Archive for September, 2012

Maybe it’s the basketball.  Or, more precisely, the lesser fervor for college football.  Maybe it goes back as far as the “vale of humility” days, the paucity of plantations and plantation aristocracy, and the state’s reluctance to secede.  Maybe it’s just having “north” in the name, but even before North Carolina popped up blue on the 2008 electoral map, other Southerners often looked at the Old North State and weren’t entirely sure it was really ‘South.’

Geography put North Carolina in the Upper South, made it hard for the state to thrive in the antebellum economy (a regressive state constitution didn’t help), but made it easier for the state – especially its Piedmont – to grab hold of the various “New South” projects with a grip unmatched, except for maybe Atlanta’s.

Former Charlotte Observer editor Ed Williams, a Mississippi native, said of North Carolina, “In this state, there was a fierce and ceaseless battle between the forces of enlightenment and reaction, and, unlike in most of the South, the outcome was not a foregone conclusion.”  The standard narrative and popular conception – inside and outside the state – emphasize the battle, that North Carolina at least put up a good fight against its worst impulses and “the burden of Southern history.”  Before any North Carolinian pulls a muscle reaching to pat his own back, though, he would be wise to remember that enlightenment lost the battle at least often as it won, that post-Reconstruction North Carolina has been home to the only armed coup of an elected government in U.S. history, “Bloody Gaston,” at least 168 lynchings between 1865 and 19411, the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, and – for 30 years – Senator Jesse Helms.

Still, the rest of the South tends to look at North Carolina and see Chapel Hill, as wayward and subversive in its sociology department as in its preference for the Smith Center.  They see Asheville, with its high-end resorts and hippie enclaves.  They hear the nasally voices of all the halfbacks (who left the Northeast for Florida, missed changing seasons, and moved halfway back) and the in-migrants working high-tech or high-creativity jobs in the Research Triangle Park (some look askance at our having a Research Triangle Park in the first place).  They see Charlotte, as gleaming and as gridlocked as any Northeastern metropolis.  A hotel clerk in south Georgia once asked where I was from, and said, “Well, that’s almost the South,” when I told him2.  My own wife, Alabama-born and bred, told me, when we were dating, that she’d never thought of North Carolina as “really” the South, though she did think so of Virginia, and I must “really” love her since I married her anyway.

That’s what the South sees.  The rest of the nation looks at North Carolina and just sees more South.  As far as most of America is concerned, my wife and I, for all practical purposes, are from the same place.  A colleague in the book business once took me to dinner with him and some of his New York friends, who were friendly and welcoming and visibly surprised that I could carry my end of conversations about politics and pop culture.3

The Daily Show came to Charlotte along with the Democratic National Convention, and for the most part they treated the host city as if it were a newly found province full of rustic exotics.  They got giddy over biscuits and grossly misrepresented our barbecue.  (This is too important for a footnote: In no sense can any meat still clinging to a rib be called “North Carolina barbecue,” unless the rib itself is still clinging to the rest of the hog, which is still cooking over hot coals.)

I love The Daily Show, which won a much-deserved 10th consecutive Emmy Award last night.  You know what other show won big at the Emmys?  Homeland, filmed in Charlotte, as were The Hunger Games and Talladega Nights and – um – the last season of The Bachelorette.  The Emmy broadcast honored the late Andy Griffith.  One presenter mentioned that another presenter hailed from North Carolina; he doesn’t, actually, but Emmy-winner Julianne Moore does.  So do this guy and this guy and this guy’s parents.

Charlotte is the 17th-largest city in the U.S. – bigger than Detroit, Boston, Seattle, Denver, and Washington, D.C. – and is at the center of the 33rd-largest metropolitan area, bigger than Austin’s, Indianapolis’s, and Milwaukee’s.  It’s second only to New York as a financial center, and is home to Bank of America.

Charlotte, in other words, is hardly a backwater, any more than Atlanta or Nashville or Richmond is, but perceptions abide.  Maybe that’s not all bad, at least to those of us who want the South to remain – in some sense if not all – the South, distinct and of a piece with the best of its particular history.  Even if the rest of that South isn’t at all sure how the Old North State fits in.

1 To be fair, that number falls below the figures for the rest of the Southern states, except Virginia, which is damning by faint praise at best.

2 I said back, “Watch it now,” in that smiling, friendly, no-but-seriously-you-better-watch-it-buddy kind of way that men have; it was the only response that would have satisfied him.

3 To preemptively answer my children and all others who would question my knowledge of pop culture, this conversation took place a long time ago.


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My sophomore year in college, I shared a dorm suite with several friends.  One Saturday, a week or two into the first semester, I rose early, showered, and dressed.  I was filling a flask (of, um, water . . . yeah, of water) in the shared bathroom when one of my suitemates stumbled in, bleary-eyed.  I finished what I was about and gave him his privacy.  Two more friends staggered into the hall, just up, unprepared.

I was concerned for them.  “Y’all better get a move on.”

“For what?”

I came to a sudden stop and blinked at my friend.  “For the game.”

He looked confused.  “We’re not going to the game.”

I looked more confused.  “What do you mean you’re not going to the game?”

“I might listen to it on the radio.”1

“But . . . you could go to the game.  You could be at the game.  It’s right over there.”

He shrugged.  He just shrugged.

“But . . . but it’s football.  It’s college football.  And . . . and you’re in college.”

I had never considered the possibility, nor could I wrap my mind around the concept, that a college student without pressing matters would not go to a college football game played at home.  Now, I’m a reasonably smart guy.  I love to read, and have done so widely and deeply.  I’m somewhat more than a history “buff.”  I ponder and consider, probably too much for my own good.  Yet a large part of why I wanted to go to college (as opposed to why I knew I ought to go2) came down to attending college football and college basketball games, for free, on a regular basis.

And I went to Wake Forest.3

We take our college football way too seriously in the South, and we don’t take education very seriously at all.  I have long wondered, then, how many Southerners down through the years have been suckered into higher education much as I was – by falling, at an early age, for the splendid pageant of the game and all that accompanies it.  Other than the voices of loved ones, my favorite sound is the right mix of the following: the snap and thump of a drum line, the swell and ebb of a crowd’s open-air cheers, the bark of signal-calling, the grunt and smack of blocking and tackling.

The 2012 college football season started this past weekend.  We need it, we fans of the game; we need the drum lines and the blue skies and the brutal precision, the tactical artistry, of the game itself, after an offseason that has pummeled both us and the myths that the game accrued to elaborate and justify its primal truth, that it is useful – if not downright needful – to outsmart, outrun, and/or overpower those who would oppose us and ours.

I can’t imagine that John Heisman or Pop Warner or Amos Alonzo Stagg imagined that football would become the cultural behemoth it has become, but I suspect that the “culture” of football, the one that the NCAA has now decided to decry, the one that’s getting the blame for the cover-up at Penn State, was in place before Teddy Roosevelt became president.  To play the game – not just well, but without getting maimed on the first snap – requires such dedicated practice and focus, so many hours of physical training, so much strength and speed and aggression and bravery, that the game becomes the world entire to those who play and coach it.  Nothing else is as important or worthwhile.

Surely, nothing else in the South is as important and worthwhile as college football, right?  Hasn’t that become the commonplace?  Isn’t the proof in the BCS trophy, which has spent the last seven years in one ex-Confederate state or another?4  That sort of sustained dominance makes it hard to argue that, to paraphrase the t-shirt, we don’t do football better in the South, which makes it hard to argue that they don’t care more about it in what was once the Old Southwest than they do in what was once the Old Northwest.

Except that I’m not sure that they do.  I don’t know that the South cares more, but I do think the South cares differently.  (It’s not so much that we do things different here; it’s that we do many of the same things in a different way.)

With a resounding lack of surprise, Rick Bragg traced the importance of football in the South back to the shame of Civil War and Reconstruction.5  That shame, Bragg explains, was redeemed and expiated in 1926, in Pasadena, when the Alabama Crimson Tide won an unexpected victory in the Rose Bowl.  It wasn’t economic prosperity or racial reconciliation or educational achievement, but it was something the South could crow about.  Those Alabama boys had gone out and whipped the Yankees in the most direct and satisfying way possible, short of actually re-fighting the Civil War. 6

Bragg quotes the eminent Alabama historian Wayne Flynt, who describes the young Southern men in that long-ago Rose Bowl as drawing “on a long history of not being afraid . . . It’s not like you’re unprepared for a little physical suffering,” if you were (or are) a young man raised in the South.  Bragg elaborates that “next to the pain of just living down here, football was, well, like playing games.”

That notion has a nobility to it, and a truth.  My own grandfather, who started laying brick when he was 8, told my father once that, after going home from school to work construction all his life, going to football practice was like a vacation.

Bragg is far from the first to make this argument (or tell this story?  or spread this myth?), and neither he nor those who came before are wrong.  They are, however, not entirely right, in the sense that the story is still incomplete.

It’s too easy, chalking up another piece of Southern culture to “because we lost the War,” when maybe we fought and lost the War because of that Southern culture, in the first place.  It lets us off the hook, retroactively and actively: we got back our lost pride, we showed them Yankees, by whipping ‘em in football, instead of in education, income, health or quality of life.

It’s the kind of answer that raises more questions, because once you drag in history, once you go beyond “we love it because we win a lot, and we win a lot because we love it,” you stare into a rabbit hole that goes way, way down.

Why football?  How much of our love for it came from beating the Yankees at their own game, and how much from our own warlike predilections?

Is tailgating in the South the spiritual descendant of the picnic at Twelve Oaks, or just a function of having warmer Novembers?

Does it mean anything that the combat simulacrum of football came about not only within living memory of the Civil War, but as the American frontier finally closed?  If it does, what does that mean for the South, where isolation and invasion froze frontier attitudes in place for a long, long time?

Is the Deep South really – I mean, really – more football-mad than western Pennsylvania or central Ohio, or Oklahoma, or Nebraska, or Michigan?  Or is more just made of it, in part because of the SEC’s remarkable run, and in part because it fits into preconceived notions and narratives about the Deep South?

Do the young men of the South draw on a “long history of not being afraid,” or on a long history of being very afraid, of having so very much to be afraid of – of the wild and primal land itself, of the Chickamaugas and Creeks, of slave revolts, of Stoneman’s Raid, of your own bushwhacking neighbors, of duels and blood feuds, of droughts, of carpetbaggers, of the company men, of the subjugated millions you’ve wronged and wronged again, of lynchings, of forced deference, of overcrowded prisons, of no hope – so that all you have in this world to stand on are cunning and strength and pride, and the savage prayer for God to join you against the foe?

I thought about none of that this weekend, nor will I next weekend, not when I’m in front of my TV and not when I’m in the stands.  I’ll think about the merits of the 3-4 defense and why the O.C. keeps calling that delayed draw that never works.  I’ll think about being 16 again, or how I wish I hadn’t been so Ichabod-skinny when I was 16 the first time, or about how much fun it would be to be twice as big and twice as fast and half as old as I am now, like those kids out there on the field.  I’ll think about having another hot dog in the third quarter.

I’ll think about staying up late to watch a Pac-10 game.  It is football, after all; it’s college football.



1 I went to college in the olden days, before every game in the country could be found on cable or online.  I’m so old, in fact, that the radio my friend listened to probably had an actual dial.

2 At the time, I thought I ought to go because I’d get a better job, because I’d have more earning potential, and – mainly – because my parents wanted me to go.

3 Wake Forest University is the smallest school – by a substantial margin – in the six BCS “Automatic Qualifier” conferences.  When I was there, I was one of about 2800 undergraduates; schools like Michigan and Ohio State have more students currently enrolled than Wake Forest has alumni – ever, living and dead.  Despite Jim Grobe and the 2006 ACC Championship, the Demon Deacons still have the lowest winning percentage of the AQ teams.  I’m still Proud to be a Deacon.

4 Since 2005: Texas, Florida, LSU, Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Alabama.  (The last 6, you’ll notice, are all from the SEC.)  Confederacy, hell; the BCS title hasn’t left the Gulf Coast in 7 years.

5 It’s a little funny that the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s college football preview, in which Bragg’s article appeared, read “Curse the SEC.”  Their other outlets give off the distinct whiff of terror that the SEC is going to so dominate the sport, for so long, that college football will become a regional niche sport.  (To be fair, the various ESPN “platforms” have featured some thought-provoking commentary on football the last couple of weeks, especially Charles Pierce’s Grantland article on the history of land-grant schools and J.R. Moehringer’s “120 Reasons.”)

6 Actually, they whipped the University of Washington (as in the state), who don’t really qualify as Yankees, and they beat them by one point, which doesn’t really count as “whipped.”  The bigger victory was over the derision and low expectations.

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