pink = where I went
One of my dearest humans lives in North Carolina; she has been my reason to travel there a handful of times in the past twelve years. At this particular time it was a bonus that she lives in a red state. I stayed with my friend Kim and her partner Gaby at their house in Asheville for several days. Kim has lived in North Carolina her whole life and Gaby moved there from Los Angeles several years ago.
I flew into Atlanta and then drove north through Georgia and into North Carolina through the Smoky Mountains.
Kim works for the University of North Carolina at Asheville, training UNCA undergrads to be tutors/mentors for local middle and high school students. UNCA is a predominantly white campus. Asheville Middle School, Asheville High School and SILSA High School are multi-racial; the middle and high school students participating in the program at UNCA are primarily students of color. Kim explained that an important part of her work is helping the white UNCA students understand what their identity is, what their place is, and what they bring to every interaction they have.
For the summer program Kim leads, called AVID Summer Bridge, a group of students from Asheville Middle School, Asheville High School and SILSA High School come and spend two weeks on the UNCA campus, where they engage in meaningful discussions and work that relates to their life experience. Students work collaboratively and independently on projects with such themes as clean water access, media literacy, gentrification, immigration, the criminal justice system, and activism. The guiding principle of AVID is systemic change. Students that are members of underrepresented groups [which includes students of color as well as, this year, a white student who grew up in rural Appalachia] are selected for the program based on their GPA, a desire to go to college, and an interview. Most will be the first in their families to go to college.
The AVID students are often surprised and taken off guard by the way they are treated on the college campus. They don't have to ask to use the bathroom! They are gently told before sensitive discussions that if difficult emotional material comes up, they can step outside if they need to. Their final project is something they present in front of their families; there is accountability, yet no grades.
A few months before my trip to North Carolina, Kim and I decided to invite her AVID students to participate in my project. Kim told them she had an artist friend visiting from Seattle and then relayed messages between us. My message to them was, “Where do you think I should go in your state? It can be a place that you feel is important personally, or culturally, or historically. It can be a beautiful place or an ugly place. It can just be a place you go a lot.” If they wanted a more specific prompt, I offered these as options:
1. choose a place that changed you in some way
2. choose a place where you feel like you are in nature
3. choose a place that makes you feel proud of your state
4. choose a place where something shameful happened
Kim passed out paper and thirteen students wrote down where they thought I should go; some sharing personal details, some drawing maps. When I arrived in North Carolina, Kim gave me these notes, and they became the basis for our itinerary.
Places they suggested included Vance Elementary School (“The garden is a peaceful environment”); Black Mountain; the Chocolate Lounge; the Good Vibes tank; the housing projects where some of the students live: Hillcrest (“It’s where I live and where most of the accidents happen”) and Livingston (“It’s a place that makes me feel ashamed of my community. Not the people inside it but the people that come and go starting drama”); the Grove Park Inn (“because I go there a lot)”; the mountains; waterfalls; downtown; Biltmore Park; the park near Charlotte Street with the mural; Depot Street (“because you have the River Arts District [RAD] then it goes right to the projects. The RAD is super artsy and beautiful and the hood is where you’ll see regular people just living their lives”) and West Asheville.
When I told my Pacific Northwestern [liberal] friends that my visit to North Carolina would be based in Asheville, they unanimously responded with variations of "Asheville doesn't count!" [as "red" state material] because it is considered a little liberal haven in the South by liberals in the rest of the country. Compared to surrounding towns, it is. There are a lot of wealthy white people moving to Asheville. But there are a lot of other people who were there before, are still there now. Kim said she felt like her students, in their responses to my prompt, and in their eagerness to be included, were saying to me and anyone who will listen, "WE are here too!"
If you do google image searches for Hillcrest and Livingston (the two housing projects mentioned by Kim’s students), you will get collages of tragic photos of fires, shootings, and cop cars.
It was quiet as Kim and I walked through Livingston in the heat. I was telling myself that it was ok that I was there because the students told me to go. The premise of this entire project is that I have essentially been given permission to go to a place if someone who can claim that place tells me to go there. But in this place, the reasoning suddenly seemed flimsy and I was keenly aware that if it collapsed I would just be a privileged, trespassing outsider.
Kim and I talked about the physical safety afforded by our whiteness, along with the imaginary cultural Green Card granted by my artist-ness, as we walked through these communities. If these residents walked through many white neighborhoods across town they certainly wouldn’t be as safe.
The father of one of Kim’s students (the one who told me to go to Hillcrest) was killed by police the previous year.
At Hillcrest there were more people out and we were greeted warmly by a few people on their porches. We were admiring this thoughtfully laid out garden that spells L O V E, and its creator, a man named Charles, came down from the porch to talk.
Charles said people always ask him, “Why are you doing this?” or say “You need permission to do that!” He tells them, “I was raised to make my home beautiful! Why would I need to ask permission to plant flowers in my yard? I was raised to think of the place I live as mine.” He told us about how he goes to his construction job for ten every day, then comes home and works in the garden for four hours with a headlamp on after it gets dark. It’s his meditation. I feel the same way about my garden.
On another block we met Mary Jo Johnson and talked with her on her porch about gardening and President Obama.
Mary Jo told us about the part of Asheville that has been important in her life - a neighborhood, a block, that was the center of black-owned businesses and community. Due to gentrification, all that’s left now is the church and the cultural center. A new mural commemorates the community that once thrived there. Kim and I visited the mural, which was a site one of her students had said I should go.
We walked around the beautiful campus of Warren Wilson College. Once a farm school for boys and now a liberal arts institution, the college’s mission has sustainability as its guiding principle. Kim said that a few of her former AVID students have gone on to go to college at Warren Wilson and have had wonderful experiences there.
When we were there students were selling fresh produce from the campus garden in a mini farmers market. Some vocal neighbors of Warren Wilson insult it as being “the most liberal place in North Carolina.”
West Asheville is one of Asheville’s more recently gentrified neighborhoods. One AVID student (the one who said I should go to West Asheville) lived there as a child. Her parents both immigrated from Mexico undocumented. She said they live in fear of being rounded up.
Kim talked about Asheville in comparison to other cities in the South, like Charleston and Atlanta. By erasing nearly all traces of its unsavory history, Asheville allows a myth to be perpetuated that there wasn’t slavery there. While Charleston has maintained sites that stand as witness to its history (like the slave market), Asheville has erased them. Meanwhile, monuments to the wealthy slave owners remain.
Since several of Kim’s students recommended that I visit waterfalls, we decided to go to one that Kim and Gaby hadn’t been to yet.
The one we found was in Rosman, and though it was listed as a waterfall open to the public, it was on private property. We arrived at a nondescript family home and handmade signs directed us where to park. With Birdy the dog we enjoyed the short hike to a beautiful waterfall.
We wondered about the people who live in the house, who have this wonder in their backyard, and who were willing to turn their front yard into a parking lot in order to share it.
Leaving North Carolina, driving back to Atlanta on the freeway, I passed a bad car accident, cars and people strewn in the median before any help arrived. I saw a man in a baseball cap frantically doing CPR on a man on the ground. The stricken man's big white belly shone in the sun as it heaved up and down violently with each thrust. My mind replayed this scene for a few days afterward. I googled the date, time, and location of the accident to see if I could find out if the man survived but there were so many pages of accidents to sift through I eventually gave up.