Tuesday, October 2, 2007

An Island of White

The mountains of Western North Carolina are one of the great natural treasures of the planet. They are, it is said, the oldest mountains in the country, far older than the uppity Rockies, even more worn and run down than the northern peaks of the Adirondacks. It is home to moonshiners, Scots Irish Balladeers, rugged mountain folk, devout Baptists and born agains who cling to their families and roots and a small piece of dirt which, perhaps in a good year of tobacco farming, will produce a marginal lively hood. They are, some say, the new feminine center of the United States. Many acknowledge that they have a great healing power. There is something special in the water.

Up in Hot Springs, where the peaks seem to brush the sky, the outlanders are moving in. For years, only the very brave and hardy of “foreigners” would dare to move in, settle in with the copperheads and rattlers and men with tobacco plugs in the cheeks and the words “I protect what is mine - and I don’t call 9-11”. Now it is being discovered by the wave of money coming down from the North and up from Florida where is either too cold, or too hot. Twenty years ago, an acre of steep mountain land (steep as a cow’s face, they say here) would set you back $1300 if you were foolhardy enough to want it. Today there is a gated subdivision selling 5 acre lots for $250,000. The locals are laughing with an edge of fear. Perhaps their way of life, with the grandchildren parked in the trailer out back, will
soon be a thing of the past.

There are no black faces here. In fact there are few places around where Blacks feel safe. I lived up around here for 20 years but finally had to leave for although I am white on the outside, I am black inside. In the last census, I identified myself as mixed race - “Caucasion and African-American” although I have nothing to prove it except a little curl in my hair, a natural ability to dance and drum and an affinity for all things African. Asheville has a population which is 20% black but you have to go looking for them, find them behind some sort of wall. The schools there were only integrated under federal court order in 1976. And here, as in most of the US, one is either Black or White. Not like the Dominican Republic where one is Indian, or wheat, or cinnamon, or mulatto but hardly ever, ever negro, “black” - unless, of course, you are Haitian.

I remember a conversation with a French woman on the beach up in the Samana peninsula.

She spoke of our terrible problem with racism and slavery in the United States. I listened intently, for certainly we do not deny it, we have been working on it for over 200 years.

Then I looked up at her, and held up my palms, weighing one down, then the other,

“And Africa, for you, would be, what?”

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