodelings. The oysters, once from North Carolina’s coastal waters, now come mostly from the Gulf. A few menu additions—bowls of shrimp, scallops, crab legs and recently—though rarely ordered—the heretical broccoli-with-cheese.

Also, changes in personnel. From the earliest days, all the shuckers were black men, their faces pictured on paper placemats with their autographs. Mama laminated several of these placemats for me to use at home, but they made me uncomfortable, reminded me that once blacks couldn’t eat at the Sunnyside, only work there. A few years ago the first white face appeared on the placemats—one of my older sister’s classmates from Williamston High School.

The shuckers are all colorful characters, talented servers. Good tips make it the best service money around. A job whites might have considered demeaning in the past, they are now proud to hold. More recent placemats show sunny faces, about half of them black and half white, framing a simple hand drawing of the Sunnyside Oyster Bar. Under each picture is a name: Timothy Smith, Joey Andrews, Elbert Lee “Griff” Griffin, Floyd L. Spruill, Eric Brown, Jarred Price, Johnny Whitaker, Cody Bryant, Nathaniel “Nate” Williams, Jesse R. Massenburg II, Natt Whitaker. I’ve laminated dozens of these newer placemats and enjoy using them and giving them to people from all over I’ve introduced to the Sunnyside.

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