Hark the sound of Tar Heel voices
Ringing clear and True
Singing Carolina’s praises
Hail to the brightest Star of all
Clear its radiance shine
Carolina priceless gem,
Receive all praises thine.
I’m a Tar Heel born, I’m a Tar Heel bred
And when I die I’m a Tar Heel dead.
So it’s RAH, RAH, Car’lina ’lina
RAH, RAH, Car’lina ’lina
RAH, RAH, Car’lina
RAH! RAH! RAH!
—“Hark the Sound”
Every athletic event at the University of North Carolina ends the same way. The band strikes up “Hark the Sound” and we throw our arms around each other. We gently sway, our off-key rendition of the alma mater interrupted only by a loud shout of “NCU!” at the end of the first stanza. It’s a pretty tame affair—at least until the end.
At that point, the band and the crowd break out into the fight song. Together we declare that we are Tar Heels born, bred and (one day) dead. Swaying turns into clapping. Pledges of enduring loyalty to the university and the state complement the earlier singing of their praises. The two meld.
And my mind wanders. During the alma mater, I think of Rameses, not the live ram mascot of the UNC Tar Heels but the stuffed miniature of him given to me before I could walk. I remember the excitement of football games on fall Saturdays with my father and the happiness of Christmas mornings when I knew that at least one gift under the tree was my registration for Carolina tennis camp. And I think about Franklin Street, the street that we rush after beating that school down the road. The street where I met my wife.
Sometimes my thoughts drift back further, though. Sometimes they go back to the Civil War. Legend has it that a group of Confederate soldiers from North Carolina left General Robert E. Lee awestruck when they threatened to stick tar on the heels of some of their yellow-bellied comrades fleeing from the Union Army. Lee’s apocryphal proclamation—“God bless the Tar Heel boys!”—stuck. It’s emblazoned on the jerseys worn by black athletes whose ancestors Lee fought so hard to keep enslaved.
By now, Lee and slavery and Confederates are all too familiar to me. That familiarity breeds ambivalence. I feel that uncertainty every time I proclaim that I am a Tar Heel bred while thanking God that Lee’s beloved “Tar Heel boys” are long dead.
Except maybe they aren’t. I don’t know many black Southerners who would disagree with Faulkner that the past is neither dead nor buried. The past has chased us in pickup trucks. It has haunted us in white robes. We don’t have to squint too hard to still see its reflection on the blood-spattered badges attached to blue uniforms.
The first time I recall knowing that the Confederacy was very much alive came in Wilmington, the coastal North Carolina town where I spent part of my childhood. At a tourist shop on Wrightsville Beach, a row of merchandise decorated with a funny-looking flag caught my eye. Curious about these items covered in too few stars and no stripes, I reached up and grabbed at them. My mother slapped my hand away and rushed me out of the store. The point was made: that flag and store weren’t for me. And maybe that city and state and region, and the country that encompassed them all, weren’t either.