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.
This Du Boisian awakening—this feeling of my two-ness, a Tar Heel and a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two strivings, two ideals in one dark body—was bound to happen. But it is no accident that it happened in Wilmington. In 1898, Wilmington, then the largest city in North Carolina and majority black, erupted into violence. A white textile-mill owner named Hugh MacRae and eight other conspirators planned a coup d’état. It overthrew Wilmington’s democratically elected and biracial “fusion” government of Republicans and Populists, and as many as three hundred African Americans lost their lives in the ensuing racial massacre. Countless more fled, their properties, lives and livelihoods destroyed. Afterwards, MacRae bragged about his act of terrorism. He also donated land for a park for the exclusive use of white citizens.
I grew up playing in Hugh MacRae Park. One summer, the local council of the Boy Scouts of America announced there would be a water-gun party for all the troops in the area, including mine. I was distraught as soon as my parents told me. I, the only black boy in my troop, didn’t have a water gun—my parents forbade them. Too young to understand their rationale, too immature to know that their restriction helped keep me from meeting Tamir Rice’s fate, I set to work undermining their gun ban. My protests must have been insufferable because they produced a compromise: I could take a tiny squirt gun meant to go on a keychain to the party.
When the day of reckoning arrived, I walked into the park feeling anxious. My dad and older brother assured me that I would have a great time. But what if they were wrong? What if my tiny gun didn’t stack up to my friends’ Super Soakers? Even worse, what if they made fun of me? Those fears turned out to be misdirected—it was a parent, not one of my friends, who mocked me as I stood at a water fountain, alone, waiting to refill my gun. I can’t remember what he said. But even now, my hands shake and my heart races as I recall his sneering, reddened face. It told me that I ought to have been embarrassed for showing up that day.
Thinking back on that experience, I wonder whether I was wrong to believe that I could ever find my place in Hugh MacRae Park, among the towering pines that were stripped but not cleansed of their strange fruit. I wonder whether a public space that honors white supremacy and gives glory to a terrorist can actually be integrated. Maybe it can. But what is integration without equality and humanity and understanding? What is it without the basic recognition that Tar Heel and white are not synonymous, that there are black Scouts who deserve joy, too?
Plenty of my ancestors knew that it meant nothing. Less than two decades after white supremacists overthrew democracy in Wilmington while the federal government looked away, a Jamaican immigrant named Marcus Garvey established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The organization promoted black pride, the redemption of Africa from European colonial rule, economic and political self-determination, and racial separatism. The most extravagant expressions of that message came in Garvey’s call for his followers to go “Back to Africa” and his establishment of the Black Star Line, a shipping company designed to facilitate global trade and transport black people out of the Americas.
At its height, the UNIA claimed an estimated six million members in forty countries across the world: African Americans, West Indians and Africans all rallied to a language of universal black liberation epitomized by the official motto “One God! One Aim! One Destiny!” But for most Garveyites, the return to Africa would be more figurative than literal. Free to fit UNIA doctrines to their own needs, rank-and-file members of the organization in the United States often translated Garvey’s message as less a call to leave their country than a demand to take pride in their blackness, to express themselves with dignity when interacting with whites and to assume control of the economic and political development of their communities.
Blacks in the Tar Heel State were at the heart of the movement. During the 1920 UNIA Convention in New York, a minister from Nash County in eastern North Carolina gave a report about the “injustices and other troubles of our people in his section of the country.” According to the minister, the chief trouble was “complete submission and subserviency to the white man in all things and his unjust, cruel and harsh domination over them.” Times were changing, though. Three months after the convention, the Negro World, the official organ of the UNIA, reported that blacks had formed a UNIA division in Nash County. Its members had rallied to the aid of a prosperous black farmer’s son imprisoned on the false charge of injuring a white woman in a car accident. They had made clear their willingness to die in his defense.
For Garveyites in North Carolina, the right to self-definition was just as inviolable as the right to self-defense. UNIA divisions from the state joined the other “Negroes of the World” at the parade that highlighted the 1920 UNIA Convention. Under the red, green and black streamers strewn across the streets of Harlem, those black men and women carried banners declaring “Africa for the Africans,” “Africa Must Be Free” and “Africa a Nation One and Indivisible.” They linked their strivings to those of delegates from Nigeria and Jamaica, Canada and Panama, uniting them “into one solid body under the colors of the red, the black and the green to declare the freedom of Africa.”
Those men and women were Tar Heels born, no doubt. But they were black, too. For Garveyites, that two-ness was not irreconcilable—far from it. Even as black North Carolinians empowered themselves by expressing their solidarity with black people the world over, they claimed their rights as U.S. citizens and promised to defend them by any means necessary. They did not sacrifice their sense of self. Instead, they struggled for a truer, more profound identity that accounted for their American experience and their Afro-diasporic attachments.
The impact of the UNIA movement lasted long after the U.S. government deported Marcus Garvey back to Jamaica in 1927. I felt it in my family members who introduced my sister and me to Kwanzaa and rocked Afros long after they were supposed to be fashionable. I sensed it in the ways they encouraged us to understand that peculiar sensation of two-ness.
Those lessons stemmed from their own experiences. My people have lived in eastern North Carolina for centuries. The most recent generation comes from Rocky Mount, a town literally divided by railroad tracks. Blacks lived on the Edgecombe County side of them, whites on the Nash County side. Everybody knew that. The obvious and widely understood segregation dictated that the Edgecombe side received far fewer city and state resources. But it also had the unintended effect of reinforcing longstanding demands for black self-definition. I’m sure that whites in Rocky Mount scoffed at the material conditions of O. R. Pope, the historically black elementary school in the segregated town. Still, to hear my kin tell it, Harvard had nothing on O. R. They refused to see themselves or their school as white people did.
Despite the protests of current students and their parents, as well as alumni, the Nash-Rocky Mount Board of Education voted in 2014 to close O. R., a facility they claimed was “aged” and “unsafe.” The most prominent white institutions remain, though. I remember the first and only time that I entered one of them. I was a teenager playing in the annual tennis tournament at the Benvenue Country Club. And I was far more nervous than I should have been for a tournament where the competition didn’t figure to be too tough. Those nerves came from my knowledge that my father, born two years before Hugh MacRae’s death and one of the best tennis players to come out of Rocky Mount, had never set foot in Benvenue, which had maintained its segregationist policies since its opening in 1922. I had no doubt that I had a score to settle.
A strange thing happened when I did settle that score, though. At the end of the tournament, as I sat in the front passenger seat of the car with my trophy in hand and vindication secured, my father smiled, then snickered. “Can you believe,” he scoffed, “that they wouldn’t let us in there!”
I thought about that comment as we drove down U.S. 64W on our way back to Raleigh. At the time I interpreted it selfishly, as an expression of pride in my victory not just over my opponents but also over Jim Crow. That interpretation was wrong. I know now that my father was telling me to define my own self-worth, to not equate it with access to spaces built on the foundations of racial exclusivity or promises of inclusion. After all, O. R. and public tennis courts had served him just fine. And it had turned out that Benvenue was nothing more than a Potemkin village, a façade of affluence and superiority that masked a great deal of mediocrity.
On September 22nd, Robert Pittenger, a Republican congressman from Charlotte, North Carolina, took to the British airwaves to criticize the outbreak of demonstrations after a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer killed Keith Lamont Scott. On BBC Newsnight, he announced that black protesters “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.” On Twitter, he later apologized to “those I offended.”
The asinine comments had little application to the marches, rallies, vigils and community meetings in Charlotte involving thousands of North Carolinians whose call was clear: reform or abolish the institutions that continue to inflict violence on black people like Scott, a father gunned down while waiting for his son’s school bus.
Many of the protesters who issued that call have also responded to the larger Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). An international coalition of social justice organizations including Black Lives Matter, the M4BL has organized against police brutality in Toronto, protested for the rights of Aboriginal Australians, and formed chapters in the United States, Ghana, South Africa and Canada. It is a force that has embraced the spirit of Marcus Garvey and united with “descendants of African people all over the world.” At the same time, they have also attended to the “troubles of our people in this section of the country,” demanding that the U.S. government “repair the harms that have been done to Black communities in the form of reparations and targeted long-term investments.”
Later that week, I turned on the television to watch UNC play the University of Pittsburgh in football. As the national anthem blared, dozens of Tar Heels wearing all black raised their fists to the sky to symbolize their solidarity with Scott. I beamed with pride. Theirs was a courageous action taken in full knowledge that onlookers would see them as un-American, as obstacles to the redemption of “their” country.
As I listen to the sound of Tar Heel voices rising against systemic racism—as I watch Tar Heels claim their constitutional right to stand in support of the global M4BL—my mind again wanders. I think of Keith Lamont Scott. And I wonder: Wasn’t he a citizen? Wasn’t he a father who worked at the local mall and loved watching his son play football for his school? Sure, he was originally from neighboring South Carolina. But wasn’t he basically a Tar Heel bred?
He was. So we struggle. We push on convinced that it is possible to be black and a Tar Heel. Alive, not dead.
Art credit: LAZY GENiUS