I found the small, faded green book when my mother died. Inscribed inside the front cover, in scholarly, penciled script, was a name I recognized as that of her favorite aunt, Aunt Sue. Was that why she kept the little textbook, I wondered. Many of its pages were separated from the spine, and age had turned all of them an uneven caramel. The title on the cover was barely distinguishable: First Steps in North Carolina History.
Seldom able to discard a book, I placed this one, barely larger than my hand, into my “keep” pile. It was an unexpected something from my great aunt Sue – a piece of my own North Carolina history.
How odd that I would remember and search for it years later in an attempt to better understand this state in which I was born and raised … to which I have claimed allegiance since 1944. This little book was much older than I, published in 1888. The history I have lived through – and the present and future I am trying to comprehend – were not even dreamed of by the woman, Cornelia Phillips Spencer, who seemed so conversant with its beginnings.
Yet looking back can sometimes be looking forward. What were the patterns of the society, the government, that emerged in its pages? What experiences did we have in common? What values propelled us forward? And what mistakes have not only plagued our past, but are perhaps echoing in our present?
I have turned the tattered pages carefully, looking for answers. They have talked to me about the value of perspective. Perhaps, for my own purposes, their clearest lesson is the downfall of power. Personal power. Political power. One hundred and twenty-six years ago, a scholarly woman (a rarity in her time) dissected the waves of power that established this state and then shaped its governance, its economy, its personality, its people.
Recent figures indicate that around 40 percent of North Carolina’s residents now are not native to the state. Compare this to 100 years ago, when nine out of ten were born Tar Heels (see more, UNC’s Program on Public Life.)
As mobile society, the likes of which Cornelia Spencer could hardly have imagined, has scattered young professionals, eager entrepreneurs, outdoor enthusiasts and aging retirees across this beautiful landscape.
Identity and allegiance become ephemeral. Who learns the state song now? Who has even heard, much less uttered from memory, the state toast (both proscribed by state statute). Who loves this land, and why? Who believes in the early evolution and revolution that propelled its diversity and its strengths?
Between the tattered cover pages of Aunt Sue’s school book, I did find some answers – and of course, many more questions. They are all tucked into my thoughts about North Carolina in 2014. Spotlighted as a transitional state, a swing state, a political question mark in the early 21st century, North Carolina has need of some soul-searching, some historical grounding, some attentive examination of lessons learned.
Just for the record, our “Tar Heel” nickname is commonly ascribed to the pine products (turpentine, rosin, tar) produced by the colonists. And the long-leaf pine featured in the state toast? Its ecosystem is now threatened or endangered.
Join me here at PPNC for questions. The answers will have to come from all of us.
Here’s to the land of the long leaf pine,
The summer land where the sun doth shine,
Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great,
Here’s to “Down Home,” the Old North State!
Here’s to the land of the cotton bloom white,
Where the scuppernong perfumes the breeze at night,
‘Neath the murmuring pines of the Old North State!
Here’s to the land where the galax grows,
Where the rhododendron‘s rosette glows,
Where soars Mount Mitchell‘s summit great,
In the “Land of the Sky,” in the Old North State!
Here’s to the land where maidens are fair,
Where friends are true and cold hearts rare,
The near land, the dear land, whatever fate,
The blessed land, the best land, the Old North State!