I live in North Carolina. It’s a Southern state that’s traditionally been considered “progressive” as far as Southern states go. It has an admirable history of having established and funded the United State’s first public university, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which, to this day, is considered one the America’s premier research universities. It’s what brought me to North Carolina 37 years ago as a graduate student in the humanities, which was one of the best things I ever did. The state proudly refers to Chapel Hill as “The University of the People” and until recently purposefully kept tuition low so that bright kids from modest families had access to a world-class education, every bit the equal of the education plutocrat’s kids received 8 miles away at Duke University, an uber-expensive elite university in Durham. Chapel Hill (read: the State of North Carolina) educated me as both a historian and an attorney, allowing me entrance to their flagship University and essentially paying my way. I’ve since attended both Duke and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but my emotional loyalties will always remain in North Carolina with the good people whose generosity enabled this working-class boy to receive a world-class education.
When I first arrived in North Carolina, it was a solidly Democratic state, both urban and rural. That started to change in the 90’s as the divide between city and country intensified. Within the last 15 years, state government has become solidly Republican, the rural areas gaining power through gerrymandering at the expense of the urban majority. North Carolina voted for Obama twice, but in 2016 voted for Trump. There’s a reason for that. While urban areas like Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte prosper, rural North Carolina is in a death spiral – no jobs, failing education, willful ignorance and reactionary evangelical religion mutually reinforcing each other. It’s sad to see, but it’s the reality.
I mention all this because American politics is currently being roiled by a new nativism, the kind that used to tell people they could love America…or leave it. Our latest jingoism is of the “Send Her Back” variety, an unfortunate chant taken up by folks at a recent Donald Trump rally, addressed to a Somali-born American congresswoman from Minnesota at odds with Trumpism. The whole thing has, rightfully so, gotten a lot of media attention, not all of it good for North Carolina, given it occurred at a Trump rally in …. Greenville, North Carolina, a medium-sized town in rural eastern North Carolina. I cringed when I heard it had happened there, for two reasons: first, I love North Carolina and am grateful to it for all it’s done for me. My North Carolina (Raleigh/Durham) is diverse, inclusive, forward-thinking…and affluent and so unlike what most folks might think of the state based on this; and second, I’m familiar with eastern North Carolina and Greenville in particular…and I like the people there. It’s beautiful country, and the folks who live there are nice people, friendly, pleasant courteous and always ready to help when I’m stranded on the side of the road with a flat bicycle tire.
I’ve spent the last few years taking photos throughout eastern North Carolina while biking its country roads. No need for a Leica or dedicated camera. The iPhone is the perfect documentarian’s tool – always with you when you need it, the images more than acceptable for journalistic applications. This weekend I finally figured how to download them from iCloud (why does everything digital have to be so fucking complicated?) and I worked a few up in Lightroom. My intent is to put together a series of photographs that somehow tell a truth about the people who live in eastern North Carolina and felt it OK to chant “Send Her Back” at a political rally. That’s what good photojournalism does, and I’m convinced there’s still room for it. Pictures sometimes tell truths that can’t be conveyed with words. Compelling issues like what’s happening politically in America are not simple to explain or understand. Sometimes seeing can inform us in ways words can’t. I hope the photos I’ve chosen do that.