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love song for the tarheel state

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Yesterday I stumbled across a blog post that basically asked “What the heck is going on with North Carolina? Just when did it become so reactionary, Tea Party-friendly blood-red?” If you watch some of the things done by the North Carolina state legislature these days, it’s not hard to see where that question is coming from.

But it’s always a bit odd to see the state that seems like your home painted in this light. I’m not saying the NC state government doesn’t have problems (it does IMO, majorly). So as an antidote to my own frustration, here are some things I actually like about North Carolina.


1. The Parkway. Maggie Valley, Linville Gorge, Grandfather Mountain, Lake Junaluska. People in North Carolina, particularly Western North Carolina, like getting out in nature. And they are in my experience not only intensely proud but intensely protective of their natural resources. They get out and use them, and they work to make them accessible and to protect them politically and personally. It’s not at all unusual for individual people to work to develop these natural resources (by which I mean building safer trails and raking leaves and voting for funding, not strip-mining and the like) in a way I haven’t seen anywhere else I’ve lived.

2. On a related note, North Carolina actually does some good work in animal sciences and conservation. I did my first year of undergrad at Western Carolina University, where there was such a spirit of not just making the natural world accessible but understanding it. WCU had very strong biology and earth science programs, doing field work at even the undergraduate level. At a less academic level, I saw an emphasis on growing food locally, sustainability, recycling, and other earth-friendly movements in North Carolina before I saw them anywhere else. Granted, I was living there at the time, but there’s an organic nature to this drive to do scientific research and take real action that is truly commendable.

3. Speaking of colleges, one of the things I find most frustrating about Gov. McCrory + Co. is their insistence on taking away funding from education, particularly higher education. Which is a real shame (and downright shameful) because the UNC system is really something, in terms of both accessibility and quality. I’ve been told that I’m self-motivated enough I’d have been driven to go far coming out of just about any system. But as I’ve been working on my resume lately, two pertinent facts come to mind: after four years at a public university I managed a 1450 on the GRE (6.0 analytical, baby!) and a ticket to an M.A. program in a completely different subject, where I still had the tools necessary to earn a 3.9 GPA. That coming from a school whose tuition and student success rates would put CUNY to shame. It’s also really well integrated into the whole community, with interesting discussions geared not just to students but to adults living in each town. In NC, the university system really does provide an intellectual center to the whole area they’re in, and they work that role to good effect. There are good schools, world-class even (think UNC-Chapel Hill) that bring in world-class speakers. There are also truly innovative coursework – I once took a course in theological approaches to ecology, for instance, and another in Greek Orthodox theology and philosophy as it was revealed through the struggle over iconography and iconoclasm. And both of those courses involved not just young students like me but also area farmers working up sustainable architecture and pastors trying to figure out how to engage their congregations over global warming. Good times, and great experiences.

4. James Taylor. Clay Aiken. Ben Folds Five. John Coltrane. The Charlie Daniels Band. Earl Scruggs. Doc Watson. And those are just the musicians with NC roots and histories that I can think of offhand. To say that the state has a burgeoning musical scene would be an understatement. And, how could I almost forget, the Squirrel Nut Zippers. How could any state that gave us those dudes be entirely bad?

5. You can’t talk about music without talking about restaurants. Woodland’s Barbecue, not far from where I lived, is well-known even out of the area. Great food, great music, and great company. There are other similar local hangouts across the state, and everywhere of course. But the thing about NC hangouts is, at least where I lived, they were great melting pots between the social classes that I just haven’t found anywhere. You could find the richest, most influential men in town sitting at a rough-hewn table, eating a $7 plate of barbecue and tapping his shoe to some nice banjo-picking. And he’d actually talk to the person at the table next to him. I’m not saying NC is perfect in this area, but the slice of it I’ve experienced, there are a lot more people socializing with each other who come from very different social backgrounds than I’ve experienced anywhere else I’ve lived. I guess when the hoity-toitiest supermarket in town is Harris Teeter, that may be a bit of inevitable. But it’s something New Yorkers work very hard at, which seems to come quite naturally to the people of Appalachian North Carolina.

6. Speaking of progressivism in NC: Moral Mondays and Greensboro lunch counters. In Greensboro, where I did my undergrad, we were quite proud of that history, and you still hear people put things in terms of that movement when talking about contemporary issues. The south is more politically conservative as a whole and culturally tends to seem a bit old-fashioned to non-Southerners, but working within that framework North Carolinians do believe there’s progress that needs to be made and work hard to do it. They’re willing to get arrested to protest slashes to poverty programs, anti-choice legislation, and other laws they feel need changing. Right now those people are in a position of resisting a solidly red state government, but it wasn’t always like that and it won’t always be like that. There is a strong progressive movement really putting themselves out there these days.

7. And one last thing worth mentioning. You wouldn’t know it from the recent battle over the gay marriage constitutional amendment, but North Carolina actually has a very supportive and active LGBT equality movement, and just a generally nice gay culture. Asheville in particular is wonderful in this regard. I’m not saying there aren’t problems in some areas but when you look at how homosexuality is handled in other areas of the region, Tarheels have enough to be proud of.

That’s enough to be getting on with, I think. I just get a little frustrated sometimes with how my beloved NC is portrayed in the media, and I wanted to put out some of the things I think it actually does right.

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