East Coast Trippin’ Day 3: “The Southern Part of Heaven”

29 May

College towns all have their little wrinkles and unique quirks. I’ve enjoyed visiting university campuses for quite some time now, and its always been fun to compare and contrast different school’s architecture and landscape with each other. The Durham-Chapel Hill juxtaposition is one that parallels USC-UCLA.

UCLA is a public university plopped down in the middle of one America’s richest demographics, Beverly Hills, California, while USC is a private institution located in the middle of downtown Los Angeles.

Chapel Hill is a highly affluent community that reeks of old tobacco money, but UNC is a state school. The town itself is very spread out, but all the commerce and infrastructure is centrally located. If you walk 2 miles off campus, you’ll find yourself surrounded in solitude. I could not imagine living there without a car. I did some busking on the main strip, Franklin Street, and by nightfall, it was too dark to attempt walking back to my host’s home.

Coming from Lawrence, it was cool to see the basketball culture that Mr. Dean Smith, a Kansas grad, helped to create in Chapel Hill. If Chapel Hill is anywhere near as basketball crazed as Lawrence, then being a UNC player has got to be awesome. I bet the early 80’s team was a fun one, with James Worthy, Michael Jordan, and Sam Perkins (I bet they had a ball). I’m sure Rick Fox had zero social problems as a student-athlete. If I ever have the pleasure of having a conversation with Rasheed Wallace, or Kenny Smith, I would love to ask them about their Carolina days.

Despite having one of the country’s most elite private institutions, Durham is a pretty lively place. I’d completely forgotten about the minor league team in town (the Durham Bulls–you know the team they made that movie about) and the downtown consisted of more than shops, and eateries. Durham is a legit city that feels like a small town. If you have ever been to the Greenville area in Dallas, Texas then you can imagine how the Duke campus looks and feels. Coffee shops are filled with smart, nerdy kids in Duke T-shirts, and even the hippies walk as if they sticks up their asses.

I’ve been wanting to visit both Durham and Chapel-Hill since I was a teen when I first started learning about college hoops and the Duke-UNC rivalry. I did not get to play pick up ball like I was hoping to, but it was a good taste. I plan to come back someday and actually throw down a few bills on a ticket to a UNC-Duke clash. I’ll have to fly into Raleigh and rent a car next time. Getting around was tough with no wheels.

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My heart tugged a little when it was time to get on the bus and leave North Carolina. I was surprised to find the locals in every city to be extremely cordial and hospitable. That myth about “southern hospitality’ is not a myth. It does exist. The Carolina leg was the part I was looking least forward to because of pre-conceived notions about the region. North Carolina had always struck me as a bigger, small Texas town that reveled in its ability to hold blacks back. I know Carolina isn’t the deep south, like say Alabama and Mississippi, but let’s just say that I wasn’t surprised to see Confederate flags flying in certain parts of the state.

Maybe my fear of the south was an irrational one borne of textbooks and the history channel, and maybe times have changed quite a bit since 2008, however the fear was still there. How does the saying go, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you?”

I can remember every year in US history squirming every time we got to the slavery chapter of our history books, and that discomfort wasn’t alleviated until we pushed past the civil rights era, “see at first we hated you but we as a country like black people now.” It was tough. I can remember the fear and anger that stemmed from learning about blacks being bombed, lynched, and burned during the post reconstruction era in the Jim Crow south.

I remember the inner rebellion rising inside of me every time I considered the reality of living a life as someone’s property, and then having no rights. It was tough enough being my parent’s child–with little rights to speak of. Every year relearning my people’s history in this country brought forth mixed feelings –of embarrassment and relief– and the thought that I would have died very young under these constricting conditions (I would have fought, spoken up, or died running to a free region).

It was good for me to face this fear of the south head on. I managed to lay low the whole time I was in North Carolina. I didn’t ogle any white women (and didn’t need to–so many beautiful and educated black women in the state) and kept to myself for the majority of the time. Something I did pick up on early into my journey was how helpful blacks were to each other. Every black person I passed on the street, gave a nod or hello, and direct eye contact wasn’t considered an act of aggression like it can be in Dallas at times (difference between the city and country maybe?). I could close my eyes and listen to people down here talk, their accents knock me out–they are so genuinely thick and southern.

Besides meeting my couch-surfing hosts (big shout out to my Chapel Hill host–one of the most marvelous women I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting), driving through the state was my favorite part of the trip. Carolina is quiet and beautiful (so many trees), and has done a great job of preserving its natural wonders.

As pretty as it was, my mind kept wondering to a time when this state was wilder, less modernized. I silently considered the number of runaway slaves who managed to escape their plantations only to die in the wilderness. When people say things like “that was over 200 years ago, when will you people get over it,” they don’t consider the psychological ramifications of splitting up families, denying them their culture and keeping them uneducated. There is a part of me still searching for who I was and where I come from, and I have no idea where to start (New Orleans, Jamaica, Africa?). I wonder how many American blacks feel the same way.

Visiting the Duke and North Carolina campuses brought up another issue for me. Education is more of a privilege than a right. The university system is a scam, and the NCAA itself is one of this country’s biggest rackets. I was lucky enough to finish school (eventually) but how long before my measly bachelor’s degree is the equivalent of a high school diploma? If a person can’t afford to pay for school upfront, the debt incurred from getting an education can be a deterrent. How long before the whole education system (as well as the prison system) becomes completely privatized? Have things really changed that much since 1850? or is it the same old product with new packaging? Maybe the game hasn’t changed, but only the rules.

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